Life is More Than Practicing

Want to hear something shocking?

I haven’t touched my violin for a week.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I’ve still been teaching, so I’ve had to play then. Also, it’s not as if I just gave up on violin out of the blue. I just finished my final recital of my Artist Diploma, and this was an intentional plan to take a well-deserved break after a tough semester of grinding straight through with little to no breaks at all.

But still.

The concept of taking a week off practicing seemed both enticing and horrifying. I worried the practice guilt would set in immediately - you know, that nagging feeling that you’re wasting time anytime you do anything that’s not practicing, including but not limited to sleeping, eating, chores, or relaxing. I also had a wonderfully irrational fear that I would return to the violin after my break and have no concept of how to play it, that maybe 15 years of playing would fly out the window in 7 days, and I would pick up the instrument with clumsy, awkward fingers, unable to play anything I had previously learned. Or worst of all, maybe I would realize that I was happier without the practice regimen as part of my daily life. What if the burnout and exhaustion had gotten so bad that I didn’t even miss violin?

At the same time, after cramming two recitals into one semester with no spring break because of the pandemic, I needed some time away from my violin. I wanted to know what it was like to live life normally for a little bit - going to work, taking day trips, seeing friends, having time to do basic household chores, etc. - without feeling quite so guilty or having giant chunks of my day eaten up by practicing. I wanted a chance to recover from the burnout I had been feeling so acutely by the end of the semester, a time to gather my bearings and catch my breath after putting together two programs so close to one another and dealing with the general stress of school and life.

So I took a week off, and some amazing things happened.

First, I found that giving myself permission to take a break alleviated the practice guilt. I tried not to be hard on myself about it, or let any thoughts spiral. I allowed myself to focus on other things, like cleaning my apartment, actually cooking meals again, sleeping, and even literally laying in bed doing nothing for hours (my highest idea of leisure these days). A dear friend that I haven’t seen in months visited, I took a whirlwind day trip to Chicago with my roommate, I got two tattoos (that’s a story for another day)... and the whole time, I allowed myself to enjoy it, to revel in the rest, relaxation, and good company, without being preoccupied with worries that I wasn’t going to be good enough, that I would fall behind, or that I was a bad musician for taking a break.

Second, my body was thanking me. I’m starting to try to exercise again, to push myself in a healthy way instead of frantically trying to massage the knots out of my shoulders so I can play another day, or worrying constantly about the state of my hands and wrists. Taking a week off allowed me to drop a lot of that physical stress and reset myself. I’m now looking forward to working more mindfully and at a more relaxed pace over the summer so as not to create all those physical problems.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, I found myself wanting to play again! The burnout I had been experiencing started to fade as well, and after my recital, I very quickly started dreaming up practice plans for the summer and for the next year - pieces I want to learn, pieces I need to learn, excerpts I need to revisit, etc. I was enjoying my time off, but I started to miss playing. I needed the break, but I was definitely starting to feel the urge to pick up the instrument again and fiddle (no pun intended) around with some new rep. This was a bit of a relief that I didn’t waste 4 years in grad school for nothing and tells me that absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder.

One thing that I’ve really appreciated recently is renowned soloist Hilary Hahn’s social media posts. Hahn recently took a year-long sabbatical, from September 2019 to September 2020. Since she’s returned, she’s been great about being very honest about her practice habits, from posting videos of her just woodshedding parts, to discussing her lack of practice through her sabbatical, to talking openly about the days where she has a hard time picking up the instrument. A common thread through all of these things is the idea that there is more to life than practicing. She talks about spending time with her family, exploring making other art, cooking, and just generally enjoying different little parts of life. I think it’s huge to hear such a major artist, one who you might assume must practice for hours on end obsessively, talk about this idea that there is more to life than practicing.

As musicians, we deal with a highly competitive industry, as well as our own intrinsic feelings of perfectionism. The drive to be the best can be highly motivating, but it also has the potential to be extremely detrimental to both physical and mental health. “Practice makes perfect” can lead to practicing so much that you miss out on more important life experiences. You can’t have a life holed up in a windowless room forever. Instead, I prefer to take the “practice makes progress” approach. Of course you should practice. But don’t subject yourself to hours of mindless practice that is, frankly, probably a waste of time. As you lose concentration and focus entering Practice Hour 6, you not only put yourself at risk of physical injury, but you’re also spending valuable time that you could be using for other activities sawing away at a piece with no results. Instead, mindful practice is the most effective. Go into it with a plan, accomplish what you need to with focus, and then move on to something else. It’s all about quality, not quantity.

In a post from February 4, 2021, Hahn writes,

“It’s fine to procrastinate. It’s fine to do a short practice session. Those aren’t failures. There’s a big picture to practicing: the lifelong trajectory. When one day rolls out differently than you’d like, you can find a way to work within what it offers, learn something from that day, and celebrate the wins.”

This piece of wisdom reveals a truth that we should all keep in mind. Sometimes practicing is hard. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it’s stressful. Sometimes we need a little less, and sometimes we need a break. I think what matters is how you use your time. You can do your practice, work efficiently and mindfully, and still have time to live life. You can give yourself permission to intentionally focus on other things and set the instrument aside for a bit. You will come back to it, refreshed, and ready to jump into something new.

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