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How to Practice: Take a Break by Lynsey Anderson

Scenario 1:

Inspiration in the Practice Room

When we string players find ourselves in a practice room and “on a roll,” as the familiar phrase goes, there is satisfaction and even enjoyment from the sound that is being produced. We all know how liberating it is when that really difficult passage is finally comfortable at the proper tempo or when that solo being resurrected is not nearly as hard as it was the first time it was learned (because, often times it is). There are many factors that contribute to such productive and self-esteem building practice sessions. For example, a lot more music might be learned than is one’s usual pace and/or there might be noticeable improvement in overall technique since the instrument was first taken out of its case a couple hours ago. We musicians live for these particular practice sessions—sessions that don’t come nearly as often as we wish they would.

The Cake Analogy

Good practice sessions are relished, indulged in even. One hour, two hours . . . three hours go by, and the concentration does not falter and the stamina does not cease. The hardest thing to do in this situation, where things are feeling good mentally and physically, when you are virtually feeling unstoppable, where all hopes of having a career in music are elevated to absolute certainties, where even your passion for music itself is renewed . . . the hardest thing to do is to stop practicing. It is easy to ignore that little voice of conscience that says, “Take a break—those arms need it.” It is the same little voice that is easy to ignore when it whispers somewhere back in the remote corners of sensibility, “Don’t go back for a second piece of chocolate cake, it might add extra dimensions to your thighs.” Yeah, the voice is heard, vaguely, but the cake is there in all its glory mesmerizing you with its insatiably sweet decadence. Far too often we squelch the little voice and go for the second piece of cake . . . like we continue to practice, and practice hard, playing over and over those incredibly beautiful notes, drowning in the irresistibility of being the source of something elite or virtuosic. The consequences are not always noticeable either. If you put on an extra pound, your trousers will still fit. If you strain your tendons a tiny bit, your body will heal itself relatively quickly (especially with the aid of a little Ibuprofen).

Every once in a while, however, there are drastic consequences that are not expected, because they are not felt instantly. For example, to continue with our cake analogy, food poisoning can be contracted hours before the dreaded symptoms appear. Likewise, many performance related injuries, including more serious damage to nerves, may take hours or even days before the pain starts to push through our comfort bubbles. The only way to prevent drastic consequences from our indulgences, whether our indulgences involve caloric intake or the repeatedly successful execution of parallel 10ths with a vigorous and rapid detaché stroke, is to exercise restraint. Take a break. It is not unreasonable to take a break even as often as every hour.

The Love Cliché

Taking breaks may seem like the most “common” of common sense, so why is it that so many people still power through their physical limitations? There is always the possibility that some people simply have no regard for future ramifications, but I think this is a very small percentage of people. From my observations, musicians tend not to be naïve and, on the whole, will actually knowingly practice in a harmful way. This is especially true if the practice session seems to be breaking new ground for the foundation of perfection. The risk is huge, but the instant gratification is very powerful. Much justification for the decision to practice too hard, like, “I just want to relish the one time in my life that I can actually do this . . .” resembles the old cliché, “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all . . .” It is romantic, isn‘t it? Imagine applying that kind of hindsight to the long term about past musical endeavors: “I haven’t had feeling in my left hand for twenty years, but I remember a time when I played that G-major arpeggio in Don Juan better than the seasoned concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic! Sure, it was in a practice room where nobody heard it, but you know, it was totally worth it . . .” Of course, that last example is silly and unrealistic. Nobody would actually think in this manner . . . right?

Presumably, however, the love and lost philosophy is true, but, dare it be said, only if the love was perfect. Love is never perfect, though . . . and neither is Don Juan. It is worth bearing in mind that twenty years of depriving oneself of making Don Juan better (or that beloved concerto, or whatever else) because of an injury sustained from over-indulgence in a practice room is an utter shame. “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” is a saying for people who live in denial. The saying exists for those who are clinging to a love that was seemingly perfect (because they have “forgotten” the imperfectness of it) in order to make the present agony bearable. You do what you have to do, though, and surely there is nothing wrong with a sense of gratitude (the saying does embody that virtue when looked upon in that light), as long as the gratitude does not lead to complacency, for love can always grow stronger—just like one’s playing can always get better. Take breaks. Take breaks so that you may never have to be left wondering what your full potential could have been if you had taken better care of yourself.

Scenario 2:

Frustration in the Practice Room

So, if your practicing is too good to be true . . . you’re probably right. Okay, that point has been driven home already, but what about the other 95 (or more) percent of the time when practicing reveals just how bad a string player actually is? Certainly we would not be tempted to over indulge in a practice session that sounds like a moose in heat, right? Does this mean that string players are less likely to suffer performance related injuries when they sound bad? On the contrary, it is very stressful for any musician to maintain that they sound bad. In fact, it is generally the number one motivator to keep practicing at dangerous lengths. Now imagine the stress of sounding bad coupled with the stress of a performance deadline; “Oh yeah, there’s an orchestra audition tomorrow that includes a certain excerpt that I forgot to practice . . . Oh yeah, my recital is in three days, I guess I better start trying to play the Bach Chaconne all the way through . . . Oh yeah, my playing test on Friday includes melodic minor thirds in every minor key—I only know thirds in major keys.” Practice, practice, practice . . . too little time, too near of deadlines, and the body gets sacrificed.

Listen, take a break because this is how injuries happen. And when injuries do happen, it is this kind of stress that makes them worse to the point of jeopardizing a musician’s career: for string players, if the whole upper half of the body is tingling while jabs of knife-like pain accompany every bow change, or if the throbbing in the neck and shoulders intensifies with every measure of Bruckner tremolos, Mahler crescendo, or Schostakovich ostinatti . . . or if you are oozing on your chinrest . . . then, it is time to cancel that upcoming performance. Take a break. Take a break to prevent dramatic performance-canceling situations. If breaks are ignored, however, and an injury does start to plague your life, then stop playing altogether and be patient while the body recovers (because it should recover if you let it).

Summary

Whether a practice session is encouraging or discouraging, we should always be mindful of taking breaks, because injuries can happen under both circumstances. In fact, it should be noted that the really encouraging practice sessions are probably more dangerous. Think about it; if you’re at the summit of Mount Everest, you are more likely to be enjoying the scenery than worrying about losing your footing and falling down a very, very long way. Not thinking about it, though, doesn’t make the danger any less real. Whereas, in a horrible practice session, you already feel gross and incapable, and chances are that you are at least more aware of every little ache and pain, because it’s just one more thing on top of everything else that is causing your world to collapse around you in shambles (it is only fitting that a musician should express herself in writing so dramatically; we are an emotional bunch after all). Remember the “love and lost” discussion from earlier on? Well, if the extremes of life must be experienced (because, let’s face it, some people will take plenty of breaks and abide by every recommendation and still end up with an injury), wouldn’t it be preferable to lose first and then find love? Who is to say that it couldn’t happen in that order? Okay, so there are those who might have been a little over confident, overzealous, over indulgent or just plain ignorant in their practicing and have suffered the consequences. If mistakes can be learned from, though (where taking a break finally proves itself worthy), and if patience and determination can be acquired, than a musician’s career can conclude triumphantly (Beethoven’s 5th comes to mind as a good analogy: anxious beginning, happy ending).

Through the good and the bad, always hang on to a bit of perspective. Try not to lose your head when the pressures of conservatory life start to weigh down on you. Likewise, don’t allow yourself to be completely carried away by the current of inspiration that tends to appear in a practice room at the most unlikely of times. Take breaks even when they feel unnecessary. For so many of us, we only think about our health when we do not have it anymore. It is vitally important, though, for musicians to think about their health all of the time. If an injury does occur, be patient and let the body heal—even if it takes longer than you think, you have time to wait. The idea, though, is that injuries are prevented, and for most performance related injuries that happen to most people, prevention is obtained by something so common-sensical, so over talked about, and so irritatingly easy as . . . taking breaks.


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