Practice Burnout: how to do the thing when you really don't feel like doing the thing
(this article was originally published on Medium.com)
It’s been 100 days of lockdown for us here in NYC. You might wonder what your unemployed musician friends have been doing in those 100 days. Allow me to paint you a picture:
7am: wake up (7am!?!), stare at ceiling
8:30am: coffee and breakfast
9am: stare at the wall, slowly drinking coffee. Check facebook 35 times.
9:30am: sit down at instrument
10am: shitpost on internet, make way to couch
11am: wake up from impromptu nap, return to instrument
11:15am: deem life pointless
11:30am: more coffee, this time with whiskey added. Message with friends about how life is pointless. Check on unemployment.
12pm: lunch and netflix, maybe some video games
2pm: get some fresh air, pep talk, and a shot of afternoon whiskey for courage
2:30pm: sit down at instrument
2:35pm: meme break, need the laughs
2:45pm: play a bunch of tunes or pieces you know the way you always play them, if not worse
3:15pm: -actually start practicing- and get a good hour or so in
5pm: feel accomplished, have celebratory whiskey, practice victory lap at instrument
5:30pm: spend remainder of evening on couch, fall asleep at 9:30pm
Let me put my disclaimers upfront here: I am not here to productivity shame anyone or tell people how much they should or shouldn’t be practicing or producing….ever….but especially in times like these. I can totally understand why someone would give up on practicing entirely during a pandemic.
The purpose of this article is merely to give readers some ideas on what to do if the need/want to practice is already there.
Every day of practice does not need to look the same. These current days of practice do not need to look like the days of practice that we had before the lockdown and before we found out that our industry would take such a massive, devastating hit. Our worth as human beings is not intertwined with how many hours we spend at our instrument each day and you’re not weak if you need to take some time away.
Next things next, what makes me qualified to write about this? Funny you should ask.
If you know me, you know that I’m a professional musician. I work equally as a singer and pianist, often simultaneously. That’s already a lot of practicing just to keep things together on both fronts. I went to music school and like most other folks who went to music school can testify to, there was a suggested number of hours you were supposed to practice given the credit hours of certain performance-based classes and applied lessons. The number of hours is often pretty high.
Bonus: it’s a nice tidbit to throw at people who think being a working musician isn’t ACTUAL work.
Anyway, back to me talking about me. What you may not know is that through most of this time I suffered from pretty significant and sometimes actually debilitating bouts of depression and anxiety. I took medications that made me sleep for either days at a time or not at all. I lashed out at everyone around me and was always on the defense. I lived on sugar, diet coke, and not much else. Not great. At the same time, I knew what I wanted musically, and I knew that I wanted to do well in school and ultimately continue my education. And that meant that I had to find a way to “do the thing” and put the work in.
I brought up anxiety and depression for two reasons. One is that I know that many musicians struggle with these like I did, to varying degrees. In competitive scenes and schools and even with ourselves, it becomes daunting and at times can feel insurmountable. You want to be the best, you want to shed all the things and be invincible at the session (ah, remember jam sessions! A beacon of the before times), you want to create the magical moments like the ones you’ve heard your idols create. Totally. It’s pressure.
The second reason is because I feel that my (more or less) lifetime struggle with anxiety and depression has actually PREPARED me for something like a global pandemic. Feeling freaked out and isolated and depressed and worthless and uninspired and hopeless are not new feelings for me. I have always had to work with these feelings. If I hadn’t worked WITH them, rather than always waiting for them to pass, I never would’ve gotten anything done. Sometimes I didn’t have a choice other than to wait it out. Sometimes I still don’t. That’s OK too.
Here is an outline of how I’ve been structuring my practice currently while coping with -gestures wildly at everything-
Maybe you’ve heard the term “intuitive eating” thrown around as a means of eating what your body is craving and honoring its clues (like eating chocolate if you REALLY REALLY want it) instead of vilifying it as something “bad”. One of the ways I’ve worked on my relationship with practicing is by listening to what my mind and body are comfortable with working on at that time. It’s absolutely OK to not want to work on something at a given time. It is absolutely OK to not have the mental capacity to work on something at a given time. Forcing something to work only leads to frustration, so why not focus on doing something you’ll enjoy? I personally find that easing into a routine this way often leads me on the path to my practice to-do list, though I may not be checking things off right away.
For example, I may have a goal that I want to learn a new tune. That typically means being able to play and sing it in all 12 keys, improvise on it, play different voicings and arrange things stylistically and rhythmically, maybe spice it up with some substitute harmony. Does that sound like an overwhelming list of things to do? Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes though, it most definitely is.
I know that if I sit down at the piano on a day where I’m….not having it…and say “OK Lauren, you’re going to learn ‘Autumn in New York’, play through it in every key RIGHT NOW”, I’m going to be frustrated minutes after I start. I’m not going to do the work. I’m going to sit on the couch and look at memes.
Instead, what I may do is sit at the piano and listen to my body and brain for a change. What does it want to do? It thinks the melody is beautiful, so maybe I’ll start by practicing different ways to phrase the melody in the original key, starting piano only since that’s what feels right. And I’ll be playing mostly open, rooted voicings in the left hand. And then I’ll sing the melody, keep the left hand the same, and add a note or two in the right hand below the melody. And I’ll do that over and over again because it’s fun hearing all of the subtle differences in the phrasing. After playing it through so many times, now with a handle on the harmony, maybe I’ll try moving it to a different key, approaching it the same way.
On a different day, my brain might be more akin to starting with harmony first. Maybe I’ll analyze the tune harmonically, play the roots and sing the guide tones, and then repeat that process in a few keys or all 12 even. Maybe from there I pick keys randomly and work on applying some interesting language to my soloing, especially if they are keys that I’m not used to playing in as much. Maybe I’ll take a pattern I’ve learned or created and apply it to one of the progressions in the tune. And on yet a different day, my brain may not be in tune or exercise or form mode. It may just want to create shapes and see what happens. Starting your practice with some free improvisation is never a bad idea. It can spark creativity and solidify concepts you’ve been working on. Start with a drone or a mode or a groove or really anything and let it be part of your warm-up.
I’ve found that this intuitive practicing model works best for me if I have a syllabus or to do list of sorts, so let’s talk about that:
Make a To-Do List, but not for Every. Single. Day.
Part of what makes the idea of Intuitive Practicing work for me personally is that it works in conjunction with weekly and sometimes daily to-do lists that I create. Is practicing without a goal practicing at all? Not to get philosophical, but it seems to me like practicing with no goal is just playing and I want to make a distinction there.
On Sundays I make a list of my practice goals for the following week. These goals often include learning new tunes and reviewing old ones, working through material in technical exercises, writing new exercises, applying concepts or techniques to tunes, and transcribing. I like to have a fairly structured idea of what I’m going to be working on so that I don’t just sit down and noodle. Then when it is time to practice, I take a look at my list and decide what I’m going to start with. I don’t set a time requirement or a minimum workload for each day but having the to-do list holds me accountable to my goals. Remember: quality of time is more important than quantity.
My recent practice has led me to learning the new tunes and exercises in the beginning of the week and then spending the later part of the week applying the concepts and reviewing. At this stage, I sometimes have a harder time focusing and I will often remedy that with at least one other hyper-specialized list filled with short, specific, actionable goals and ideas that pertain to only one concept or one tune. Making this shorter list helps me to feel more accomplished and deliberate in what I’m practicing and having it written down allows me to come back to it later.
If it’s not working, it’s not working. There is nothing wrong with taking a break to look at social media, get some fresh air, drink a coffee, pet a cat, etc. Depending on what I’m working on and how I’m feeling, sometimes these breaks are scheduled, like 45 mins of work and 15 mins of break, or 10 mins of work and 2 mins of break. I don’t use a hard and fast rule all the time because it doesn’t work for me. Take a break and then go back and try looking at it with fresh eyes, or switch to something that feels more intuitive.
Taking breaks can also mean days, weeks, or even months away from the instrument. Like I said earlier in the article, I know quite a few musicians who are taking breaks from their instrument right now. It doesn’t make you less of a musician to need a break, it doesn’t make you a bad player, it doesn’t mean you’re not good enough or worthy of working when we can all safely do that it again. It simply means that you needed a break. I typically spend one day a week away from my instruments and that was a hard decision to make because I had become used to never taking a break from it for so many years. If nothing else, a global pandemic is a great time to unlearn bad habits and create new, better habits instead.
Make a Game of It
Mastering exercises, tunes, tempos, etc is just like beating a level in a video game if you think about it the right way. Often when I’m working on something difficult, particularly with a metronome, I will come back the next day and try to beat my own high score. Having a less serious attitude around this type of practice helps me stay energized and keeps me from dreading working on something difficult.
Thank you for reading and drop me a line if you found this list helpful. The struggle is real. Keep trying your best, your best is good enough. Do the thing!