First, the disclaimer:
A ferocious work ethic is absolutely essential to learn to play an instrument well. It is true of learning to be good at anything, you have to do it a lot with a high degree of focus. You have to give 100%. If you're particularly intense, you push past that to know that you're giving it everything you have. Even if you are massively talented, a gift doesn't develop itself just sitting there.
If you're still learning how to come at something with 100% of what you can give, this article is not for you. This is not a new age think-positive-and-it-will-manifest itself kind of article. I'm suggesting you not do certain things, albeit in a very specific, structured way. It is a very active process, not passive. Without focus and a mature work ethic, this technique does a great job at helping you to rationalize laziness and will set you back. For the highly motivated and disciplined, this can open up some new doors.
Now that you've been warned, let's dive in.
I'm a big believer that we are never really staying the same. Nothing is ever really standing still. Just because we can't observe process does not mean it isn't there.
When it comes to making music and playing instruments, you're either getting better or worse. This leads chronic practicers to believe that they will be constantly improving if they are constantly practicing.
But if improving was such a linear path, our lives as performers would be a lot easier. Ever take some time off and notice that you are a little rusty, but certain things are better or easier? Lots of musicians I know have experienced something like this. Usually after getting the instrument worked on or a vacation. It can be confusing.
I'm convinced that the reason this happens is because we got worse at the stuff that holds us back.
We can use this effect to our advantage.
What I mean by this is the ability to play an instrument is made of lots of little habits. If we don't practice them they fade and if we do practice them they are reinforced. Within this set of habits there are two classes of them: those we want to keep or grow, and those we want to diminish or erase completely.
Looking at it this way, practice has four possible outcomes with two always happening in parallel.
1. Getting better at desirable habits
2. Getting better at undesired habits
3. Getting worse at desirable habits
4. Getting worse at undesirable habits
You're always stuck with an odd number and an even number. For example:
An ideal outcome is #1 and #4; getting better at the stuff we want and worse at the stuff we do not. The worst case is #2 and #3. Any time we actively practice, we aim for the #1 and #4 combo, but it is easy to slip into a #1 and #2 scenario; getting better at some good stuff but also reinforcing negative habits.
The classic #1 & #2 example is the musician who plays with excess tension in some part of the body and that restricts what he or she can do. Determined to overcome that limitation, the player practices more and more. After months or years of inadvertently reinforcing the habit of using excess tension, justified by some measurable improvement in other areas, an injury develops that is a major setback at best or a career ending event in the worst case.
I know because this happened to me
A few months before a big audition in 2010, I got a horrible nerve problem in my left hand. Numbing, tingling, the works. Worse yet, it was not in a typical location so most doctors were clueless as to what to tell me other than to take lots of Advil and hope for the best.
I got lucky and it healed on its own in time for the audition.
Frustrated as I was at the time, I was actually improving my situation by not doing anything. During the forced time off, I kept busy working with other things. When I came back, I was really focused on really reinforcing the habits I wanted, meanwhile some of the stuff holding me back had dulled.
The lesson learned? By taking time away from our practice in a controlled manner, everything gets worse. When we abstain from playing all together, it is almost always a guaranteed #3 and #4 combo. Since that is a very reliable outcome, put it to work.
Use this technique to your advantage
There are a couple primary factors to consider if you want to try this out yourself.
1. Not taking too long or short of a break
2. Knowing what dulls fastest and how to get it back
3. Timing of the break
Duration is important. Taking a day or two off doesn't really count. That gives your muscles a chance to rest and helps manage stress so it certainly has its place but isn't enough time for habits to fall out of shape. I'm talking about a break of a week or more because it is enough to take the edge off your habits.
Several of my previous teachers push it further. They schedule 2-4 weeks a year when they don't play at all. On the flip side, letting your playing go for several months can take too long to bounce back from to be practical. I've found a good time period to be 7-10 days off, no more than four times per year.
The next crucial step is knowing ahead of time what positive habits are going to dull and how to get them back quickly. You have to have a plan and the discipline to know you're going to follow through, otherwise you're just scheduling setbacks with no benefit. For me, my string crossing and bow angle get sloppy fastest.
To address this I use a technique that more than one of my former teachers use: take a whole method book and play through it over a week, focusing on personal weak points. I do this and especially pay attention to the bow. One teacher would use the same method book every time and another one would use it as an opportunity to explore a new one.
Either way, the idea is simple, return to playing by focusing on fundamental, basic skills. Go back to long tones on open strings like your first lesson. Reteach yourself to play. Focus on things you know you want.
Last but not least, time this stuff strategically. Don't take two weeks off before a big audition or public performance. This technique is something you do when you have the luxury of time, not when you're under pressure to perform. Summers work well for people tethered to the academic year or an orchestra season. Personally, I do this in the winter when my freelance work slows down and I am stuck inside all day anyway.
I hope this gives you some food for thought!
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If you liked this post, you're going to dig my book Make It. It breaks down the strategies and techniques a young musician needs to find work and turn their musical abilities into an income.