Written by Daniel Tan
Published: February 13, 2015 at 8:51 AM [UTC]
Disclaimer: This is not in any way intended to be expert advice of any sort. Hopefully it is insightful to some of you, but these are in reality just my personal experiences, not expert advice.
To give a bit of context, 2015 marks the beginning of my third year studying Music and Commerce at university (in Australia the uni year starts in March and runs through to November). When it comes to the topic of personal well being, I'm something of a hypocrite. I'm very good at telling people to look after themselves and take a break, but not with myself. I've had to learn many things regarding looking after myself the hard way.
In 2013, I began the year already somewhat on edge. I wanted to work hard to impress my new teacher, and to accelerate my rate of improvement on the instrument. I had been somewhat stagnated the past year, mainly due to my focus being shifted to my final year of high school. So in all honesty, I only probably practiced at most 50 minutes to an hour (not even every day) in my latter high school years. Entering uni, the concept of practising 2, 3, even 4 hours a day terrified me. Despite this, I was fairly resolute to build my stamina and I decided for the first semester that I would aim to manage 2 hours a day. This worked out fairly well and my teacher was supportive of my efforts to progressively build my practice routine. Following the success of semester 1, I added another half an hour to my daily efforts and toward my final recital was comfortably around 3 hours a day.
Unfortunately, by the end of my first year of university, I was close to completely burnt out, and only really survived on account of the fact that luckily, I had a very short and sweet exam timetable. Whilst I had taken the effort to slowly build up my practice, in reality, being new to uni, having to sit through weekends of 7 hours of rehearsals and all the extra practice I had started, took its toll on me. With regards to violin particularly however, I with the benefit of hindsight put it down to the fact that I rarely took a day off during that year in a bid to prove myself.
So come 2014, my teacher mandated at the start of the year that I where possible, reserve a day of the week to be completely violin free. Whilst seemingly counter intuitive to those who want to improve quickly, over a year later, I can completely vouch for the benefits of setting aside a regular day off. (My friends can attest to me nagging them about doing it for themselves as well). What I found was that a day off allowed every facet of my violin playing to rest and rejuvenate itself. Physically, I would start the new week feeling much less tired and sore, but more importantly, mentally, I found myself in a much better headspace to start each new practice week. As a result, the work I did do the remaining 6 days of the week was more focused, and for want of a better phrase, sometimes, less painful. Toward the end of my first semester in 2014, my teacher noted that I seemed to be coping a lot better despite the fact I had taken on more that year (more performances, recordings etc.). I was comfortably managing 3-4 hours a day and it looked like I was on track for a well adjusted year. I was looking forward to reaching the end of it not burnt out.
Then came July. I had earlier that year decided to partake in a 3 week Summer Program at NYU for Strings which involved me travelling to New York and living there for the duration. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the program and the travel, it obliterated my holiday of 4 weeks down to 1. I arrived back in Melbourne after more than a day of flying on the first day of second semester exhausted. To make things worse, I did three concerts in the following three weeks, all different programs. This included a concerto, a trip to Sydney and a grueling orchestral program (complete with hours and hours of rehearsing). Whilst I had upped my practice to 5 hours a day, I was still taking my day off a week and thought I would be fine. However, when I reached my final exam period, the state of my well being showed its true colours. My focus and attention span was so poor and the amount of time I wasted because I couldn't motivate myself was staggering. As a very strongly driven and intrinsically motivated person, I have never ever felt this lack of determination or focus to what I'm doing. I was well and truly burnt out.
Upon reflection, I realise that this doesn't compare with what the touring soloists have to deal with, and ultimately is something I'd like to do one day. It begs the question whether or not there are still things I'm doing wrong, and whilst I have no concrete answers, this is what I've resolved to do differently in 2015:
1. I've well and truly capped my practice time at 5 hours a day maximum. This for me is the absolute limit of my physical and mental stamina and I've decided the thing that has to improve is the efficiency and focus with which I practice.
2. On that note, I'm going to try add more different methods of practice in, including score study and mental practice. Not as a substitute, but to keep my mind fresh and interested, and potentially reduce the hours I physically spend with the instrument.
3. I've actually stopped doing hour long blocks and instead have started practising in half an hour blocks with five minute breaks in between. So far, this has worked really well for me. I get more done in the time and I feel more relaxed and focused.
4. I've committed to exercising daily, which I haven't in the past. Whether it be a small bit of cardio or strength work, I've found doing it regularly has not only helped me overall, but it's reduced the amount of aches and pains I can get while playing violin.
5. Finally, I've actually had a chance to overview my year and properly plan it. Whilst I don't know all the concerts and recitals I'll be doing this year, I have a fairly clear idea when I'm going to take a few days or weeks off from violin to let myself regenerate fully.
Ultimately, I'm just learning as I go, and more than anything else, I'd love to hear from the community about how they avoid burnout, and deal with busy lives and grueling schedules.
Sharelle, I'm glad you think so, I use writing often as a way of teasing reflection out of myself :)
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