Monday, October 19, 2015

Breaks, Mistakes & The Art of Stress Free Practicing

Musicians, brace yourself for an extremely bold statement.  

I truly, absolutely, passionately believe that... 

Practicing does not need to be stressful! 

In fact, if you are practicing so that you can perform


and beautifully 

with freedom


and effortlessness

I would argue that, not only does practicing not need to be stressful, it shouldn't be stressful!

Instead of listing, labeling, and discussing all the common stress and anxiety factors musicians could experience with practicing and performing, I'm going to jump right into the good stuff.  In my opinion, these are the 3 biggest rules to remember for stress free practicing.  

1. Take lots and lots of breaks. 

2. Make lots and lots of mistakes.

3. Only practice in ways that feel good.

Does this sound too good to be true?  Too easy to do?  Is your stress addicted musician brain protesting that the only way to become great at your instrument and master your music is to work really, really, really hard and suffer in the process? Hang in there and read on... 

Why You Should Take Lots & Lots of Practice Breaks

When you are struggling with a difficult spot in your music, sometimes a small break is all you need.  I can't tell you how many times I've watched a student try the same task over and over again, gaining frustration and losing clarity. I intervene by either coaching them to take a small break or being sneaky and chatting with them for a moment to create a small break.  They are pleasantly surprised when they return to the challenging passage of music, and it feels 10 times easier than when they left it!  

Next time you find yourself trying the same thing over and over again (without any progress), try completely relaxing and thinking of something else for a moment.  You might be amazed at how you feel when you jump back into practicing!  

There are many different kinds of practice breaks.  Take practice breaks that are in proportion to what you need.  If you are feeling a little frantic, take a couple of deep breaths as a mini break.  If you feel frustration sneaking in, take a one or two minute break to clear your mind and get a fresh start.  If you are running low on energy, take a bigger break, closing your eyes or even resting in a comfortable position for 10 or 15 minutes.  Even if you end up taking way more breaks and playing a lot less, the dramatic improvement in the quality of your playing will be proof that this strategy works.

Once you find the technical clarity, beautiful tone, and easy momentum you are looking for in any practice project, you will feel energized and ready for as many repetitions as you need to internalize the music.  When you are "in the zone" of productive practice, the need for breaks melts away.  Until then, use appropriate sized breaks to create the practice results you are seeking!

Why You Should Make Lots & Lots of Mistakes

As a young flutist, I often heard the advice that you should practice so slowly and so clearly that you never make a mistake. Once you make a mistake, it enters the realm of possibility and it might happen in your performance!  For most of my life, I've more or less bought into this philosophy and really did see the logic in it.  Over the course of the last few years, however, I've changed my mind.  Now I feel that 

Mistakes are magical.

Mistakes are clues to what you need to do to grow.  Mistakes create opportunities for strengthening your musicianship in ways you would have never discovered if you played perfectly all the time.  Mistakes can even be happy accidents that lead to new strategies, tone colors, inflections, gestures, and more.  At the very least, it is always cause for celebration that you made the mistake in the practice room, when you can still do something about it!

If I miss a note, I'm so glad I missed it because now I can mark it, practice it, and feel confident with it in performance.  If I crack, squeak, or squawk, I'm grateful for the message that I need to relax my body and my mind so that I can listen in a more meaningful way. To me, mistakes are like little sparkling lights that shine the practice path I need to take. 

Why You Should Only Practice In Ways That Feel Good

I know that, out of the 3 rules for stress free practicing, this rule might be the hardest one to process.  Don't all the great musicians in the world slave away in the practice room, working their fingers to the bone?  Shouldn't we suffer, moan, and complain our way through years of stressed out practice hours to truly earn our status as "real musicians?"

Countless hours of practicing? Yes.  Suffering? No.

If you are suffering your way through your practice hours, swimming in a toxic soup of worry, tension, frustration, and pressure, you will not discover what is truly possible for you as a musician. If you are determined enough, you might be able to achieve accuracy, but it will be really, really hard to reach a place of meaningful connection with the music. When you are consumed with negativity or tension, your ears are not open, your body is not available to you, and your spirit is blocked.

For musicians who generally have open ears, a connection to their body, and a clear mind while they practice, it can still be tempting to force tempos, shame themselves for mistakes, and think of practicing as an uphill climb instead of a smooth voyage.  The following list of Feel Good Practice Tips can be handy for any musician interested in stress free, productive practice. You might need plenty of time and patient kindness to discover the variety of ways you can use these tips, but each and every tip is certainly worth the time and can dramatically transform the quality of your practice sessions. 

1. If something feels tight, loosen it.
2. If something feels frantic, slow it down. 
3. If something feels stuck, move it. 
4. If something feels overwhelming, break it down.
5. If something feels difficult, make it easier. 
6. If something feels awkward, make it more natural. 
7. If something feels forced, allow it to be what it needs to be.
8. If something feels unfamiliar, get to know it.
9. If something feels wrong, find a different way. 
10. If something feels good, do it again... and again... and again...

Are you interested in stress free practicing, but want to learn more about how to face the practice room?  Try reading All By Myself: The Flutist's Guide to Facing the Practice Room

Happy Practicing!

Terri Sánchez