The Unthinkable: 6 scenarios when you shouldn’t be practicing

On the first official day of my vacation week (the St. Louis Symphony is dark this week) I thought it was appropriate to tackle a rare subject in the music world. When NOT to practice. This is sometimes a harder concept than when TO practice. As musicians we are programmed to take every available minute of every day and practice. We have musician guilt for the time we spend away from our instrument not practicing. Deep down inside we know there are times we would be better off stepping away from the instrument but it is a tough thing to actually do. How do we know when it’s time to put the sticks down?

1. After a major performance or audition.

This is the most obvious. The emotional stress can wear on any player and assuming there isn’t something immediately coming up, it is wise to take a few days off. I’m often surprised at how great my hands feel the first practice session back when I take a week off after an audition. The time off is good from both a mental and physical perspective.

2. If you experience pain.

This may seem obvious but can be hard for some to recognize. There is a fine line between discomfort and pain. There are certainly times when practice is uncomfortable. Especially when trying to break down a barrier. Pain however, is NEVER progress. Learning to distinguish between the two is vital. When discomfort transitions into pain, it is time to stop.

There are a lot more less obvious times where it might be time to put the sticks down. Lots of them are very personal and vary from player to player, but basic guidelines can help.

3. When I am no longer practicing efficiently.

Most of my practice schedule and guidelines are governed by efficiency. I want to be as efficient as possible. Get in the practice room and get out. I want to make the most possible progress I can while I am in the room. I purposely do not have any chairs in my studio so that I am not tempted to sit down. I’d much rather sit down on my couch in the living room in front of a ball game.

4. When my brain’s “note learning capacity” is full.

If I am learning or memorizing music, I know I can’t go more than an hour. Learning music takes so much brain power and mental energy that I am no longer efficient after an hour. I’d rather practice three times a day for an hour than for three straight hours. I will get a lot more work done in that time. If I tried to keep going longer than an hour it would certainly not be efficient practice.

5. When practice feels a little too much like work.

Of course practicing will feel like work at times. Maybe a lot of the time. But there are definitely times when I feel like I’ve been beating my head against the wall for a long time with no progress. This usually happens because of one of two reasons. I’m either attacking the problem in the wrong way or my brain needs a break. Both reasons require the same solution. Stepping away. If my approach is correct then I just need time. If my approach needs to be changed, then I need to reevaluate my strategy. 

6. When it is time to taper before an audition of performance.

Of course you need to practice in the days leading up to one of these big events, just make sure it is the right kind of practice. You also should be taking care of your body and making sure you get enough rest at this point. An extra hour of sleep is going to help your performance WAY more than an extra hour of practice. At this point the goal is no longer about improving so much as putting yourself in a position to play well.

A quirky topic this week (I know) but I thought it would be fun, as we all need to be told to put the sticks down occasionally. If you think of more times to take a break, comment below. For now I’m going to watch a little basketball and stare at the ocean. 😀



6 thoughts on “The Unthinkable: 6 scenarios when you shouldn’t be practicing

  1. Thanks again for the great advice. With all this being said, did you find an “optimal” amount of practice time you liked to aim for during your college years? To clarify, enough to feel as though you got a lot of progress made, but not to the point of feeling “burnt out”. I realize this could be different for everyone, but what have you found true for yourself?

    Thanks a lot! These blog posts are really appreciated.

    • Luke, thanks for the thoughts and kind words. That’s a can of worms you just opened…. There were definitely times in college where I focused on an amount of time (generally 3 hours) minimum. I think that helped me at times to sort of force me to get in the practice room. However, I grew really frustrated with that and shifted more towards goal oriented practice. If I had a class to be at or something I couldn’t miss, I would just set a timer and work til the alarm went off. Currently I am 100% goal oriented practicing. If I finish early, great! That means I can spend more time doing something else. If I go right to the alarm, then I at least know I was as productive as I could be. Hope that helps.

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