Raise your hand if you have ever felt depleted, over-scheduled, or exhausted with lots of responsibilities that still need your attention?
Everyone? Ok. (If this has never been you, I’d love to hear how you do it. Please write me!)
Hopefully you’re not experiencing this type of exhaustion or burnout all the time, but it is incredibly common among professional musicians and music students (a topic for another blog, or many!).
So what do we do when we’re feeling tapped out but we have a lot of work to do? Especially if we need to practice our instruments and don’t want to indulge bad habits or sloppy work that will do more harm than good?
Short of a caffeine drip - which I have considered on numerous occasions - there are some real, actionable things we can do to infuse our practice with energy even when we are feeling more like taking a nap than opening our case. Some of these are quite obvious but perhaps still places you could refine your approach, and many are things I overlooked for too long as a younger player and student.
* Plan/Block your time:
This is not a scenario of “I will always practice for an hour at 8AM.” Rather, if you are feeling over-extended or burned out, think of this as survivalist time blocking. Look at your busy schedule for the next week or two (more than two when we are truly up to our ears in busy becomes too overwhelming). Consider each day’s activities and when you will have the most time/energy for practice. Prefer morning practice but can’t fit it in? Plan for the next best window you can find on each day. Don’t aim for perfection - when we’re truly short on time, twenty good minutes are infinitely better than no minutes at all or an hour of terrible practice at the end of an already long day.
* Use the time you have set aside wisely:
Maybe you played for five hours the day before (not uncommon if you have a double rehearsal or a student schedule) and your muscles are fatigued. Could you dedicate half your allocated practice block to listening, score/part study, and visualization exercises? Especially for students, these element of learning music are underrated and typically underutilized - we can save a lot of struggle if we understand the piece, how we fit in, and what sections genuinely need our attention. Using these practice strategies also helps keep us from unintentionally creating bad habits by over-playing.
Related to using your time wisely, there are many things we can do that don’t require putting the instrument together at all, some of which I listed above: score study, listening, researching the context of the piece, imagery/visualization practice (athletes truly understand the value of this last one and we musicians are missing out), eating a good meal, and getting an extra hour of sleep.
Yes it’s annoying, yes it seems like we could probably skip it, yes it is absolutely necessary. When we are playing more than normal we might feel as if our muscles are ready to go all the time, which is precisely what will lead to overuse injuries and bad habits. Even five minutes of smart stretching split at the beginning and end of practice is productive, although I would encourage you to find room for more or to develop a small, manageable, and regularly repeatable routine of stretching and myofascial release.
* Eat well:
When we are busiest is precisely when we struggle with decision fatigue. Our mind has enough to manage, so eating junk food is not only an easy way out, but what our tired mind would prefer because it requires less choice and tastes great. Make this easier on yourself by stocking up on healthy snacks/leftovers before a busy week begins. It’s annoying, I know, but you will thank yourself later.
* Focus on your sleep:
One of my biggest personal struggles when I drive a lot for gigs is staying on track with rest. Often when I get home late after a long drive I need time to unwind and I’m usually hungry (see above re: healthy snacks). I have to really set boundaries after these long, late drives by planning ahead not to doom scroll on my phone or watch TV while eating cheese and crackers when I do finally get home. I feel whiny and irritated about this every time, but make a plan in advance for rest just like you would for food and stick to it. Trust me, it’s worth it.
* Practice in smaller, well-planned time blocks:
We all have our own struggles, and this is one of the most effective strategies for me personally. When I am over-scheduled my focus is often not up to my usual standard. I can be more productive in my practice by working in shorter blocks of time. Instead of a thirty minute warmup I will consolidate it down to ten. Later in the morning I might spend fifteen minutes running through some challenging passages to get a baseline of where they’re at. Even later in the day I will spend fifteen to twenty minutes on a few of those challenging technical sections, being very detailed in how I work through the challenges (with a metronome, grouping, etc.). Later yet I might do a five minute power session on something I’m struggling with, like high register, by doing focused exercises and working on tricky high register tuning passages.
* De-brief your practices and rehearsals:
With limited time to prepare for the next lesson, rehearsal, or performance during your busiest weeks, we can only plan as well as we reflect. During college I got into the habit of keeping a practice journal and recording what I needed to get done and what I had already practiced. Taking this a step further can level up our practice, limited though it might be, in a big way (this bullet point works whether we are in a busy season or not). As suggested by Terry Orlick in his book In Pursuit of Excellence, I started to “debrief” after each performance or practice session. What went well? Why? What didn’t go well? Why? These reflections inform how I use my limited time the next day. I keep a running note on my iPhone Notes app where I jot down points and observations to be revisited later.
* Have fun:
This doesn’t have to be anything monumental, and is probably best if it's not related to your instrument or work. For me, during the weeks where I have to drive a lot to rehearsals this means listening to podcast episodes I’ve saved and my favorite non-classical music that I can sing out loud to in the car. It’s cathartic and helps clear out my brain before and after demanding rehearsals. I also try to spend a little extra time with my cats and making coffee at home - two things that bring me a lot of joy that have absolutely nothing to do with work! Consider the little parts of your day and what small things make you happy, and then deliberately focus on those joyful moments to break up the monotony of your busy day.
The way being busy makes us feel and what we need to do to cope with high-demand periods of work will change as we get older and more experienced, but I don’t know a single musician (student or professional) who can get through a busy season successfully and relatively unscathed without at least some intentional planning.
What works best for you when you are feeling stretched to the limit? Where is an area you could make small adjustments that would have a big impact on your overall wellbeing and energy level?
Hi, I'm Morgann! A flutist, teacher, meditator, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.