Friday, March 10, 2006

perfecting the practice break

This weekend the New World Symphony is playing a fascinating concert featuring a rarely heard piece. However, I probably won't be writing anything about it, since I'm not playing on it - Messiaen's From the Canyons to the Stars will be performed by a reduced orchestra with just one or two stands for each string section.

Instead, I want to consider the practice break. We all take them, and we all have our own habits and rituals surrounding them - some grasp for espresso, others swear by sudoku. Of course, it's a thin line (or maybe a slippery slope?) between practice break and procrastination. Lately I've been avoiding the internet completely - it's just too easy for that 5-minute e-mail check to turn into an hour-long messaging orgy.

Properly executed, however, I think the practice break can increase and not impair productivity. It provides a release of tension, both physical and mental; a chance to regroup and gain focus; an opportunity to rethink your practice strategies; and, perhaps, a bit of contact with the outside world. Here are my guiding principles for a successful practice break:

  • stay focused - while it is a 'break', I'd rather not completely veg out - better to do something that keeps you feeling energized and alert, so that you'll...
  • stay conscious - if you can't stay awake, you probably shouldn't be practicing
  • stretch out your tense spots - this might go without saying, but if something feels stiff and uncomfortable, a little bit of movement and blood flow often helps
  • stretch or use neglected muscle groups - often the best way to release tension in the your playing muscles is to activate those muscles which don't get a lot of use - parts of your back, hips, legs, etc. Stretching these may help you feel more centered, and hopefully more relaxed.
  • activate your other senses - since practicing requires highly focused listening, I often find I need to give my ears a rest. Better to do something visually, or even better...
  • use your senses differently - practicing also requires intense visual focus on a page right in front of you. Therefore, you might want to find something that allows your eyes to focus at a different level, or in a different way. I think throwing darts could make for a perfect practice break: a visual task over a longer range, using different muscle groups but still demanding focus, and also a release for frustration and aggression. Unfortunately, playing darts usually involves going to a bar, which may have negative consequences for the remaining practice session.
  • use your mind differently - a break from music needn't be a break from creativity and art - often, I think, the perfect break would be to read great poetry or look at visual art. Of course these require visual focus, but they provide inspiration which more than compensates for the effort.
  • stay relaxed - any practice break is a failure if it leaves you more uptight than you were to begin with. Therefore it might be best to avoid tasks (and people) you know might upset you. And not get too worried about practice break perfection!
for some great suggestions about practice breaks, please visit San Bei Ji!


mkh said...

Interesting thoughts. When I take a "practice break" from writing I usually listen to music or watch DVDs, take my mind out of the self-focus that writing requires (for me, anyway). Of course I should do something physical, but well, that might be healthy or something, and we can't have that.

Incidentally, I'll be attending the Messiaen performance tonight. I'll probably write about it and let you know what I think.

Joe said...

Maximizing practice time efficiency is one of my favorite subjects, and in many ways good use of break time is the key to successful practicing. I wrote something inspired by this post over at my blog.