Whether we’re practicing, studying, or doing our taxes, there comes a point where our brains begin to get a little fatigued, our thinking gets a little sluggish, and it’s difficult to think productively and creatively (though tax preparation is probably not the best time to be flexing our creativity muscles).
Taking breaks is an important part of staying productive and getting past this “brain fatigue,” whether it’s the classic 50/10 split, the 25/5 “pomodoro” LINK, or the more unusual 52/17 https://bulletproofmusician.com/how-to-intensify-your-focus-and-be-more-productive-with-the-5217-split/, but what should we be doing during our break time to best prepare for our next block of practice and maximize mental recovery? Chat with friends? Catch up on Facebook? Watch funny YouTube videos? Read a book? Go for a walk? Coffee break? Nap?
I remember my first studio class in grad school. I was set to play the 5th Paganini Caprice, which I knew well, and had played before in auditions and competitions. Yet I was feeling strangely nervous for this studio class, even though there wasn’t really anything at stake.
Needless to say, it did not go well. I rushed, played out of tune, flat-out missed a bunch of notes in the opening arpeggios, kept fumbling passages throughout, and there was no sense of line or direction musically. It was pretty embarrassing.
I choked, plain and simple. An “epic fail” as my kids would say (and yes, there’s a YouTube channel for that).
Why does this sort of thing happen, anyway? And is there anything we can do about it?
You know how many kids grow up with dreams of representing their country in the Olympics, or making the winning shot in the NBA playoffs?
For me, it was winning a music competition like the Indianapolis, Tchaikovsky, or Van Cliburn (it didn’t matter that I wasn’t a pianist) that inspired me. And I did participate in a fair number of competitions as a child, but none were ever at that top-tier level.
I always assumed that I’d get my act together and make this happen when I got to college, but I could never seem to get all the repertoire ready in time to make a tape (I know, excuses, excuses…). So when I entered grad school, I was determined to make this happen.
For once, I got a tape made and application submitted, and was excited when I was admitted into the Nielsen competition.
I started visualizing success, and feeling good about how prepared I would be for once in my life. I knew that I should be setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-based) goals, so I outlined my objectives and a series of deadlines for the next 6 months.
It was all very clear in my head. But then life happened. Or more specifically, summer happened.
It was hot in my apartment and hard to focus. I was a little burned out from the year anyway. Some unexpected gigs came up. My teachers were out of town. My girlfriend was in the city for a couple months, and she was way more fun to spend time with than Bach, Paganini, Wieniawski, Nielsen, et al. (and we got married eventually, so that part definitely worked out).
Needless to say, I was not prepared when the week of the competition rolled around.
Maybe it’s just me, but when this is the sort of experience you have with goal-setting, at some point it’s tempting to give up on goal-setting altogether. But then you just kind of drift along, and wake up one day to realize that the summer is over and you haven’t even started learning the last movement of the concerto. Or you’re nearing the end of college and never finished learning all 6 Ysaÿe Sonatas. Or you’re 40, and never did run that marathon. And it’s like, woah…what the heck happened? Where did all the time go?
If SMART goals have never worked for you, research suggests that there may be a better way to set goals. A method that might also resonate more with those of us who are glass half-empty types. How so?
Because unlike most goal-setting strategies, this one adds a splash of pessimism into the mix.
A Practice Hack That Could Significantly Boost Practice Efficiency (but May Not Feel Like It In the Moment)
I don’t know if it’s true, or just my imagination, but I’ve always felt that my most productive practice years were actually my very earliest years, up until about the time I was in mid-to-late elementary school.
In that period of my life, practice was structured in a very particular way. One key factor was that I practiced in multiple practice sessions per day – morning, afternoon, and evening. And not because I had so much rep to learn that it had to be split across multiple sessions, but more just so I could “touch” everything I was working on more than once per day. If I’m remembering the rationale correctly, my mom figured that we eat three meals a day, so why not practice three times a day too?
Whatever the reason, this formula seemed to work pretty well.
As I got older however, I started moving away from this practice structure, and consolidating all my work into one single mega-session.
In college, for instance, I’d generally plop down in a practice room after dinner, start out with some etudes/technical exercises, then move sequentially through my repertoire, spending ~30-45 minutes on each piece before moving onto the next one on my list.
Or sometimes, I’d devote a whole day to one piece, and put everything else on the back burner (like the day before a lesson when it seemed like my best bet was to put all my eggs in one basket).
At the time, I figured practice was practice, and it didn’t really matter how or when I did it, but there is accumulating research which suggests that maybe there really was something to my childhood approach.