Renowned pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski1 once said “Miss one day of practice, I notice; miss two, the critics notice; miss three, the audience notices.”
Indeed, it does seem that keeping our playing at the highest level requires some daily maintenance.
But what are we to do when we come down with some sort of bug and feel dizzy and nauseous every time we get out of bed? Or desperately need every spare minute we can find to finish term papers and study for finals?
Is it just inevitable that our skills will begin to slip when we take a few days off? Or is there something we can do to minimize this slippage and keep our skills up even if we don’t have the time to practice?
And sure, visualization or mental practice can help – but what if we don’t even have the time or mental energy for that?
Whether it’s the weight of papers and finals at the end of a really tough semester, a jam-packed schedule of gigs, students, and one-too-many Nutcrackers, the final stretch of months of intense audition preparation, or just the hustle and bustle and stress of the holidays on top of everything else, it’s the time of year when it’s easy to get a little frazzled and burned out.
Where you may feel drained – physically and emotionally. And maybe a little cranky too, with difficulty focusing. Making it hard to work or practice as productively as you normally would. Which could make you worry about being unprepared, and increase your stress. Leading to difficulty getting good sleep. Which puts you in an even worse place the next day. And can lead to a sense of detachment and loss of enthusiasm for all the important stuff on your plate.
So what are we to do? Is there a way to increase our resilience in times like this? And ensure we don’t end up slumped on the couch, watching reruns of The Office while eating all of the leftover Halloween candy instead of working on the projects on our to-do list?
It’s the day before an audition, and as you take a few minutes to review some tricky sections, suddenly you get a twinge of anxiety and start stressing and freaking out about how awful everything sounds. How unprepared you feel. And how horribly you’re afraid things are going to go.
It’s at those exact moments when you know the right thing to do is “think positive.”
But these are also the exact moments when it’s hardest to think good thoughts.
Like telling a kid to cheer up after they just lost all of their video game privileges for the day, as their little sister munches happily on the last ice cream sandwich in the freezer, giggling while watching her favorite YouTube show (hmm…that’s awfully specific…doesn’t that kind of make you wonder what’s happening in the Kageyama household right now?).
Most of us have a natural tendency to dwell on negative thoughts. To worry about the future, bemoan past decisions and choices, and focus on what’s bothering us right now in the present. Which from a survival perspective, probably makes good sense.
But from a performance perspective, this negativity bias can make it difficult to stay in a good frame of mind before auditions. Or get to sleep the night before a big recital. Which can then make the performance go to crap.
So how can we get better at “thinking positive” – at least temporarily – when we need it most?
There’s a peculiar saying that I often stumble across on the internet. About how to eat an elephant (the answer: one bite at a time – though does anybody actually eat elephants?).
The point of the saying is that we can more effectively manage big, huge, gnarly, complex projects and avoid getting overwhelmed or paralyzed if we divide the task into little tiny pieces.
Like preparing for an international competition. Or two orchestra auditions with different lists within two weeks of each other.
So sure, breaking it down into little tiny bites makes a ton of sense. But sometimes, the hardest part is knowing where to start. I mean, what exactly should I do first? Gather a bunch of recordings together? Figure out which edition of the score to use? And which piece or excerpts should I work on first? The most unfamiliar ones? The hardest ones? Or do I start by emphasizing etudes and fundamentals?
How can I make sure I start off on the right path, and ensure that everything will be learned in time?