I was talking to a cellist the other day who complained of a history of feeling apathetic in the days before an audition. Specifically, he noticed becoming crankier, less motivated, and struggling to play well.

I know sometimes musicians try to convince themselves they don’t want to win the audition in an attempt to reduce their nervousness, but this was different.

It reminded me of a phenomenon in sports called overtraining or staleness syndrome. This occurs most commonly in sports like swimming or running which involve a lot of high intensity/high volume training, and presents as a combination of both physical and psychological symptoms including fatigue and negative mood, as well as a decrease in performance.

Musicians and athletes are different of course, but the rigors of daily practice and the physical demands we place on our bodies (some instruments more than others) are not insignificant. Daily practice, rehearsals, performances, not to mention the non-music-related demands life places on us – it all adds up.

I began to wonder; might musicians be susceptible to staleness as well?

Am I just a practice wus?

Based on my own experiences and some conversations with others, I’m inclined to say that staleness or more probably overreaching (staleness lite, if you will), is certainly within the realm of possibility for musicians as well. I doubt it happens all that often, but still seems possible.

I remember preparing for a competition when I was at Juilliard, and suddenly practicing far more than I’d ever practiced before in my life. Well, cramming is really a more accurate description of what I was doing – there was about a month to go, and I had several rounds worth of repertoire to learn. I was pretty stressed out emotionally, knowing that I was not going to be able to get everything ready in time. Needless to say, I wasn’t exercising, eating well, going out much, or getting much rest. If I wasn’t practicing, I was listening to the music, looking at the score, practicing in my head, or worrying about it all.

It got to a point where it required a supreme act of will to get myself motivated to play through pieces even at lessons and rehearsals, never mind playing them well. I thought I could push my way through it, but my body and fingers didn’t want to cooperate.

Now, it could very well be that I was just a big practice wimp, but I think I was feeling something similar to what this cellist described to me.

Achieving balance

Have you experienced anything like this before? Staleness is a tricky thing to identify so its prevalence (even in athletes) isn’t entirely clear. It does seem that elite athletes are more likely to experience staleness than recreational athletes, possibly because they are typically training at much higher volumes and intensities.

It also seems that some folks are just more susceptible to staleness than others, perhaps due to various genetic or physiological factors like nutrition, dehydration, and illnesses.

But bottom line, it appears that the best line of defense is prevention. In other words, emphasizing the recovery aspect of training as much as the active training part. Ensuring you are taking care of yourself with proper nutrition, hydration, sleep, and even mental time off so that you are not pushing yourself too far past the limits of what you can handle.

Signs you may be practicing too much

Here are 4 signs you may be pushing yourself too hard, and not balancing things out with enough rest and recovery.

1. Negative Mood

You’re feeling depressed, apathetic, unmotivated, cranky, irritable, sour, melancholy, etc. Being extra snappy with your significant other, or wanting to punch out your bandmates or ensemble mates more than normal may be a sign that you’re pushing yourself too hard.

2. Perceived Effort

Another sign is when playing feels harder and seems to take more effort than usual – and not just once, but for a sustained period of time.

3. Recovery

You can’t seem to recover from one day to the next. Your muscles may be sore or feel “heavy” and unresponsive, and you don’t feel refreshed even after taking a day off.

4. Performance Quality

You simply don’t seem to be able to play as well as you normally do

Yay, a quiz!

Here’s a short quiz that may help you prevent staleness.

  • A score of 40+ suggests you may want to practice a bit less and rest more.
  • A score of 15 or less means you’re balancing practice and recovery well.
  • If you score between 15-40, just keep an eye on things. If you see your score change suddenly, it might be time to take it easy for a bit.

DISCLAIMER: This quiz has not been validated with musicians, and is not intended to be diagnostic in and of itself. It is an ever-so-slightly tweaked adaptation of a questionnaire created by my sport psychology advisor in grad school, which appeared in a Runner’s World article. The language may not be a perfect fit for musicians, but think of it as a quick and easy way to measure changes from day to day or week to week.

If you prefer to go the lazy route, take the self-scoring version at Runner’s PB (but note that the language is geared to athletes).

Overtraining Quiz

1) How is your mood today? 
Very, very good (-2 point)
Very good (-1 point)
Good (0 point)
Average (1 point)
Bad (3 points)
Very bad (5 points)
Very, very bad (7 points)

2) How many hours did you sleep last night?
More than nine (-1 point)
Eight or nine (0 points)
Seven (1 point)
Five to six (3 points)
Less than five (5 points)

3) Last night I slept:
Same as normal (0 points)
One hour more than normal (1 point)
Two or more hours more than normal (3 points)
One hour less than normal (1 point)
Two hours less than normal (3 points)
Three or more hours less than normal (5 points)

4) Have you been sick the past week?
Yes (5 points)
No (0 points)

5) How would you rate yesterday’s practice?
Very, very easy (-3 points)
Very easy (-1 point)
Easy (0 points)
Average (1 point)
Hard (3 points)
Very hard (5 points)
Very, very hard (7 points)

6) How do your muscles feel?
Very, very good (-3 points)
Very good (-1 point)
Good (0 points)
Tired, but not sore (1 point)
Sore (3 points)
Very sore (5 points)
Very, very sore (7 points)

7) Do your key muscles feel “heavy”?
No (0 points)
A little (1 point)
Somewhat (3 points)
Very (7 points)

Take action

Remember that staleness or overreaching results from an imbalance between training and recovery. So the answer isn’t necessarily to reduce your practice and playing time, but to be mindful of your recovery periods as well.

If you are seeing really high scores, feeling unusually cranky, finding your muscles unresponsive, or having difficulty playing at your normal level, rather than pushing yourself harder and practicing more, it might be more productive to dial things back a bit and ensure you are getting enough rest, and managing stress effectively in other areas of your life as well.

The one-sentence summary

“Any idiot can train himself into the ground; the trick is working in training to get gradually stronger.”  ~Keith Brantly (Member, 1996 US Olympic team).