How to Reduce Practice Room Angst (and Boost Creativity)

You know the feeling. The one you get when you run into a particularly vexing problem in the practice room. Where no matter how hard you try, you just can’t get a note to speak right, or a phrase to come out the way it should.

Maybe you can’t get your fingers to cooperate, or figure out what’s wrong with your embouchure, or get the tempo where it needs to be. Whatever it is, it’s frustrating, and as the frustration builds, you dig your heels in, narrow your eyes, grit your teeth, and continue to hack at it, hoping that brute force will eventually lead to some sort of breakthrough.

There’s something to be said for persistence, but as someone once said, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

Generally, once we reach this level of frustration, we’re just making things worse.

So what alternatives do we have?

A 5-shower day

I met a writer once, who said that on days when she is struggling with her writing, she might take as many as 5 showers in a single day.

Creative types sometimes refer to this as a “creative pause” – a brief pulling away from the problem, which often results in new ideas, or solutions presenting themselves unexpectedly.

You may have seen this video of the mouse and the cracker, but check out what happens around the 54-second mark.

Just when the mouse looks like it’s about to give up, it takes a creative pause, and tries one last time. Yes, the pause is like 4 seconds to us, but isn’t that like 2 minutes and 12 seconds in mouse seconds (1 human year = 33 mouse years)?

Am I making too much of this little mouse’s pause? Probably, but hey, it’s still a fun video.

So what is it about taking a break that jump starts our creativity anyway?

Well, it appears that it’s not the break itself that’s important, but what we do during the break that matters.

Mind wandering: good or bad?

When you are driving in treacherous road conditions, or performing delicate open-heart surgery, or auditioning for a big job, letting your mind wander aimlessly is just asking for trouble. Bad things are liable to happen unless you are super-focused on the task at hand.

But when it comes to enhancing creativity and problem-solving, mind-wandering may actually be quite desirable.

This study, for instance, found that being distracted enhances creativity, while being too focused on the problem diminishes it.

Another study found that individuals diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) tend to score higher than non-ADHD folks on standardized measures of creativity. The same researchers have also gathered data which suggests that people with ADHD may enjoy greater levels of achievement in creative domains like music, art, cooking, writing, humor, and invention.

How to use your creative pause for maximal results

A more recent study out of UC Santa Barbara tested 145 participants’ creativity with the Unusual Uses Task, where the objective is to generate as many unusual uses as possible for a common object (like a lawn chair) in 2 minutes.

After running everyone through this test once, participants were split into 4 groups. One group did it again immediately. Another group engaged in an attention-demanding task for 12 minutes. A third group engaged in a cognitively undemanding task for 12 minutes (basically just responding to a computer prompt asking if a number was even or odd). And a final group just sat quietly for 12 minutes.

The researchers then used an assessment to find out how much mind-wandering occurred during this “incubation” period, and found that the folks engaged in the undemanding task experienced significantly more mind-wandering than those who were busy with the demanding task.

Then the researchers had the participants repeat the same test.

Lo and behold, these folks who were in the undemanding task group – whose minds were doing the most mind-wandering – improved their scores by about 40%.

How did the others do?

None of the other groups improved their scores at all.

Take action

So the next time you run into a problem in the practice room (or elsewhere) that has you stumped, and you need new ideas to try, new approaches or solutions to implement, take a break.

Take a shower. Mow the grass. Wash the dishes. Fold laundry. Do something that uses some brain power, but not too much.

Don’t think about the problem directly, but just let your mind wander for a bit, then come back to your instrument after a little while.

When you return, maybe you’ll find that the solution was there the whole time. You just needed a little “creative pause.”

Just for fun

Need a break right now? Watch this awesome short film (<2 min, but you’ll probably watch it like 5 times). It’s funny at face value, but taking your wife’s drunk joke and turning it into art? That’s funny on a whole other level.

photo credit: CaptBrando via photopin cc

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17 Responses

  1. Great post. When I’m teaching and students are really struggling I like to get them to take a break (Play a song or some other fun thing). I normally do it when they are really close to getting something but are now getting further away from the goal. Who new there was scientific evidence to back up what I was doing as a good thing. I’m going to be sharing this as I think my students will appreciate it.

  2. I’ve found that whenever I’m not tired but am frustrated, playing whatever music I’m currently in love with helps immensely. It doesn’t necessarily have to be music written for viola, or even violin or cello. The music can be my own composition or the melody of a string quartet or a transcription of an art song or anything. It makes me a lot more motivated to practice and I play a lot more passionately if I play for fun.

    Thank you so much for this! I sometimes wonder whether my creative pauses actually make a difference or are just justifications of my laziness. I’m glad that there’s evidence in support of them.

  3. Very interesting post as I recently experienced this. I had been struggling with playing correct notes and tempo in a 2 measure section. Prior to a practice session, I had an discussion with my husband and my mind was still preoccupied with that discussion as I practiced. And that is when I finally played those 2 measures correctly!

  4. So true! When I’m trying to come up with lesson ideas or ways of solving a student’s practice problem, all my best thinking happens when I’m engaged in the mundane stuff – ironing, house chores etc. Driving is particularly good, it is very productive – it’s just a bit frightening to have arrived at your destination with no awareness of how you got there!

  5. I think that sending your brain in a new direction helps you get a new perspective on what you were doing before, like a sort of mental parallax. You can find a new way to approach something that was previously stumping you.

  6. Great article, as always. Perhaps it goes without saying that it is equally important to know when to take a break. This ‘skill,’ if not already achieved intuitively, or deliberately, requires some awareness as to when to initiate, (pause/break), in order to yield the best results. As noted in one of the comments, a skilled music teaches stated that, “I normally do it when they are really close to getting something but are now getting further away from the goal.” As always individual temperaments must be taken into consideration. Some students must ‘push’ longer or even ‘harder’ before they can prime their creative center/s to operate after taking a break. Other students may become exhausted or frustrated much sooner. As well, a break can take on many forms, generally: an active break; engaging in a physical form of ‘distraction;’ washing dishes, going for a walk, ect., or a cognitive break; walking away, pacing or sitting down, but thinking and/or visualizing the required keystrokes, fingering, ect., or some creative variation therein. No doubt, cognitive breaks can entail an endless range of ideation, the relevance and creative utility of which is possibly only useful to the individual at issue.

    Interestingly enough, I have often found that unintended breaks can be as useful as deliberate break. I find that bathroom breaks often contribute to some kind of enhancement in my musical practice, as well as other creative endeavors, not necessary problem solving, but a general enhancement in performance. I would also argue that one can take a kind of break during practice, or a performance. Yes, I know this is a stretch, but achieving a kind of flow during practice/performance, not initially at play, can be viewed as an unconscious or deliberate break from that, (intrusive thoughts, environmental distractions, ect.) which can frustrate our musical results.

    Trust me; I sometimes hesitate to share my opinions when they are perhaps not fully developed. Still, I speak largely from my particular experience and understanding. New and unique ideas, if grounded in actual knowledge, may yet appear unfounded. I realize that sometimes I take a kind of creative license in promulgating some of my ideas. I have often thought that I should wait at least a day, for the purpose of reviewing, and potentially editing my comments, before posting. I do not because I am willing to risk being wrong, even though every word is sincere. How else does one get to ‘the marrow of the bone?’ Agreeing of disagreeing is not the point. Engaging in the process of discovery is.

    1. Truly sorry. The last sentence should read, “Agreeing or disagreeing is not the point. Engaging in the process of discovery is.”

  7. This is one of the reasons why I practice in ~45 minute blocks most of the time. I also try to randomize (ish) my practice so that if something is frustrating me, it gets cycled off during my practice. Either way I plan breaks both for my mind and body. I hardly ever go a full hour of practice. I love when I’m already doing most of the things that you suggest via the research! Great article again, as usual.

  8. It’s lovely to hear the very natural state of self hypnosis at work here… We all go “under” tens of times a day, and it’s during these times when our conscious mind is distracted, that our subconscious mind steps in and does wonderful work. That’s why taking a pause to play something familiar and loved (ie: something that easily occupies the conscious mind) means that we can tap into our other resources .

  9. You know, it’s kind of interesting now that I think about it — this is one of the reasons why I like having the viola. I’m a pianist first and foremost; that’s my primary instrument, and I’ve been playing since I was a kid. With the viola, I’m definitely an adult beginner (only started a few years back). When I play the piano, I’m more at the 30,000′ level — composing, figuring out more advanced techniques, trying to work things out at a higher level just in general.

    And when I feel blocked at that or am having trouble, it’s so nice to pick up the viola and just worry about making a decent sound. Far from airliner altitudes, I’m only about a half-inch off the ground with that thing. And it’s nice to be … well, less intellectually invested. 🙂 I’m just enjoying being closer to the physics of the sound production, feeling the friction of the bow hair against the string, feeling it vibrate under my chin on the C string … just all that low-level stuff.

    And I often find that after I’ve let myself just make nice noises for a while, the pianistic tension of “Why can’t I find a decent way to get back to AbM while repeating that left hand motif?!” has bled off a bit, and I can get more done at the piano.

    Having two instruments, and being at such vastly different altitudes at each, almost enables them to function as venting valves for one another. When I get sick of killing myself to make one stupid note on the viola, there’s the piano and its handfuls of notes and massive structural capability. When I get lost in that complexity, there’s the viola waiting for me with its one-handcrafted-note-at-a-time simplicity. Even though both are musical instruments, I’m certain that there’s a valuable parallax that I get from them both, since I’m at such different levels on each.

    1. Janis, very useful comments, thank you. My primary instrument is the piano, but if I occasionally cycle to my electronic keyboard the different action felt during this ‘physical’ break somehow enhances my practice and problem solving when I return to the piano. Of course this is not the complete sort of break indicated in the article, thus raising the question, are ‘structured’ breaks of various kinds as useful for creative problem solving? Does remaining tethered to a creative problem during a break work as well as completely distancing oneself from a particular challenge? Now, I believe, we enter the realm of the complex; individual learning styles, the ‘level’ of the problem as perceived, habits and past practices with regard to creative problem solving, and certainly more elements figure in this question. As always musical grounding, in terms of preparation, will largely determine our ability to solve problems. Obviously, no amount of free or relaxed reflection, when away from ones instrument, can substitute for musical/instrument knowledge, with respect to solving musical problems. I believe that so-called structured break can be as effective as a more complete break for individuals with said preparation, as well as endurance and tenacity. That said, unconscious breakthroughs to creative musical problems are always potentially at play, if the mind is prepared. In essence, and again, I believe the result of grounding, allowing for more unconscious associations, are always at play, and more available to individuals with better preparation, such that less creative breaks are necessary to arrive at the same musical solution to particular performance problems. Complete breaks are still a vital key to creative problem solving, but must be viewed in a broader context; of individual ability and achievement.

    2. This is so funny! I’m a senior in high school and I’m getting ready to audition for college as a violist but I just started piano about 2 months ago. I feel the same way you do, simply in reverse!

  10. This is greate advice, but practice musically. That’s the key. If that nasty phrase has three notes, there are probably 20 variations you can do to make it make sense. practice is as musical as you let it be. it opens your ears up.

    1. Octavia, I really appreciate your comment because it is easy to get lost, or otherwise confused approaching a musical problem, or challenge, strictly adhering to its technical presentation. Of course the technical elements must be clearly understood, yet the musical result must be appreciated, if not anticipated, in order to actually play the piece in general, or specifically the part/s that is troubling. I have also noticed if students can sing the notes, they have an advantage when it comes to navigating musically the note played, or discovering how to create the necessary ‘flow’ of notes that constitute musicality. Connecting emotionally with the music is equally important. The more you actually like the piece, the greater is the emotional connection. Still, a musician must often learn to play musical compositions confidently that is not to their liking. This requires individual strategies, beyond the scope of my discussion.

  11. Very good post ! I always thought that i am the only one that have these feelings .However sometimes its very tiring when it happens to me , because the violin for me its the one of the most important thing in my life and i dont want to , always get guilty when playing . I am feeling more guilty just after i finished my grade 8 exam , because my teacher told me that from now on we are going to focus on the sonatas for creativity ,not like before , scales and many studies . However i still believe that i should do some other work apart the sonatas . I sometimes feel guilty that I am not practice enough for my level and that I am not that very advanced violinist , although i passed from grade 8 and i practice almost everyday.

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