Pre-Performance Apathy (or the Importance of Mentally Disengaging From Work and Practice)

I spent most of my life as a chronic under-practicer. So the experience of practicing too much was uncharted territory…until the time in grad school when I crammed for a competition.

There was plenty of time for me to learn and polish all the rep, but it was several rounds of music, and I waited far too long to get serious about my preparation. Several months out, I knew I was in a bit of trouble.

So for once in my life, I cranked it up to 11 . I forced myself to practice way more than normal. When I wasn’t practicing, I was listening to the music. When I wasn’t listening, I was mentally rehearsing the rep. When I wasn’t engaged in mental practice, I was worrying, stressing, or thinking about it.

I ate, slept, and breathed music, the intensity of my preparation only increasing as the competition drew nearer.

When the week finally arrived, I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I needed a break. I wondered what would happen if I pulled out even before it began.

The first round came and went, and when I found out that I had advanced to the second round, I experienced an odd mix of feelings.

A part of me was obviously excited to advance, but a bigger part of me wanted it to be all over. I still remember vividly the sense of overwhelm I felt at the idea of having to prepare for the second round. I cared a great deal, yet I felt a strong sense of apathy.

I thought it was just me being weird, but in the years since, I’ve heard others describe a similar sense of apathy before big auditions and performances. Or afterwards, having difficulty getting back in the practice room, despite feeling guilty and anxious about not doing so.

Indeed, a musician’s work is never done. Whether we are preparing for concerts, auditions, or competitions, there is always more we can do. There’s always something at stake, and we’re generally working under some kind of time pressure too – all of which can be pretty stressful.

So does this mean that some degree of apathy and burnout is inevitable?

Work hard, play hard?

A group of German and US researchers conducted a study of 109 individuals. The setup was pretty simple, consisting of two surveys, spaced 4 weeks apart to see how participants’ mental and emotional states might change over time.

The researchers were primarily interested in the relationship between psychological detachment (our ability to disengage from work during our “off” hours – a key factor in greater well-being and performance), exhaustion (feeling fatigued, emotionally drained/overwhelmed, and unable to meet the demands of our work), time pressure, and pleasurable leisure activities (the degree to which we engage in activities that recharge our batteries and balance out our work demands).

There were a couple interesting findings that came out of the resulting data.

1. Exhaustion begets exhaustion

You would think that emotionally exhausted folks would be more detached and disengaged from work in their off-work hours. Paradoxically, the opposite seems to be true.

The data suggest that individuals who were exhausted had an increasingly difficult time disconnecting from work concerns as the weeks went by. The idea being, when we’re exhausted, we tend not to do our best work, which makes us feel less capable of meeting the demands of the situation, which makes us worry more and expend even more energy, effort, and time trying to make up for our sub-par work, which only keeps the cycle of worry/practice/exhaustion going.

To use a music example, when we have a big audition coming up, there’s a tendency to worry more about our level of preparation, which leads us to practice more, worry more, and obsess more, which in turn makes it harder to disengage, take a break, and recoup our energy outside of the practice room, so we can dive back in refreshed, recharged, and ready to do our most productive and focused work.

Indeed, someone recently suggested to me that while our instinct when behind in our work is to put in a few extra hours at the office after work to catch up, what ends up happening is that we get home late, feel even more tired and drained, get less rest and relaxation, and return to work tired yet again to repeat the cycle. Instead, she suggested that it’s more productive to go home early, get quality R&R, and go to work early the next morning, fresher, more productive, and more motivated to get things done.

2. Time pressure makes things worse

The other finding was that time pressure seems to make detaching from work more difficult if you’re already feeling exhausted. As in, exhausted folks find it increasingly difficult to mentally detach from work and get the mental/physical break they need when they feel like they’re on a time crunch.

This makes sense too, as the less time we have to prepare, and the closer we get to the day of a big audition, the more likely we are to worry, stress, and obsess about it, even when we’re not practicing.

Take action

So what’s the take-home message?

The researchers suggest that in the long run, it’s important to disengage and mentally get away from our work on a regular basis. That going for a run, a walk on the beach, dinner with friends, a nap, a game of tennis, etc., is an important part of maintaining our well-being and performance.

Not eating, sleeping, and breathing music 24/7 doesn’t mean you’re not taking your preparation seriously. Done deliberately, it actually means that you are. That you’re intentionally disengaging from work, recharging your batteries, and doing what you need, so you can approach your practice time with a full tank of enthusiasm and focus.

Maybe it means taking a few guilt-free days off (or even longer) after a particularly stressful and intense period of time preparing for a big audition. Or going on vacation without your instrument. Or setting aside 24 hours per week as sacred no-practicing-allowed time.

I’m curious about this apathy phenomenon – have you ever experienced this before or after a big audition or performance?

Additional reading

Sport psychologist Jim Loehr describes mental toughness not as simply gutting it out and pushing through challenges, but knowing how and when to recoup our energy too. If you’re interested, there’s more about this in his book, New Toughness Training for Sports.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


19 Responses

  1. Yes! I love your articles. All really do relate to musicians and even students. This article really applies to musicians who are practicing a lot every day. I can’t imagine someone burning out on practicing ONE hour per day or less, like some of the beginning students. It’s hard to imagine practicing 11 hours per day, and I think I only made it to 8 or 9, splitting the sessions up, going to the music room at the school so as not to disturb anyone late at night, taking breaks with a friend who was there late practicing too, until 2 AM. However, Jakob Gimpel used to require 6 hours per day of his students. Burn out is a definite obstacle. Sometimes it seems better to get in a steady 4-5 hours per day as one ages. Thanks for the wonderful articles. I’ve burned out, meaning apathy. Who cares if I do this at all? Ok, God gave me a talent, but so what? I don’t care any longer. And it’s best to guard against this, but if you miss ONE day of practice at 4 hours per day, at least, I try to warm up my fingers, play technical exercises, like on a teaching day. Also, walks in between practicing a couple hours at a time, really help.

    1. Good points, Cheyl, I agree with all that you and Dr. Noa say.
      As a performing violinist I’ve experienced another phenomenon, both on myself, and on other performers: that of a lead-weighted, heavy tiredness just right before a performance.
      And whilst it is gone by the time you go onstage, I wonder what the factors for this tiredness are. Is it just part of ‘nerves’, -in essence a fear-based response, manifesting itself in a kinaesthetic way as weakness? And does it have, in certain circumstances, anything in common with the above-mentioned apathy?

  2. My bass professor preached to us in the studio 6 days of practice with a minimum of 4 hours each day and a 7th day of rest. It was really effective in keeping one goal-oriented. Thanks for the article and I’m in complete agreement with the study’s findings.

  3. I take a day off from practicing after a performance, or once a week if I don’t have any performances, whenever possible, and a whole week off once or twice a year at the end of the concert season. When I was in school, my “day off” meant practicing only 3 hours. Once I graduated, I found that I couldn’t get my errands and housework done unless I took the whole day off!

  4. Uh huh, this definitely resonates with me though dread might be a better word than apathy. The feeling is easily confused with garden variety performance anxiety, which makes things even worse.

    Of course, this points out how cramming for an important musical event is such a bad idea. There’s no way you’ll walk in the door with the sense of ease and mastery that doing your best really requires.

    Even routine performing can lead to a similar state of affairs. It’s increasingly rare for a freelancer to find well paying employment, so he/she is compelled to accept a string of marginally profitable gigs that never seem to let up. Burnout ensues.

    It isn’t long before you forget all about why you love playing music in the first place. The art, the sense of playfulness and discovery is gone. It just becomes stressful work that pays badly and makes you wonder why you invested so heavily in your education.

    One must protect against this sort of thing by crafting a life that cultivates a love of your art. This won’t happen by accident. It involves making music on your own terms, which may or may not be compatible with putting a roof over your head and food on the table.

  5. This discussions reminds me of one of my favorite excerpts from the Tao de Ching:

    “Better to stop short than fill to the brim.
    Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.
    Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.
    Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.
    Retire when the work is done.
    This is the way of heaven.”

    Particularly those last two lines – it took me until long after grad school to really learn how to disengage and recharge those batteries properly. Obsessing and worrying over your days work is NOT productive, and you CAN burn yourself out by over-preparing! Retire when the practice day is done!!


  6. DEFINITELY have experienced this before! I can remember a specific time where I was worried about a particular solo for a sunday morning service and instead of going to bed early and trusting in my talents, I chose to stay up late the night before and iron out this killer solo. Well of course, I was exhausted the next morning and suffering apathetic feelings from over-practicing. Was really bummed, should have just left well enough alone.

  7. To answer your question- yes I get pre-performance apathy that usually goes away before I get on stage. My apathy goes further than described above though, as I often find it hard to get the motivation to practice for something when it is difficult and I think I might fail. It’s like I’d rather fail knowing I didn’t try my best than failing after trying my best.

  8. Definitely relate to the desire to quit before the competition, even if it would mean all the work put into preparing would be wasted. I had that when preparing for NYO auditions my junior year. Eventually, I scared myself into thinking that I had no chance at getting in anyway, and didn’t submit my audition after months of hard preparation. I guess I was afraid that after giving it my all for so long, I would find out that my all wasn’t good enough.
    I’ve more or less gotten over that now, but sometimes during extremely busy times I catch myself wanting to just give up on whatever goal I’m working so hard for, just so that I can go back to my usual feelings about music, where I’m learning repertoire simply because I love learning, and practicing because I just want to sound better for the sake of it. Stressful deadlines can really suck the fun out of things.

  9. I asked myself a moment the question of how to get obsessed. Maybe the “best” musicians are the laziest. We have to have an hermeneutic sight-reading and we have to do lots of little recordings. We have to know the reason of a deeper engagement and we have to experience stress during our practice sessions too because it helps us to do our best. Writing as well as practicing should have this role of translating what is beyong words. Today I experienced a lot of stress during writing personal stuff and during practicing because I realised that I wanted to be finished with writing or practicing because I was dependent on the words I wrote, of the notes I played because it was to with the only purpose of forgetting it or this person for whom I did that, to be done with it. We should done practice too long. We should not be impressed by those who have a large musical biography because if we want we can ask to who ever musicians in the world to play for us as a soloist.

  10. And I was dependent on every notes I played, every words I played because behind my writing, playing today I was there wanting to get rid of something called always being weak of what we can’t rid of. I wanted to write, I wanted to practice, all my life was in the moment in the words or in the notes, the latter ones played, written because I wanted that the lesser of words, of sounds, notes produced made me forget about that thing, or that music piece that was a kind of pain because for me, it was not solved, I really considered it as a problem because it did not responded, it remained a music sheet without answer to my attempts of playing it, translating it, talking to it. I had to play the notes, or write the words that would free me. And I did. Yes, I considered every new note as maybe the end of the work, because once it would be played, it would be played. I actually wanted it to be the last. The words that I wrote in my writing work today — I know what they are– and my act of emotional detachment regarding the thing confusing me interfered in my instrument practice today. Outpouring of emotions today. The words, the notes today really served the purpose of freeing me. And I didn’t practice that much. But I learnt something in my writing that I transfered into practice. And in that kind of practice I should always have an emotion or several irrigating my work. Yes, it was with a beating heart in response to stress. And I did not practiced too much. Thank you

  11. After reading the blog and the above discussions, all I can say is that you can never quit before reaching the goal but, you have to take breaks in the meanwhile. Quitting is one thing and waiting for the right time to strike is another, we must not mix them together. Here the author has pushed on addressing the unnecessary mental stress and fatigue people exert upon themselves.

  12. Good article. I think in the jazz world, as I am in, it is a different set of criteria for a good performance. Fundamentals – time, intonation, tone are all important but being awake and refreshed is really very helpful for a performance or practice. And I think improvised music is more stimulating to the mind.

    Jazz players have to listen to their bandmates, process, react, compose and arrange on the spot on time and in tune while striving for tone. Being rested helps in that area much more than super practiced. The brain is very involved and burning calories like crazy. A little, and I mean very little coffee (for me) can help sharpen a well rested brain and mind. Of course most of my work is at night. Fatigue is a big detriment.

    As far as wanting to quit I empathize with Bill Alpert. I got burned out, even in a fairly visible group of high notariety, got disgusted with just how little I made and turned to other talents to make money. In the end though I realize music moves me the most. Went back to school at 61 and earned a Masters in Music. I know how to survive, and just like one good golf shot will kept me coming back for more, one good gig can be really inspiring. Had one last night.

    I try not to take gigs that are just cranking out the usual but even in NYC with great players it can get to be boring. I try to rise above it by playing stronger so that no one can say I am phoning it in. Sometimes going for something that is a stretch has more entertainment value than being conservatively perfect. Fundamentally we are entertainers.

    In the end, some days you get the bear, and some days the bear gets you.

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