Struggling with Practice Apathy? You Might Be Neglecting “Psychological Rest”

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If Buzzfeed is any sort of approximation of the world at large, it would seem that a lot of folks are spending their quarantines trying to level up their cooking/baking game or DIY skills in some way or another. 

Whether it’s making (and eating) boiled eggs, cutting a little cutout in the door for the cat, or grooming the dog, there are a lot of funny examples of people’s attempts to develop some new skills.

Of course, there has also been an understandable desire to level up in areas of our lives that are a little more important to us as well.

By finally working through that stack of rep on our shelf that we’ve never quite had the time for. Or simply practicing more and better. Which are meaningful and worthwhile goals, of course. But I think there’s a potential danger lurking here as well. Which is hinted at in this quote by Olympic marathoner Keith Brantly:

“Any idiot can train himself into the ground; the trick is working in training to get gradually stronger.”

I think we all recognize the importance of getting physical rest, so as to maximize recovery from long practice days, minimize our risk of injury, and avoid overtraining or burnout. 

But I don’t know that we put much of an emphasis on getting enough psychological rest. 

I mean, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to practice more effectively, and how to perform more effectively, but who puts any time into strategizing ways to rest more effectively?

Yet we’ve all experienced the consequences of insufficient psychological recovery – whether it’s that feeling of being fried after a long week of double rehearsals, practice, and performances, the “post-audition blues” following an intense couple months of audition prep, or feeling strangely tired and unmotivated at this particular moment in time despite getting enough sleep and feeling intense internal pressure to make the most of your time.

So…what is psychological rest exactly? And what specific things could we do to get more of it? (Spoiler alert: it’s a lot more interesting than simply getting more sleep.)

Psychological rest

Believe it or not, the topic of psychological recovery from training and competition hasn’t actually been studied very much. But a 2019 study (Eccles and Kazmier) of a top-5-ranked collegiate field hockey team gives us some clues as to what causes our inner Eeyore to dominate at times, and what we can do to keep our inner Tigger at the forefront instead.

What difference does it make?

The researchers were initially curious about what differences there might be when athletes were mentally rested compared to when they were mentally fatigued.

And the gist, is that mentally rested athletes reported feeling “fresh,” were more highly motivated to engage in their sport, willing to put in more effort, and enjoyed their sport more.

Meanwhile, mentally fatigued athletes described feeling “tired,” “looking forward to stopping,” and difficulty remembering why they bothered doing it in the first place.

Perhaps you’ve experienced these kinds of moments as well?

The challenge…

The difficulty, of course, is that while it’s pretty easy to figure out how to get physical rest (just take a break from training!), it’s not so clear what to do to get mental rest.

I mean, sure, sleep is one way. But during your waking hours, just because you’re not at rehearsal, or have decided to take a day off from practicing doesn’t mean that you’re not still dwelling on what the conductor said, or ruminating on all of the things that sounded bad in yesterday’s mock audition.

So what is one to do?

Well, the authors identified a few factors that tend to increase mental fatigue, as well as a few that seem to facilitate recovery.

A few things that increase mental fatigue (plus solutions)

Thing #1: Pressure to perform

The athletes’ responses suggest that the pressure to perform at a high level in both practice and competition can be a major source of fatigue – both mentally and physically. As was evident through quotes like “you are exhausted after a tough session and you’re also mentally tired because you’re trying to concentrate.”

Solution: Schedule rest days

Coaches did their best to schedule in rest days during the season. Days when athletes could catch up on schoolwork, or take a break from having to perform or train.

I think the same thing makes perfectly good sense for musicians, and reminded me of something that violinist Donald Weilerstein has suggested to some students – taking 24 hours off from practicing each week. 

* * *

Thing #2: Always being “switched on”

During the season, the athletes spent most of their days either a) in practice or other sport-related activities (e.g. film study, working out, meetings), b) thinking in terms of optimizing sport performance even when away from training (e.g. preparing meals to eat healthily), and c) engaged in social activities that involve teammates and coaches (e.g. talking about hockey outside of practice). 

Being constantly “switched on” like this can be draining! And not just because thinking about upcoming competitions can cause some anxiety, but because it can take a great deal of mental energy to constantly be thinking about your work and ways to improve.

Solution: Deliberately reduce the amount of time you spend thinking about music stuff (and reduce effortful thinking in general)

To “switch off” mentally, the athletes often engaged in “low-cognitive-demand activities” like watching TV or reading to get their minds off of hockey and training. They also made a point to  get away from teammates, stay away from locations that were associated with training (like the gym), and even avoid looking at things that would remind them of hockey (like their hockey sticks).

This makes me think of the saying “work hard, play hard.” Rather than practicing in a semi-focused way and staying semi-switched on all day, perhaps it’s better to go all in and practice with 100% intensity for a few hours, and then make sure to devote a certain number of hours to being 100% switched off as well?

* * *

Thing #3: Tedium

The athletes’ days were quite packed and rigidly structured, with very little freedom to vary their activities, and very little change in their daily routine from one day to the next (“same place, same time, all the time, all week”). After a while, this rigid structure and lack of variation seemed to wear on them and reduce their motivation to engage in hockey-related activities.

Solution: Change up your schedule from time to time

There’s certainly something to be said for having a routine. But it’s a different story if the routine begins to feel stale, and you find yourself simply going through the motions.

If that’s the case, change things up a bit – even in little ways. Because there’s something really refreshing about doing something that you know you wouldn’t ordinarily do on a normal day.

Like, maybe you’ve had the experience of heading towards the practice building, only to run into some friends who convince you to play frisbee out in the quad instead? Or spontaneously deciding to skip ear training to go eat lunch in the park with your significant other because you’re feeling pretty burned out, and it’s such a nice day out (not that I would know from experience, of course)?

Sometimes it’s not even the thing that you do, but the sheer novelty of doing something outside of your normal routine that can be revitalizing.

Final takeaway

All in all, the research in this area seems to suggest that needing to get away from it all on occasion doesn’t mean that you’re lazy, lack commitment, or aren’t serious enough. But on the contrary, taking the time to integrate periods of effective physical and mental rest into your daily and weekly routine may well be one of the keys to maintaining a schedule of consistently productive, fully engaged, and focused practice and performance.

Maybe it’s a little like LL Cool J once said – “You’ve got to stay focused without being boring – because all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Skinny, but dull.”

What are your go-to psychological rest strategies?

Our range of options for getting away or switching off may be a little more limited at the moment, but what are some activities or strategies that have helped you get psychological rest during quarantining? Please share below in the comments – and if your suggestions happen to be cooking or baking-related, could you share the recipe with us as well? I don’t know about everyone else, but my kids have been sending some pretty strong hints lately suggesting that they’re fed up with (ha! pun!) dad’s regular rotation of meals… =)

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.

Comments

24 Responses

  1. Have enjoyed your writing for a long time now. Thank you!

    Andrea’s Fruit Crumble!

    Preheat oven to 375 degrees

    Peel and core 1 ½ pounds apples (at least 4 large ones)
    Cook apples with 2 TBS brown sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon, and 2 TBS apple or orange juice (or any other juice you have around)

    Cook until the apples are soft but not mushy.

    Meanwhile, cut 1 stick of butter into ½ cup flour (white, whole wheat, almond meal, or mixed) until mixtures resembles crumbs. Mix in ½ cup oatmeal, ½ cup light brown sugar, and a pinch of salt

    Put apples into an oven-proof casserole dish and mix with 1 cup of blackberries, fresh or frozen. Spread crumble on top and bake for 30-40 minutes.

    Serve with ice-cream

    1. No cooking recipes, although my wife and I decided that we would alternate dinner mealsl and cleanup.
      We’ve been married for 54 + years. I have to take a break to make pancakes for breakfast! It’s Mother’s Day.Done.
      Biquick recipe but substitute water for milk.My wife and I returned to Canada, after spending time in California. Our son and daughter were “guiding” our decisions and plans.When we got home we had help for shopping etc, and the first two days were tough for me. We made lists of things to do, like clean up the garage, which btw is still not done. I went downstairs and picked up my bagpipes, as I hadn’t played for at least a week, ( long time for me). I felt at peace.
      On facebook a friend noticed a post where my wife had posted a picture.She requested a video.I was relcuctant at first , until I put things in perspective. I was thinking about other piers who might critique my play.I thought about pipers in war time playing during battle. I couldn’t imagine anyone thinking ” I hope I don’t crunch my doublings.” I ‘ve had great neighbourhood support and it reaffirmed what I already knew. Music is meant to be shared, in all forms Live music, is well..live and any musician knows words can be forgotten, and mistakes made.I watched and listened to kitchen parties in Nova Scotia, contributed some videos. I learned to zoom and am teaching piping via zoom as well as staying connected to a band in California through Zoom.I am starting to ramble , so I am of to do some fun things, anything but clean up the garage.

  2. Watching comedy, whether stand-up or a sitcom, is great for psychological rest. Laughing is a wonderful thing. Also I apologize if this is a dumb, but where is the pun in the kids being “fed up” with the usual rotation of food?

      1. well, you know, “fed up” with “food”….mildly amusing at best, but honestly I’ll take what I can get these days!

  3. Although I have played the piano for 55 years, I am a fledgling organist, on staff at a local church and playing a wonderful 1971 Reuter pipe organ for the past three years. With the advent of coronavirus stay at home orders, we have been videotaping worship with me at the organ for prelude, communion piece, and postlude. Talk about pressure–knowing my playing is captured on YouTube is daunting and exhausting. Thankfully, my pastor agreed to give me a Sunday off, and having read your article, I have a chance to apply these great suggestions to my life. I appreciate the information very much. Thank you!

  4. These days my practicing apathy is mostly caused by having all my normal rehearsals, lessons, etc cancelled. I had been finding it difficult to practice because it felt like there was nothing to practice for. So, I started giving “front porch concerts”. About once a week, weather permitting, I play for people from my front porch. I put a sign on my mailbox, email a few people, and use social media to let people know that a concert is coming. People listen from the street or my driveway. Some sit in their cars, some get out, some bring folding chairs. I’m not playing anything difficult: light classical, old time songs, Christian hymns, Celtic tunes. It means a lot to me, because each week I add a few new songs and take out some I’ve been playing for a while. It means a whole lot to other people, since I am sharing live music, which is something that is missing from our lives right now.

    1. This sounds awesome, Sheryl. I love the image of some folks sitting in their cars, others with folding chairs, etc. Reminds me of folks picnicking on the lawn outside the tent at the Aspen music festival or drive-in movies back in the day, just spaced out more to adapt to the times…

    2. As a coach accompanist working with opera singers I found it really a lot of fun to do two things that I don’t normally do: one is to start learning some new pieces. Short but not easy: Saudades do Brasil, by Milhaud; tango-flavored and polytonal….AND to go back and relearn the Chopin Barcarolle; one of the most challenging pieces I played as a soloist before starting my career in Opera. The fun part and also the challenge is that I don’t play technically the way I did when I learned that piece 30 years ago. I’m much more efficient and confident in my technique and I use a lot of harmonic analysis to anchor my memory. So I’m reteaching myself how to play it using my accumulated wisdom and perspective of my present day self!

  5. I’m an amateur musician but I switch up my routine – walk (or run for variety) different routes each day. A cold shower if I’ve really hit apathy / feeling down or anxious. Have started playing my drums on the doorstep once per week and am trying to get a group of neighbours together to perform some music (at a distance) from each other, in the street once a week. Even though I get nervous playing in front of people (a real amateur!!) Building a community is good. Online too. Helping others gets me out of my head / ruminating. Yeah – novelty or variety is totally key to staying motivated. Love to ya all from West Sussex, UK.

    1. Very cool – I wondered if there might be neighboring musicians who had found a way to collaborate at a distance. Like if next door neighbors could play duets or something. 🙂

    2. That’s awesome Kath!
      I’m an oboist so sadly I can’t play outside and I don’t think my neighbors would ever participate in music but that’s such a fun idea.
      I used to be a gymnast but now in high school marching band I never really get that same feeling of satisfaction from being athletic enough or feeling good about my fitness (though I am heading into my third year as Drum Major so my arms are definitely strong and I’m still a very fit and strong person physically). But with this break, I’ve been able to get outside on a regular basis and bike (for the first time in years!!) and walk and workout which have helped me to really be feeling good enjoying my days a little more.
      Doing this at 7pm when it starts to cool down (as I live in sunny Florida) really motivates me to do my practicing around 12 when there’s light out and I can do as much practicing without being too tired and then my nights are free to be active which I enjoy!
      Having exercise as a way to take a break from both music and online school has been really great and I’m looking forward to continued growth as a musician as well as a person in mental and physical fitness! =)
      *also thank you to the team of people and whoever helps to put together all these podcasts and emails with information! I’ve really enjoyed all the topics and lessons I’ve been learning on how to practice/perform better as well as taking care of myself inside and outside the practice room. Thanks!

  6. OMG, I thought this was just me. Thanks Noa. I just haven’t been able to face practicing. My orchestra season is cancelled and who knows what will happen in the fall. So, I have been working on a doll house I’ve had for years, but never had time to work on. I’ve painted, sanded, learned to use tools, put up wall paper, made parquet floors, rugs, repaired furniture, made sculptures, embroidered, visited my childhood, and been able to lose track of time. I’ve unleashed creativity I didn’t know I had and found a new joy. BTW, my adult student is a nurse in a hospital. I have a whole new perspective working with her now. I’ve tried to be sure to help her enjoy her music. She needs the joy and respite music can give her, something we all need to remember.
    Thanks for all you do – you have your finger on the pulse of the music community all over the world and help us all.

  7. I knock on my roommates door, and do some knitting while she does some sewing, and we listen to audio books or talk about all kinds of things (mainly how to find the perfect boyfriend). It’s a fun way for me to wind down and make something useful or pretty at the same time.
    Knitting reduces stress and lowers blood pressure, so I recommend buying some yarn and needles (or hook if you’d rather crochet) and asking Youtube anything you want to learn!:)

  8. My Netflix viewing tastes run towards the intense. On the silly side, end-of-the-world stuff like ‘Exploding Sun’ and ‘World War Z’, and on the non-stupid side, the Ken Burns documentary on the Viet Nam war.

    A strategy that does help me ease up is to draw inspiration from the Viet Cong — the most resilient people in history with an utterly mind-blowing legacy. In a decades-long challenge, they drove out the French colonizers via their unforeseeable, unimaginable tactics and superhuman logistics. Then they went ‘Next Level’ to drive out the ‘what were we thinking?’ Americans. As if that wasn’t enough, the Viet Minh then went into Cambodia to destroy Pol Pot and end the genocide of the Khmer Rouge.

    Especially in Fortress America, we can be such a bunch of untested children. “Oh, I can’t go to the movies. No sun-bathing this summer.” Nothing I’ll have to do to survive in the next several years remotely compares to what the Viet Minh did in their amazing liberation campaign. Assuming I can avoid a ventilator, my lifestyle adjustments feel so light-hearted by comparison.

    I actually dreamt I was in Viet Nam a couple of nights ago, it was a good dream.

    1. Ah, yeah. Remembering to have a little perspective is about the best stress reducer I can think of. Thanks for the reminder!

  9. Great topic as usual. My struggle is more knowing “when” rather than “how” to rest.

    Part of the reason I seem to struggle is the perceived “costs of stopping / switching” associated with many activities. Examples of these costs with practicing might include getting your instrument out, tuning and warming up, etc.

    Factoring in those costs, the question becomes at what point is the value of taking a break greater than the cost of stopping and restarting. And, answering that question “honestly” may be the trick, given the tendency to rationalize decisions like this.

    I tend to try and “power through” without rest for too long – undervaluing rest – and struggle to 1. recognize that my performance is decreasing / impaired; 2. giving myself permission to stop; 3. getting the right amount of rest.

    That said, I’m not a musician and playing music is one way I rest and recover from my real job. Thanks.

    – Enthusiastic amateur seeking excuses

    1. I think I came across a study some time ago which suggested the key is to pay attention to when you are no longer able to focus and remain productive in your practice, at which point it’s time to take a break. Which of course probably varies a bit from day to day and session to session.

  10. I’m just an (aged) intermediate beginner, piano, working on Bach Inventions, preludes. Can’t tell you how validating this post is for me! I’ll re-read it over and over in the coming days. I can’t see my teacher, so, although it’s been a good time to work on all those little knots, the “not there yet” places, my energy flow stalls at times. I need to do this more, but just letting myself disconnect from those knots and run out to the garden, putz around with dirt and plants, is magic. I find that looking at screens makes me more exhausted, so aside from the garden, I do sudoku, which, for me, is totally relaxing, a mini-vaca from everything. I zoom yoga 4 times a week which gives a basic calming structure to the week and helps with the piano burnout. Oh, sometimes I call an easy laughing friend in mid-practice to raise spirits. I just this morning did a metaphor activity in the middle of practice–washed a window so now we can see clearly… Well, thanks so much for this wonderful post. (healthy comes next)

    Black Bean Chili Serves 2 for 2 nights Need huge pot, or cut recipe in half

    Marinate thinly sliced red onion in lime juice (from a bottle!)
    whole day, hour, 10 minutes, whatever.

    Soak 1 lb black beans overnight, then drain and cook well.

    Drain beans, measure out 6-7 cups for recipe into huge pot. I freeze the rest for use in salads.

    Add:

    Large can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
    1 heaping tblsp. DARK chili powder*
    Smoked paprika and smoked black pepper*
    Garlic, hot pepper flakes?
    Little oil
    Salt?

    Cook with lid on maybe 20 minutes or more
    Add little water as needed—should end up not too soupy—can cook with lid off at end as needed

    Serve in big bowls with:

    Lime juice (bottle!) (lots) (the magic, can use less salt)
    Cut up handmade tortillas (plain) or chips (in the bowl)
    Avocado and the marinated onions
    Sour cream (Daisy light)
    Hot sauce?

    * https://wholespice.com/dark-chili-powder.html

    I hate to tell you these specific products, but they make a big difference, esp. dark chili powder.
    It is available in some stores.

  11. I’m a high schooler and aside from taking quite a few AP/honors classes, I play viola competitively, run Cross Country (low Varsity), do community outreach for environmental issues, run my school’s Calligraphy Club… I do many things. And I’ve figured out I need to get 9+ hours of sleep per night to stay healthy and balance things, so I’ve been doing that, too. I’m almost always “turned on”. I’ve been trying to figure out how to work mental rest into my days – here are a couple ways I’ve figured out.

    I set aside at least 30min every day after my classes to meet with my friend group. Oftentimes I wouldn’t say much – I would just sit, listen and laugh. It was a period of rest built into my day.

    Other times I would spontaneously visit my best friend (if she wasn’t too busy, of course haha) and we would spend some time together simultaneously working on schoolwork and catching up on each other’s lives.

    Every Sunday I go running with one of my closest friends. She’s just taken up running this year, so we don’t go too fast. Most of the time we end up spending much more time together than either of us planned. We often get bubble tea afterwards.

    Especially after the last two things I’ve mentioned I feel so refreshed. I smile so much, and feel so much more inspired.

    For some reason, I love going to the city spontaneously, alone, and by bus at night to see concerts. I found out about this amazing program that lets you get into almost every professional arts venue for only $5. It’s beyond amazing. Around every other week this spring I would go and see the symphony or chamber music. The experience is always so helpful to me as a musician and I get a ton of great tips from watching the professionals perform, but it also packs in a good amount of mental rest. You never know what slightly eccentric thing is going to happen on the bus, or who you’re going to sit next to at the concert. I’ve had some extremely interesting experiences going to concerts in this way. I can always rest when going to concerts, too – both on the bus and at the concert. Zone out on the bus watching dark cityscapes roll by, or nod off and let your mind wander as you listen to some wonderfully ringy Beethoven piano sonatas…

    I always try to read your articles because I’m always looking for new ways to balance my hectic life. This one especially hit me. I went through a particularly hard section of the year and afterwards, to “rest” I let myself put in less effort to school and viola, but ended up cutting out the truly restful activities mentioned above (or at least, paid attention to them less). I ended up barely making due dates and had almost no inspiration to play viola. I think I was doing that semi-turned on thing you mentioned. I think I did it because that’s what the people I know who don’t seem too tired but casually get what they need to done do. I guess my previous method might have actually been more restful. Maybe this is one of the reasons why I got so much done before.

    As always, thanks for sharing this with us ^-^

    1. This sounds great Phoebe. You appear to have cultivated a very full and meaningful high school experience for yourself! One of the keys to me is that you seem very open to and engaged with the world around you – like ah green running with your friends, with people on the bus next to you, or the landscape, as opposed to catching up on emails, etc. and not being as fully present for the experience.

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