Constructive Vacations Away From Practicing

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.

I am fortunate to be able to spend this Christmas in Charleston, SC visiting my father. The weather here is mild, even for Charleston during this season. The temperature is a balmy 70 degrees, and a welcome break from the cold north.

I almost chose to leave my instrument behind to lighten my baggage. I ended up bringing it. But my family was incredulous that I even considered coming clarinet-less. Normally my clarinet goes wherever and whenever I go. However, that wasn't always the case.

Earlier in my career, I found that a week or more away from the clarinet improved coordination and overall control upon returning to practicing. Solutions to persistent problems suddenly became evident. Bad habits were less ingrained. Good habits were easier to assimilate.

Most teachers warn against any extended break from regular and studied practice. Many famous players chant the same tune. I believe it was Rostropovich who said, "If I miss one day of practice, I notice. Two days, and my wife notices. Three days and my neighbors notice."

The question arises. Do we risk losing a critical edge if away from the instrument for more than a day or two? I believe the opposite to be true. All types of practicers, from compulsive bingers to disciplined regulars, may experience a fresh sense of perspective and clarity about their goals and weaknesses after some time off. The body's repetitive stress injuries have time to heal; the mind can expand and visualize being a better player.

In general, practicing is only beneficial if done wisely. Hashing and hacking for hours daily without attention to form and focus will cause serious harm, not only to the body, but especially to the subtle muscular and neural habits required of fine playing. If practice habits have been sloppy or compulsive, a break will allow a fresh start with a clean slate. Bad habits, both in attitude and body, become evident during the first few minutes of returning to playing.

What of the case of the disciplined player with good, steady practice habits? A five to ten day separation from the instrument can benefit this type of player as well. All performers, even the most experienced and accomplished, encounter plateaus or rough terrain along the path to mastering an instrument. A short break can foster a major breakthrough upon return.

Of course, time away from practicing needs planning. A week long vacation just prior to a performance or audition potentially invites disaster. If extensive time away from the instrument is unavoidable, the player can "practice" away from the instrument through visualization and score study. In fact, silent study is constructive at any time. In fact, visualization interspersed with intensive hands-on sessions can turbo-charge progress in playing abilities.

The disciplined player, along with the compulsive practicer, is encouraged to take occasional "constructive" vacations from their instrument. During such times off, while basking in pleasant diversions, the musician may choose to avoid any thought of their instrument, or they may wish to visualize playing effortlessly with virtuoso bravura and confident expressiveness. I recommend the latter. You really are improving your playing!

As I write this, sitting outside on a screened porch, breathing mild air and listening to a gurgling fountain, I relish this break from playing. (I guess I didn't need to bring my instrument!) Even more, I relish the pleasant anticipation of returning to it with fresh vigor.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!

4 comments for “Constructive Vacations Away From Practicing

  1. January 1, 2009 at

    @jocelyn: COOL story, Jocelyn! I also noticed you seemed more connected to the instrument when we played the Rutter Magnificat. Brava.

  2. jocelyn
    December 31, 2008 at

    Oops, baby hit the send button! I totally put down the horn for 7 months, March whatever (Thaik recording) to October whatever (opera). I didn’t even take it out of the case exept to win a bet with Gene about playing the opening of the 4th movement of Symphonie Fantastique on natural horn as indicated by the composer. Anyhoo, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, because when I decided to play again in October I knew I could take it or leave it, but I wanted to take it (no jokes please), so I did. I recieved 3 positive comments about my playing in Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (not the greatest piece ever written)from people who’ve never said dick to me about my playing. But they said “something sounds different…” What’s different after that long time off is I own the horn and not that the horn owns me! I’m playing by choice again. Now if I can only overcome the CSO-related crap that comes along with the job. (playing 16 nutcrackers for $81.25 a pop SUCKED! but we need the $$ for the new house!) Play your instrument on your own terms!

  3. December 26, 2008 at

    Hi Bob- Thanks for the well wishes!! Best to you and your family.

  4. Bob Pfeifer
    December 26, 2008 at

    MERRY CHRISTMAS, DAVID! 23 degrees back in Columbus…but a balmy 55 and rain tomorrow. All the best to you and yours! Safe journeys!

Comments are closed.