It's almost Thanksgiving Break, which means that for students the rest of the semester is going to be intense. Even more so for student musicians, because we've had to negotiate our time around midterms and academic work as well as concerts and high expectations -and right about now is the time we experience burnout.
It doesn't have to be that way, and it is completely possible to stay on top of everything during the semester and feel like you're doing your best, while also continuing to feel inspired.
I'm not going to lie -this lifestyle is stressful. It's hard to balance music with school and everything else I do, but I thought I would share a few things that help me.
1. Don't forget to make time for yourself.
Being a musician is like being a professional athlete that also has to be able to create sonic artwork at the drop of a hat. It can be overwhelmingly stressful, and easy to forget why you began making music in the first place. Give yourself time to do things you enjoy. Things that remind you who you are, and don't cost money. Extra points if it has nothing to do with music. I schedule in a free day each week to not practice or think about school, and I also schedule in things throughout my week that I enjoy (like yoga, meditation, or walks). Think about what makes you happy, and try to do something small for yourself every day.
2. Make two playlists.
I have two playlists of classical music available on my phone at all times. One is a running list of music that I'm working on in orchestra, so that I can listen while I have a free moment. I try to have several different versions of each piece to refer to, so that I don't get just one way of doing it stuck in my head, and if I have extra time I can easily score study while I listen. This helps tremendously with not feeling overwhelmed, because from the first rehearsal of each concert cycle: at the very least I already know how my viola part goes, and how it fits into the texture of the piece. It's not too late in the semester to get into the habit of doing this.
The second playlist is a running list of classical music that reminds me why I do what I do. Just having this list keeps me motivated to listen to recordings and continue discovering new pieces. It helps me find inspiration in moments where I'm tired of everything I'm working on.
3. Sit down and make a list of everything that needs to get done this week.
When I'm feeling overwhelmed and burnt out, I find that making a game out of it works better than trying to micromanage. I make a long list of everything, and if it's a list of every academic thing I need done before the end of the semester, sometimes that alone is enough motivation to just do it so I only have to worry about practicing from then on. Regardless, instead of scheduling what to do I put it in my calendar after I finish that task. I include the time it took for me to complete it, and cross it off my long list. For some reason, I get a much bigger sense of achievement when I do that. If you're feeling stuck, it's definitely worth a try.
4. Try scheduling in blocks of time.
I sit down once a week and plan out how to make 4hrs of available practice time a day, but adjust that based on what I have going on. I only schedule practice times when I know I'll be able to focus. Instead of feeling rushed to learn something, I use the majority of my practice time to work on technique, and feel comfortable with sections of my repertoire under tempo (or doing metronome work). I like to focus on spots, while interleaving different passages (see last blog post for more info). I try to find creative solutions to things I'm struggling with. At the end of my allotted time, I run through what I've worked on and decide what to focus on next time I look at this piece. I record myself at least once a week to keep myself honest. Because of this general strategy, I don't get stressed because I know this is the best environment for me to learn.
5. Motivation isn't the answer
I know many people that only practice when they are motivated, or believe that successful people are motivated all the time. Instead of searching for a way to stay motivated, give yourself space to enjoy what you do. If you're beginning to feel that you're not enjoying what you do, reflect on that feeling. Is it because you didn't give yourself enough time to practice this week? Are you bored of the repertoire? Did you practice when you 'just didn't feel like it' or did you give up? Are you ruminating over something that didn't go great in a performance? I know from personal experience that I stay passionate about what I do when I have time to prepare for things, and also time to reflect on my successes. I don't believe in failures -only learning experiences, and I view stress as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. If I give myself time, and shift my view of the situation to something positive, that is so much better than motivation because I can create it and it's sustainable.
6. The only person that can determine your self-worth is you
Don't let others (teachers, conductors, colleagues, etc.) make you feel like you aren't worthy, because whatever you're doing isn't at their standard. Each of us has completely individual needs and is on our own path. If you are setting aside enough time to practice, and are discovering the way you best retain information, then you are doing the work. Your teacher is there to supplement what you do, not offer the only way at finding success. Stay in your own lane and don't compare yourself to others. Be your own best advocate, and don't hold on to anything that doesn't serve you.
7. Take care of yourself
If you don't get enough sleep then it won't matter how much work you're doing. Don't be afraid to ask someone for help if you are struggling mentally or physically. Always put your health first.
Let me know what you think! Is there something you do that helps you stay on track when things get hectic? Did you try any of my suggestions, and how did they work out for you? Questions? Thoughts?