You did it. You hit the wall.
*musicians everywhere gasp*
*off in the distance, a practice room laughs menacingly*
"The wall" is the moment where productive practicing ceases.
I’ve witnessed and experienced these “walls” in two main forms: distraction and drudgery.
Distraction is an evil that comes with a fast-paced society. It's the little monster that sits in the back of your mind reminding you all of all of the things you need to get done later. Or...if you’re like me, a few reps into your practicing, it's the little devil bringing pictures of that squirrel that you passed when you were walking down the streets of southern Georgia when you were in third grade.
Drudgery, however, is known for repetition to the point of no return. It’s throwing a toss, dropping it, standing up. Throwing a toss, dropping it, standing up. Repeat. It’s the eighth note run over and over. First you missed the G sharp. Next you miss the A natural. Now you’re missing the entire first line. Repeat. The first note is fast. The second triplet is slow. The tap after the accent is slightly lower than the tap after another tap but neither one is right and you need to meet in the middle by adjusting your fulcrum but not too much or you might overcorrect and play out of time which would throw off the entire flow of the following measure which you just spent twenty minutes correcting and you only have thirty more minutes until your next obligation so you have to fix this immediately but it just isn’t working. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
The most powerful tool a musician has is themselves. You are the artist. You are the creator of the music, the story, the lifelong impact for the audience, for your students. When you hit the wall, the thing that is going to get you out is you.
So how do you find you?
Cue the segment that everyone who knows (the slightly-hippie) me has been waiting for...the key to being present...positive self care.
If you struggle with being introspective, don't know how to become vulnerable with yourself, or you don't quite buy into the whole "tuning into your body and mind" thing, journalling is a great first step. Before you start making the excuses of time commitments or hating to write, hear me out. If you aren't writing inclined, you can make it simple. Before every practice session, write very specific goals (i.e. fixing the tone of the C in bar 34; getting 20 minutes of reps on triplet grids; memorizing the B harmonic minor scale). It's okay if you don't complete all of the goals, but by specifically naming them, your practice is more focussed and more efficient. (Efficiency allows less time in the practice room and more time for mental health.) At the end of your practice session, write down what you accomplished. You might have accidentally made something else better while working on the C in measure 34. Celebrate those little victories. Then, don't be afraid to expand this beyond your musical practice. Set small personal goals. Did you take the stairs? Did you choose kinder words? Could you switch one of those sodas out for a water? Could you call your mom today? You may be surprised at how much your little daily growths add up, and sometimes being able to see where you came from is exactly what you need to push through.
120 second break.
I discovered this technique while studying under a professor certified in The Alexander Technique at the University of Louisville. We don't often associate physical exhaustion with practicing, particularly when those days are spent sitting in a chair in a practice room. However, as days grow longer, our bodies begin to collapse on our spine. There are various detriments to the body's health as a result, but this 120 second break can help alleviate some of the stress. Stand with your feet comfortably shoulder-width apart. Over the course of 30 seconds, fold your body down piece by piece. Bring your head to your neck. Roll your shoulders forward. Let each vertebrate roll over from your upper back down to your hips. Let your arms hang towards the floor. Release every muscle. Be sure to engage your breath through the whole process. Focussing on your breath allows your mind to get away from the distractions and frustrations of your practice time. Once you have reached this position, simply hang and breathe freely for at least 60 seconds (we all have days where an extra few minutes is needed and totally acceptable). Take 30 seconds to reverse the process and roll back up. Again, it is important that you don't tense or hold any muscles. Your spine should feel stretched and free. Your body should be completely at rest, physically "reset" to begin practice again or move on to your next life activity.
for more information on other exercises and methods of the Alexander Technique, check out https://alexandertechnique.com .
An entire post in currently in the works about this little guy, but because I find it so important, I'm including it anyway. Drink more water. Think you already are doing a good job? Drink more. Mild dehydration can detrimentally impact our focus and cognitive function before the body even "feels thirsty." “Our thirst sensation doesn’t really appear until we are 1 [percent] or 2 percent dehydrated. By then dehydration is already setting in and starting to impact how our mind and body perform,” says Lawrence E. Armstrong, a lead scientist in the University of Connecticut study on Dehydration and Mental health (more information found here). So again I say, drink more water.