I recently finished a six-month music therapy internship as part of finishing my undergraduate degree. During that time, I was working 40-50 hours a week, in what felt like a very demanding, and often very stressful, job. I also, so ambitiously, decided to apply for graduate schools in performance and play a recital.
Because one project is just never enough.
I made this decision, and at first it sounded just so awesome and exciting in my head. But it turns out that in reality, I had set myself up for a lot of potential problems. My job was super stressful, I was in a very intense atmosphere, and I had a lot of demands placed on me. Extra projects, a ton of music memorization, someone decided it would be a great idea for me to learn the harp, you know, typical music therapy stuff. I came home every day basically exhausted and most nights it was all I could do to make dinner and not zonk before 9pm.
It was time to do some serious 'make it happen' work.
In the past, I would've done this by losing sleep, pushing myself beyond wise limits, and letting my cortisol levels amp up into oblivion until I was one crazy coffee junkie.
But I didn't.
I really examined this. It was clear to me that the best path for me creatively was to go for grad school, even if it meant having to start the process while I was in internship. So bearing that in mind, I looked for the process that could most creatively nourish me while I pursued this path. And I learned a few things in the process.
The first thing I learned, which I seem to be learning over and over lately, is that we really don't need to practice as much as we think we do. I don't mean that in a "you're awesome and you don't need to work so hard" kind of way. I mean that in a "practice more efficiently so you can do more in less time" kind of way.
I didn't set goals. I didn't use timers or track how long I was even practicing. Each time I sat down to play, I had a very loose idea of what I wanted to get accomplished, and how much time I had, but I just played what it felt right to play, for as long as it felt right to do so. I think this might be an unusual style of practicing (if it isn't, please tell me all about your experience in the comments section below!), but it totally worked for me. There was no pressure, no stress, and I just played as I felt moved to play. After coming home from a long, very structured and task-oriented day, I needed this to really be able to tap into whatever creative energy was still left over.
And it turns out, I always got done exactly what, and how much, needed to get done. Some days this meant I only played scales for a few minutes (gasp!), and spent more time on rep, and some days it meant I spent more time on long tones and maybe didn't touch rep or excerpts. Because I was doing what felt right (and only what felt right), my creative voice was actively involved and I began to enjoy my practicing way more than ever before. It was actually relaxing and stress-relieving to come home from my day and spend some time with the oboe. I also listened to my body. Some nights, I really didn't have it in me to play. Not even for 10 minutes. And even though the dialogue in my head threatened to guilt me about it every single time, I listened to my body. If she said that she preferred some Netflix and a glass of wine that night, that's what I did.
Without really trying, this way of approaching my practicing allowed me to be much more productive during my practice times. Coming from this relaxed space, I didn't feel any stress to 'get things accomplished' and I could practice with patience and clarity. I also took advantage of my mornings. This helped immensely. Getting a good chunk of practice time in before I left for work in the morning made the idea of coming home and taking out my instrument feel way less overwhelming. It also gave my morning a really pleasant routine (once I got used to waking up well before the sun), and it felt really good to set off to work knowing I had already spent time my inner artist and done something good for my long-term creative process.
Did this whole thing actually work? Did I actually keep improving and growing? You may have to wait until my recital next month to find out for yourself, but I would say a resounding hell yes. My practicing has never felt easier, more productive, and more enjoyable. I had a number of people telling me I've never sounded better.
It's a hard reality that many of us artists don't have the luxury of spending all-day, everyday, just playing and creating. Whether it's because of school or work, it can be a challenge to really take care of your artistic work and feel like you're getting anywhere with it when things get so busy. But with a little creative introspection and experimentation, I think it's possible to find a way to prioritize what really matters to you and make it happen - without becoming a crazy coffee junkie.