Friday, August 16, 2013

Knowing when to take time off

Back in my conservatory days, my piano teacher Michael Ruiz was very firm in his belief that one should practice every piece during every practice day. This is an approach that I still cling to, and, for each of my practice sessions, I make an effort to touch each piece that I'm working on--even if only for a few minutes. By using my daily goals, I can map out what it is I hope to achieve that day. One advantage of this approach, of course, is that everything remains at the forefront at all times.

This approach might seem like a disadvantage. Because I work on everything every day, I am limited to how much I can handle each day. Wouldn't it be nice to be working on more music? This approach, however, assures a kind of self-censorship, and it keeps me from biting off more than I can chew.

I don't recall my teacher discussing when to take time off. Time off is a really healthy thing, and we musicians can become unhealthily obsessed with our work. When I entered Yale, I was used to practicing nearly six hours a day. But when it came time to dole out the practice room schedule, my teacher Richard Rephann said three hours per person would probably be enough. I was shocked! Maybe Richard was telling us something about quality over quantity. At that time, three hours a day felt like nothing, and I must have felt that I was on permanent vacation. 

Since then, I've come to respect the need for a day or even days without practice. At the
A nice practice room.
moment, I seem to have gravitated towards a schedule of two really intense practice days and then a day off. If I aim for three really intense days, I find that I'm pretty beat by the third day, and I don't practice as well. If I'm in that sort of situation, I might use the third day to play through my music more for enjoyment than for intensive study.


Once the academic year recommences, my schedule becomes such that I will be forced to have days away from the instrument. I'll also have concerts, and these can force mandatory intensive practice on days that I would rather have off.

The pianist Arthur Rubinstein is attributed to the comment that if he missed a day of
practice, he noticed; if he missed two days, the critics noticed; and if he missed three days, the audience noticed. If I'm preparing a recital, I turn to Rubinstein's wisdom. I never like to take time off when a recital is just a few days away.

But when working in the early stages of memorization, I don't think that one needs to be so dogmatic. In fact, time away from the instrument helps music grow internally. It also helps to rekindle the passion for the repertoire. 

I'm writing this post on a day off. Yesterday, my work on the third movement of Bach's D minor Concerto went very well--so well, in fact, that I imagined it would be ready to go within a week or so. Last night, I woke up around 1am, and, as a means to help me fall back to sleep, I started mentally working my way through that movement. Before I fell asleep again, I got hung up somewhere around my L landmark, and I realized that the piece still needs more mental work with the score before I can run the entire movement in my mind.

When I return to practice tomorrow, you can be assured that I will be strongly motivated to fix that L landmark. My day off was planned before my sleepless memory lapse, but having this day off is helping me to process any impatience I have in the learning of the Bach. Being away from the instrument today is making me excited about tomorrow's practice session. Indeed, I'm even getting excited as I write about it! The Bach is close, but forcing the issue by working in a dogmatic, non-stop way is not going to get me to where I need to be. A day off is a nice tonic.


Do you take days off? How often? What's your practice schedule like? Leave your comments here!