Why do musicians find it unacceptable to take a break?

I experienced some pain in my left hand yesterday after working on some cello exercises and studies. It wasn’t particularly severe, but I decided to stop playing and have the day off today.

Although logical to some, this conscious decision to take a break is a relatively new concept for me and it is still quite uncomfortable. There is a subtle pressure to keep going and play through pain- the potential ‘consequences’ of stopping for a while can be terrifying to think about.

It made me think about burn-out and why we find it often socially unacceptable as musicians to take a substantial break from playing. If we were to incur an injury, the advice would likely be to refrain from playing completely for a while. If we are struggling with stress, anxiety, lack of motivation or burn-out, I think it unlikely we would receive similar guidance, nor allow ourselves time off we might desperately need.

Why might this be? Why do we feel so completely terrified at the idea of taking time away from practicing? It appears that unless completely necessary, we have convinced ourselves that the ability to practice and play must come before our wellbeing. It is tied to our inherent value much of the time, leaving us with a sense of guilt or fear if we haven’t achieved the musical goals of the day.

I have also noticed an interesting amount of ‘superstition’ around our practice, especially on the run up to an exam or performance. We convince ourselves that not adhering to our schedule or hours-per-day mantra, we will fail. The exam won’t be at the level we had hoped. I am sure this anxiety goes also for many students sitting exams.

The truth is that we don’t really know. We can only control so much and so far. It is important that we are structured in our practice and know we have enough time to meet the demands of our profession, but that is all we can do. No amount of superstition can alter the outcome or mark that we receive. The fears are just thoughts. The practice is often a compulsion, in response to these scary ‘failure’ thoughts.

I think we know when we need days off. It doesn’t always come at the most convenient time, but I do think that we know. Honouring this time we spend away from practice is important and the vital element to this is trust.

I trust that I am doing what is right for my mind and my playing. I am giving myself vital perspective through rest. I am allowing myself to live freely, understanding that I can only do so much to change my mark or performance. I trust that I will have done enough and that it will be ok.

It is one of the most upsetting feelings to go to bed exhausted, yet still feeling you could have done ‘more’. We fear ourselves and our capability to be lazy and unproductive. Much as how we might restrict our food intake if we feel out of control with food, we want to devise a solid structure to demand success and achievement, even if it ends in an emotional decline. I find this part the most upsetting.

If there is one thing I am trying to learn right now, it is tolerance of the unknown. My life is wired for struggle and imperfection, so I must accept that my music is too. I can’t control every outcome, I can only work as hard as I need to to feel I have expressed the music honestly. No amount of counting or structure or continuity truly changes your ability to see that. See the real meaning behind practice, and you might realise that the route to success comes in putting music first and allowing the practice to follow.

If we want to play beautifully, it is necessary that we practice carefully and quite a few hours sometimes. Yet, it is impossible to believe this and not honour the time off when we know we need it most.

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