Your Big Break

Who has never gone through the day with a cloud of Must-Practice anxiety and Oof, Don’t-Want-To avoidance hovering, only to tuck themselves into bed at night wrapped in a blanket of Gack-I-Will-Tomorrow,-Really guilt? After all, if I were halfway serious about my pursuit to be the top Coconut Shellist in The Universe, surely I would have practiced today until my fingers bled, rather than having had brunch with my friend, a visit with my elderly neighbor, and a good scrub of the bathroom sink and tiles with my old toothbrush. Right? Actually, wrong! 🙂

What would your reaction be if I told you that one of the top musicians in North America puts their instrument on a shelf for a whole month each year? Yes. This musician is a principal chair player in a Top 5 Orchestra, and each year, puts the instrument away. Fully, solidly, away, for a Whole. Entire. Month.

To many who aspire to reach the top, this seems inconceivable. We are conditioned—often by our imaginations—to think that to be serious about our craft, we never take days off. The truth is, we could not be more wrong.

Performing artists find it very difficult to separate Who They Are from What They Do. We’re conditioned to think that to be a serious artiste, we need to eat, sleep, and breathe our craft. Filled with grey areas and fine lines, this is a topic that makes for great fireside debate. After all, few dentists are so passionate about their craft that they sit in carpools and tear apart the latest… um… left-hand root canal drill technique as seen on the You Tube Dental Channel? How about accountants; they’re as driven towards perfectionism as anyone, I’ve never known one to study the book-keeping logging technique of dozens of other accountants, seeking the perfect way to craft a column, or to go out for a drink after a long day of tax-filing and rave about how gorgeously the expense rows lined up today. The truth is that being a performing artist –is– special, and comes with an exceptionally high intrinsic motivational factor that goes hand-in-hand with our identities. It’s far more than “just a job”. In fact, as a mentor once said to a training orchestra, “The day it becomes a job? That’s the day you quit.”

As performing artists, we have a special and vested interest in our craft. It does define a large part of who we are, and we do approach it with a sense of pursuit more intense than most other professions. To set that passionate pursuit aside, whether for a day each week, or for a month each year, can open up self-doubt and self-questioning. See opening paragraph. We’ve all been there.

How can we strike a balance?

The second most productive thing we can do for our minds and our bodies is to Take A Break. That said, as you well know, the Day-Off-By-Default-Because-I-Procrastinated doesn’t achieve much in terms of recalibration. This leads me to the first most productive thing we can do: Declare it Beforehand!

Now, here is your assignment, should you choose to accept it 🙂 :

1) Declare Your Break. The nature and magnitude of your break will be for you to decide. If you have a recital next week, then you may declare your break to be an afternoon with a magazine and a hot chocolate, or an hour brushing your neighbour’s dog. If you’ve just completed an eight-month tour and your next booking is in June, you might declare your break to be two weeks of intensively examining the insides of your eyelids while surrounded in pillows, or being a house-potato. Whatever you choose as your break, be sure to name it. Decide it. Declare it. Own that puppy.

2) Take That Break. Take it without apology, and without guilt. You are the World Expert on You, and if you have declared this break, chances are you will benefit from it. Take it. Love it. Savour it.

If you find yourself having guilty feelings about your break, try writing it in the 3rd-person format. Here is an example of what you might write if you were Shelly, who is feeling overwhelmed in the face of an important audition right around the corner: “Shelly has an audition next week for the Principal Coconut Shell position with the Big Time Philharmonic; having practiced 8 hours a day for the past 11 weeks, Shelly has declared that this afternoon will be dedicated to alphabetizing the sock drawer and polishing a 1920’s typewriter. Shelly is looking forward to this mental unplug, and tomorrow, those coconut shell excerpts are going to sound fresher than ever.” 

Writing/speaking of yourself in the 3rd person is a good way to get a better perspective, and to be kinder to yourself. Perhaps more on that in a future post, but for now? Go take your break. I’m pretty sure you’re earned it.



*If you took a significant break (1 week, 1 month, or longer), then I recommend a re-integration-into-practice routine such as the one described by cellist Janet Horvath in her book, Playing Less Hurt. Although written by a string player, her routine works very well even for non-string players and singers. You can modify it to suit your own situation; it makes a terrific template.