How to Spark Motivation: The Fine Line Between Being Productive and Becoming Burnt Out.
I started taking piano lessons at the age of 4. Throughout my years of lessons came many years of practicing. There were also days when I didn’t feel like practicing. When I was a kid and didn’t want to practice piano, my mom or myself would set our kitchen timer for roughly 30 minutes so at least I was able to practice a bit. Some days, I dreaded the never ending timer and was impatiently waiting for the beep to end my practice session. Other times, I got the work done, the time flew by and I was surprised by how quickly the timer went off.
I have studied piano, flute and horn. In all cases, in order to progress and be good, I needed to practice. Although I started learning self discipline for my practicing at a young age, what I lacked was a sense of structure. Were my practice sessions entirely productive? No. What does productivity even look like? How and where do you find the motivation to keep going when sometimes you just don't feel like practicing?
In college and graduate school I have attended countless masterclasses, taken lessons and worked with teachers who have talked about the how's and what's of performance majors. How many hours do you practice? How do you structure your practice? What do you try to accomplish? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? What do you need to work on? How are you going to fix it? And the list goes on…
As performance majors, we have all in some capacity struggled with the How’s and the What’s. For example, how many hours do you practice? I’ve met people who said that they practice for 8 hours a day and that’s the reason that they are successful. Others live by the 10,000 hour rule. If you practice or do something for 20 hours a week for the next 10 years, you will be successful. When you look at things on such a large scale, it becomes overwhelming. We begin to question ourselves, “Will I be successful?”, “Will I ever win a job?”.
Let’s be honest, some of the things we have heard are just unreasonable. As a brass player, I will not be able to productively practice for 8 hours a day on top of playing in ensembles, working, and maintaining my health and well-being. If you’re reading this and thinking, “well then you’ll never be successful”, keep an open mind, and look at how realistic some of these things are. Think of it in terms of a balanced diet. How do you practice enough to be successful, and how do you motivate yourself to get there?
Create a routine. A routine is the best way to keep yourself on track and motivated. This involves scheduling, creating goals, and maintaining a positive mindset. Since we are on a “summer break”, this is the best time to narrow down a few goals and figure out what you can do to get there. A summer goal of mine is to work on getting my low register more consistent, and my schedule helps me put my thoughts into an action. Other examples of goals could be to hold a virtual recital. Give yourself a month and a half to work up to it, plan the date and time, advertise it, and then perform. You could also go through an etude book, give yourself a month's time to practice, and record the whole book. Any goal is attainable. A goal allows you to look forward to something and to continue to create. It also keeps you in shape. A goal could be as complex as a recital or as simple as saying you want to improve your low register. Once you have a goal or two, the next step is how you get there. How do I successfully achieve my goal and what are some steps I can take to get there?
I am a firm believer in scheduling. When you know what you have to do, set a time frame, and have a detailed plan of attack, the only other thing you have is pick up the horn or get to the yoga mat. Do I have to schedule every minute of my day? No, absolutely not! But you should keep part of the schedule open for times to take care of yourself and socialize.
What does a typical schedule look like for me? Feel free to check mine out below! Here is a brief explanation.
I always include when I’ll wake up and when I’ll go to bed. This helps you keep track of how much you’re sleeping, and sleep is good to help keep up productivity and motivation. The next thing I’ll put in is my first item to attack for the day. Typically I wake up around 8:30 am, and I’ll start my first thing of the day around 11:30am. This allows me to have time to wake up, get ready and dressed, eat, and do whatever I need to do to get my day started. If you’re a morning yoga type of person, pencil it in! Keep yourself accountable for whatever you put on paper. At 11:30am, I’ll start working on my blog and marketing info for another group I'm working with. I’ll give myself an hour and a half to do so, and then I’ll eat around 1pm. Pencil it in!
Here’s where I get going with my daily practice. You can practice at any time of day that works for you. I typically practice starting at 2 or 3 pm. On days I work, I’ll do a shorter practice that is just shy of 2 hours, that will begin at 6pm. Practice plans and methods of practicing are somethings that my teacher, David Jolley and I have talked a lot about. How productive is a 3 hour practice session if you have no plan?
Two options that I’ve tested myself and have heard work for other people as well:
45 Minute Sessions
You practice for 45 minutes at a time. If you want to schedule a two hour practice room, practice for 45 minutes, take 30 minutes off, and practice another 45. This lets your brain rest so it’s not overflowing with too much information at one time.
The 10 Minute Rule
Here, everything besides your warm up, is practiced for 10 minutes. Working on Brahms 3? Just 10 minutes. An etude? Only for 10 minutes. If you’d like, you can come back to one of these things later on for another 10 minutes, but stick with everything for 10 minutes at a time. This allows for you to not harp on things for too long, but also allows for bursts of very productive practice time. Set a timer if you need.
The 10 minute rule really works for me. It allows me to do focused work and then move on and not get too crazy about one thing. It also lets me accomplish more in one sitting if I wish.
My practice sessions are usually between 2 and 2 ½ hours long. Sometimes maybe 3. I give myself 40 minutes for a warm up, 10 minutes on technique, and 10 minutes on a Rochut to really get my low chops going. I then break for 10 minutes, come back and work on my remaining excerpts and repertoire. I will work on each excerpt for just 10 minutes. I find I get so much more done and never feel like I’m dreading a practice session because I have a plan. I know when I’ll start, and when I’ll end. I schedule everything out Sunday mornings for the entire week.
Finally, maintaining a positive mindset. Sometimes we find ourselves frustrated with anything and everything. We keep cracking the same note. We aren’t playing this phrase quite in time. Back it up and slow it down. If needed, put the horn down for 10 minutes and come back. Give yourself a breather. It’s also important to remind yourself that you’re not there YET, but you’re on your way. Remind yourself of all the good things in your playing. Tell yourself something you liked about what you just played. I know first hand that it’s easier to be hard on yourself than to be kind in a practice session, but continuous frustration never made anyone feel better or play better for that matter.
These three things will help you create a healthy routine that leads you to feeling motivated, encouraged, and productive. We also need to recognize that there is a fine line between being productive, and becoming burnt out. Productivity looks like exactly what I mentioned above; having a routine, a goal, a plan and a schedule. Productivity is what do I need/want to achieve and how do I get there. Productivity is having a plan of attack, but including time for yourself, friends, and time to keep up a healthy mind and body.
What does a burn out look like? A burn out looks like something that has taken over your whole life, but not in a good way. A burnout happens when you’re beating yourself up, when you stay in a practice room for way too long trying to make things happen when they aren’t working or until the point where you’re hurting. It happens when you doubt your capabilities, stress yourself out and don’t take the necessary time to rest and recover when you need it. It happens when you lack a social life and when one thing becomes everything you do. Eventually, it all comes together, and you experience a burnout; when you physically and mentally collapse from being overworked and stressed. It’s incredibly important to limit everything you do to some degree. Success is not determined by how much we practice; it’s determined by how smart we practice.
I am so excited to welcome my first guest to my blog, Olivia Peduto. Olivia and I had such an eye opening chat the other day about her experience with burnout and what she knows now that she wishes she knew then.
A little background about Olivia. Olivia is a former clarinetist from Staten Island. She’s 23 years old and she will be graduating from Brooklyn College in December with a degree in Nutrition. She’s an aspiring Dietician whose focus is on disordered eating. She picked up the clarinet her sophomore year of high school after many years of studying piano. She began studying with her band teacher who was very detail oriented and driven in terms of practice. She developed many practice habits from him, and her drive and motivation in music was noticed. He encouraged her to continue with it and go to college to study clarinet. He helped her find, and choose a teacher at a school that she would be a good fit with and thrive. She eventually chose Montclair State and began her Freshman year in the Fall of 2014. Olivia and I met during our undergrad years at Montclair State, where we were both Music Performance majors. She and I played in the Cali Quintet together, a woodwind quintet coached by Jeff Scott at Montclair State and from there we became very good friends.
Olivia, what was your routine like when you were in music school?
My teacher from high school...he really made me the way I was, like the way I practiced. Because he was so crazy about practicing, it instilled in me an, “I want to do that. I have to practice every single day,” mentality. I always thought I had to practice a certain amount of hours. My goal would be 3-5 hours of practice a day and I would section it off with my warm up, scales and etudes and repertoire and everything. But I was so on top of it, like I have to get to every single thing every single day. Freshman year I remember waking up every morning and being like, “Okay I have to get this all done or I’m never going to get a job.” I really tried to practice every single day of the year, 3-5 hours a day.
Looking back, do you think it was the most productive way of managing your time?
No, I don’t think so. It’s one thing if you’re not in school to do that. Because 3-5 hours isn’t that long to work, but I’m playing other hours of the day in rehearsal at school so adding another 3-5 hours on top of that, I was literally so exhausted. My wrists were in pain and my mouth was in pain. Obviously, that was not effective and I think I didn’t realize that it’s okay to take a day off or to practice a shorter amount of time some days. I didn’t understand how important it was to rest and pace myself. I kinda just went all at it every single day, because it was drilled in me that if you want to be a professional musician, this is what you do. You don’t take a day off. That was my mindset.
What would you say productivity looks like versus burn out?
I think I was too focused on the little things that I’d try to fix each day, versus looking at it overall throughout one month. If I looked at it day by day, I’d be like, “Oh I have to get this exercise faster and cleaner than it was yesterday”, I would go all at it for an hour or whatever it was. But, if I said that, “okay my goal by the end of the month is to improve these things”, then if I couldn’t practice for 5 hours one day it’s okay, because I know in the grand scheme of things by the end of that month, taking a day off one day would probably benefit me more by then to be better than I was at the beginning. Rather than going so hard every day.
Sometimes you can practice something for so long and it’ll be worse the next day. If I’m feeling really tired and I’m exhausted and nothing’s working and I’m in pain, let me chill out and it’ll be better tomorrow if I come back to it.
When was the moment you realized you were on the verge of wanting to change your career path?
At first it started slowly. It was little things here and there that built up. I started to go to orchestra, and before rehearsal I would be so stressed out because I knew the conductor was going to call me out about something in front of everybody. And I’m a very anxious person in front of other people and crowds, especially when I knew I practiced a lot. I would get so nervous and mess it up in front of people. Afterwards, if something did happen in orchestra, I’d feel bad about it all night. If this is the career I want and this is what a typical day of work is like, am I going to feel like this all the time? Am I going to be stressed out about going to rehearsal and feel horrible about it every single day? It was also me practicing too much every single day on top of what else I had going on, to the point where I literally had no free time. I wasn’t getting enough sleep and I started feeling so sick.
It was all of those things combined that I just overall started feeling horrible. And I started thinking what life would be like if I didn’t have to do this all anymore. I could wake up and go work, and come home and not have to think about work anymore. At one point it would pop into my mind and I’d be like, “Oh no, I’ve worked so hard at this. I’m not going to quit music, that’s stupid. Just because I’m having a bad day”. But it just started coming into my mind more and more. I sat down one day and I just thought about what else I could do. If I really did quit, what else would I do?
I was auditioning for these new schools and I told myself if I don’t get in anywhere, then that’s just going to be the end. And even though I did get into a new school, I still decided to quit. It really showed me I didn’t want to do it anymore. I also had no time to spend with my family and friends. I had no social life at all and it really got to me.
What do you think was your final deciding factor or reason to leave?
Spring break that year I took the week off of practicing. I was thinking about quitting, but I also was stressed out so I was going to give myself this week to actually have fun. After I had the thought in my mind that I don’t have to go back to this if I don’t want to, I felt so much more carefree about everything that it felt better.
I finished my jury and I went home and I just, I don’t remember how long it was, but I took a big break that summer. Over that summer the thought of going back to music school...I was really dreading it so bad. Not the typical, “I don’t want to go back to school”, it was like I do not want to do this ever again and you couldn’t pay me to go back there.
I was planning on going back and the week before school was about to start, I was like, “ I really can’t do it”, and I went with my mom back up to school and we unenrolled me. I felt such a dread. It was like I can’t do this anymore. I need to stop.
If you had a better routine and if things didn’t feel so forced or pressured, do you think you would still be doing music?
I’m a very perfectionist kind of person. If I wasn’t perfect and the best at it, there was no point in me trying at all. Obviously, I don’t feel the same way now. You don’t have to be the best at everything all the time. If I would have given myself more freedom to give myself more free time in my day to hang out with friends or relax and go to bed at a normal time and had a more balanced life, I feel like I could have handled it better. I didn’t have a life outside of music at all. If I was spending time doing something, or relaxing, or going out, that was a waste of time for me. If I went to the beach in the summer, I’d be listening to the repertoire I was studying. I literally couldn’t do anything without trying to do something productive. You need to let yourself have time to yourself that isn’t productive. My mind was going 24/7 on top of not sleeping enough because I thought sleep was a waste of time. I thought, “I can function on 4 hours”. No, you can’t. You really can’t. So yeah, I think if I had slept enough, made time for my friends and to relax and do other things I liked, I think maybe I wouldn’t have quit and that I would have kept going.
Would you consider yourself burnt out?
Yes. Definitely burn out. I think that’s 100%. I just felt so exhausted. Yeah, burn out is the word.
Do you think there’s a stigma in the performance field of what you “have” to do to be successful? Do you think there needs to be or do you think things can be more flexible?
If someone would have told me you can relax and you don’t have to do this one thing and that you have so many other options, I feel like I would have felt so much more free. I feel like the whole world of classical music is so… it can be really judgey sometimes. I felt so stuck in a box. Maybe it was just me, because I was SO structured with everything, that if you don’t do something this way, it’s not the right way. If someone would have helped me more with how to structure my routine, like “Okay 10 minutes is up you have to move on to the next thing”. Because, you know if I’m spending 30 minutes on each piece, it’s obviously not going to work out. I literally felt like there wasn’t enough time in the day to get to everything I needed to get to. And by the end of the day, I would like, “Oh my god I have so much left. I’m going to be here until 2 am practicing”. You can’t get to every single thing every single day for 30 minutes or more. I literally wouldn’t stop practicing until I was in pain. It was such a bad mindset. I wish someone told me I can be successful by practicing 3 hours a day. Maybe I’d feel like, “Okay I can breathe now”.
Are you happy now?
Yeah, I am. There are sometimes when I really miss music school, but then I’m like, “Okay, at least I did that and I had a lot of fun”.
If you have any piece of advice or final thought to leave with the readers, what would it be?
I thought I had to be the best at everything. You should really not even compare yourself to anyone. It doesn’t do you any good whether you are better than them, or not, as long as you’re working as hard as you can, but capping it off at a point. If I were to go back to music school, I would practice as efficiently as I could and give myself time to be a person outside of music school and to sleep and take care of myself. And whatever I accomplish with the time I have, try to make myself feel like I did enough. You don’t have to be better than every single person in every single area. Some people can be better than you and that’s okay. You don’t need to compare yourself. Focus more on, “I like, and I think that these things about myself are maybe better than other people, but that’s okay if people are better at other things than me”. Make time for yourself.
I hope you all enjoyed my interview with Olivia. Check back weekly for a new blog entry that will be posted every Saturday. And for now, have a productive week of positive practicing.