I did some performing in Eastern Europe this past summer with my friend and duo partner, guitarist Maja Radovanlija. We had a great time, and afterwards my husband and I spent over a week vacationing throughout Croatia. Croatia is absolutely beautiful and has been one of our all-time favorite trips so far. I did no playing, and while I’m not one of those musicians who feels like they have to practice every day, I was thinking in the back of my head during my vacation that I was really going to have to buckle down once I got back home. Then I got home, and in less than three hours after our plane landed in Minneapolis, I was in bed, sick. And I was basically in bed for another week. It is no fun to get back into shape, whether you’ve taken time off deliberately, or inadvertently because of sickness or injury. Here are some tips I’ve used myself or suggested to my students to make the process less arduous.
- Be patient with yourself. Enjoy the process as much as you can. That is easier said than done, I know, but do realize that practice is as much a mental exercise as a physical one.
- Start by playing familiar, easy-to-you works. You don’t want to start learning a new, difficult work and ingrain bad habits or introduce tension right off the bat because you’re out of shape. It’s easier to instill good habits than to get rid of bad habits. And, as challenging as it is, try to withhold judgement about the sound quality. It’s easy to want to fix things by forcing the sound or pressing the keys harder in an attempt to make things sound better. So, when I start getting back into shape, I play really slow melodies in the lower register. I want to just get the air flowing out of my body and through the flute in a relaxed way. I don’t practice scales or anything particularly technical the first day. This is a “welcome back to the flute” day for me.
- Take plenty of breaks. On my first day back, I practiced ten minutes, then took a break. Ten minutes more, took a break. Rinse and repeat. (“Enjoy the process.”) You may even want to do some light stretching exercises in between practice sessions.
- Use this time as an opportunity to shift your learning method. Memorize things. Practice things slower and more deliberately vs. going on autopilot. I like to take this time to analyze technical exercises like scales and arpeggios to ensure I am playing things evenly and beautifully. I think this is also helpful in the long run because so often we practice familiar things on autopilot and are unaware of slight rhythmic inaccuracies or intonation issues that may develop over time. I especially love memorizing things during this time, because if you are out of sorts and needing to think things over anyway, you might as well use a different learning process. As someone who learns music visually at first, I have found this approach makes my practice at this stage much more interesting and engaging. For someone who primarily learns by ear, you could sing the music, or close your eyes and reproduce in your mind what it looks like on the printed page, or grab a piece of staff paper and write the music down. Whichever method you choose, your goal is to shake things up a bit creatively so you don’t feel like you are just hammering away at something.
- Become aware of any tension or tightness as you practice. You may need to take more breaks, stretch, or build up your daily practice time more slowly. Obviously, if you are coming off an injury or have real pain, use common sense and get medical guidance.
- Realize there is a learning curve, but you’ll get back into shape before you know it! If you’ve practiced good habits up till now, you will recall those. It may take a week or two, but it will happen.
Hopefully these ideas will inspire you as you get back on track with your practice.