Practice anxiety: tool #7

Baby pushups! Photo by Eric Sahrmann for a baby health campaign - source.

Baby pushups! Photo by Eric Sahrmann for a baby health campaign – source.

Daily physical exercise (eg. the “7 minute workout”)

Why? Beyond the way we’re all berated to exercise daily for our long-term health, exercise has been shown time and time again to help with mental health. Just a little exercise each day can help to ground you, get things moving, and give you a sense of accomplishment. In addition, exercise is super important for musicians – strengthening muscles, particularly in the core, back and shoulders, can prevent injury and reduce back pain. Reducing pain can remove an important impediment to practice! I’m really not suggesting you hit the gym for an hour every day, or do a 10km run (though go ahead if that’s your thing), but in a similar way to your daily warm-up routine on your instrument, find something fairly simple that you can stick to and not wear yourself out too much.

What? Gentle exercise is totally fine. Walking has been recommended to me by several doctors and psychologists, and the benefits are well documented. If you’re using the Headspace app that I’ve previous recommended, it has a really great couple of exercises on “mindful walking” (that link has directions even if you’re not using the app). But as a big part of exercise for me is pain prevention through stretching and strengthening I tend to need something more, and as walking somewhere nice takes a bit of time I tend to do a lot more walking to and from the metro than I do as my daily exercise (note to self: take advantage of summer and walk in the park more!).

So here’s my no. 1 suggestion: the “7 minute workout”. It’s a workout designed by scientists using interval training to give you the benefits of exercising for much longer. You don’t need fancy equipment, just a sturdy chair and a wall. You’ll be puffing, but it’s over really quick! And here’s a free app that will walk you through it.

Pilates has also been really helpful for me, and when I’m managing my life okay I tend to take two or three classes a week. When I was struggling with some bad shoulder pain it helped me reset my body, along with therapeutic massage. It costs $$ but is worth it if you can afford it. You can still do some for free at home – here’s a youtube video.

In my experience, exercising first thing in the morning is a really good way set yourself up for the day. You’ve already checked something off your list and achieved something and the day has just begun! And, as I said, just find the thing that works for you and try to incorporate it into your daily routine. It might seem like just one more thing in your overloaded schedule, but it really does help.


Practice anxiety: tool #6

Foggy brain?

Foggy brain?

Journal &/or blog – the “brain dump”

Why? For me, one of the major impediments to practice is that my brain gets totally overloaded with thoughts that move so super quickly that I feel foggy and slow, unable to detangle a single line of thought. I get overwhelmed and have some very strong bad feelings about starting anything (practice, study, even reading a book). Scrolling on social media gives me small distractions that keep renewing themselves, but that doesn’t help my brain state – in fact it can considerably worsen it.

What does help when I get myself into this mess is just writing – nothing in particular, just picking whatever words come into my mind and writing them down. I call it the “brain dump”. Get those swirling thoughts out of your head, write about the feelings you’re experiencing, list out your worries and fears. Once you’ve got them down, it can be possible to gain a little clarity on some things, to be a bit more sensible about some of your more unfounded concerns, and to start planning what you’ll do next. But even if you don’t get to this stage, just writing a bunch of things down can really help you feel a little calmer and less foggy.

What? Journaling by hand is lovely, but it is tiring (RSI, anyone?). I still do it, but usually only when I’m away from my computer for a while. But if that’s what works for you, treat yourself to a really nice notebook and go for it! For me, I type so much faster than I handwrite, and my thoughts comes thick and fast when I need to do a brain dump.

At the computer, if you’re not an aesthete then you can be like my boyfriend and just keep an enormous running word doc open that you write in. But that’s too dull for me, and my old macbook struggles if I leave word open for more than a day. So I do my journaling online. For a long while I used a website called 750 words, which can be kind of good to help get you on a streak of writing, although after the first month you have to pay $5 a month, and frankly that’s ridiculous. Now I just have a free wordpress set to private, which is perfect for me. You can make it look pretty, but it’s a journal just for you, in which you can really write down all of your most private thoughts. Sometimes you’ll write something good enough you might want to share it, so then go right ahead, but I think it’s important to have somewhere to write where you’re not always conscious of other people reading it and you’re not going back to it hoping it will pick up notes. This is just for you.

Practice anxiety: tool #5

The cake that Tom made for Donna in the future on Parks & Rec for Treat Yo Self day.

The cake that Tom made for Donna in the future on Parks & Rec for Treat Yo Self day.

Treat yo self

Why? Motivation can be difficult enough at the best of times, but when you’re anxious about practice, your motivation has to be strong enough to trump your uncomfortable feelings and negative thoughts – no small task! Working out a reward system for yourself that can cater to the differing levels of avoidance you might experience helps you to commit to a practice session and see it through. This is a great time to use a timer – if you practice for x minutes, then you’ve earned your reward!

What? I’ll give a few ideas of my own below, but you should make a personalised list for yourself. It’s great to rank your rewards, and then choose the one that is at a suitable level for the level of avoidance/anxiety you’re struggling with. Rewards don’t always have be big and fancy, Tom and Donna style (Parks & Rec, if you don’t know what I’m on about) – it’s also great to use the things that you most want to do when you feel anxious as a reward. But it’s important to match the reward to the level of discomfort and the length/quality of the practice. Some examples:

1. I won’t check my phone/tumblr/sims until after I do 20mins practice. (This could be low level avoidance, and is a great way to just get yourself started. But it could also be high level avoidance, and you’re absorbing yourself these things as a distraction – use your intense desire to scroll/refresh to just do a tiny bit of practice, and then you’ll feel so much less guilty. Maybe the sense of achievement will give you impetus to do some more…)

2. I can watch an episode of my favourite show after I do 1hr planned practice. (I do a lot of my practice at home, and it’s sooooo tempting to just collapse in front of something fun and mindless. But this is a fairly sizeable reward, and deserves a bit more effort and/or can be used when you’re avoiding fairly strongly.)

3. If I practice 2-3hrs every day for four days I can go see a movie/buy that book I really want/take a half day off to just chill. (Reward yourself for streaks with something a bit more substantial. But these bigger rewards can also be for if you get really low and find yourself having hardly practiced for a week – it happens. Reward yourself big for a restart, that is hard work.)

Some things that don’t make such good rewards… It can be really hard thinking up good rewards. But only fall back on the obvious ones like a chocolate bar occasionally. If you have a regular addiction (coffee…), then that can work, particularly for slog work like scale practice. But I prefer to keep mine non-food/drink related. Likewise, spending a chunk of money every time you want to reward yourself is financially not especially advisable, and may end up feeling hollow.

Do you have any more ideas of how you like to reward yourself? Hit me up!

Practice anxiety: tool #4



Use a timer

Why? A lot of anxiety is created by uncertainty. Being unsure of what you’re going to practice and how long you will need to practice for is a great way for your brain to find excuses that mean you might not practice at all. Planning out your practice is one thing, but how do you know you’ve worked on something long enough to move onto the next thing? Perfectionists like me will always have trouble letting something go and feeling satisfied, so might get stuck working on a particular passage or exercise even if that’s not the passage or exercise that most needs to be worked on right now.

Changing the criteria for when you will move on is a good way to get around this problem. Using the timer on your phone to divide your practice into chunks of ten or fifteen minutes (or less!) gives you a clear indicator of when you need to pack up and move on. Improvement will better come from revisiting that passage tomorrow, rather than trying to take it from zero to concert ready in this practice session right now.

Another advantage is that if you’re feeling really anxious about practice you can set a timer to say “I will just practice for half an hour”, and then you have an external guide to when you can stop. This really helps when you are having a hard time getting started on any practice, and works especially well if you think of a reward for when you finish (”I can check tumblr after I do 30mins of practice”, for example).

What? Nearly all phones and computers have inbuilt timer functions. Pre-plan your 10/15/however many minute blocks by thinking about what most needs your attention, then set your timer for the block length and get started. When the timer rings, stop what you are doing, wherever you are at, then restart your timer and move onto the next thing. If you need more time to work on something, make a note in your practice notebook and schedule another block in your next practice session.

Alternatively, you can use a Pomodoro timer to work in bigger chunks of time. There’s heaps of these available for free as apps on your phone/tablet. The idea behind these is 25mins of work followed by 5mins of rest, which helps your brain take a refresher before you get back to it. Personally, I would do a maximum of three of these sessions in a row before taking a longer break (at least an hour away from the instrument), simply to prevent overuse injury.

Be careful! There are two potentials for slip-up here. The first is if you set yourself a task that is too difficult to complete in 10mins, leading to frustration. Avoid this by keeping the tasks very simple and achievable – you’ll find out what this is for you after a few sessions like this, but for example, drilling a particularly difficult 2-bar fragment every way that you know how (instead of a difficult 16-bar section). The second is the danger zone between 10min (or 25min) practice sessions – you need a little extra discipline and effort to push onto the next thing on your list. Look out for that, and use rewards to keep yourself going.

Practice anxiety: tool #3



Take a shower

Why? When you’re experiencing some intense feelings that are preventing you from starting practice, you can get really stuck seeking out distractions (internet time/social media is a big one). A quick shower helps your body to feel better, steps you away from screens, and allows you a moment to examine your mind and decide what is best to do next. It can help you feel like you’re washing off your brain a little bit, as well as your body. And, most importantly, it gives you a break point from your previous activities. It can literally be like pressing refresh – get rid of some of that built up cache so you can start afresh.

What? If it’s hot, challenge yourself to a blast of cold water, even if just for the last 10 seconds. You’ll step out feeling invigorated and your energy levels with be lifted. If it’s cold, enjoy hot water, your body will feel better able to take on the physical work of music practice. Spend at least 30 seconds just focussing on the sensation of water on your skin as a kind of mini mindfulness exercise – it helps you connect your mind to your physical body, gives it an anchor.

Practice anxiety: tool #2

Image from

Image from

Mindfulness meditation

Why? Mindfulness meditation is a really important tool for when your brain is going at a hundred miles an hour and you can’t seem to clear enough space to even think about beginning practice (which, strangely enough, can sometimes manifest as a kind of ‘brain fog’, where it feels like you’re not thinking about anything at all). It connects you with your breath, which is really important for readying you to play your instrument – even if you don’t play a wind instrument. And it can just clear enough space in your mind for you to remind yourself that practice is really important to you, and you’re going to take steps to make it happen.

What? I’m going to recommend a couple of guided meditation apps for your phone or tablet – of course you can try to go it alone, instructions to do so are readily available on the web, but especially when you’re starting out sticking headphones in and having someone take you through the steps is super helpful.

App 1: Pacifica

This is a free, easy to use app that helps you track your mood and healthy habits, while also offering some very simple relaxation exercises. Really good for charting where you’re at, reminding you to take good care of yourself, and for little mindfulness/relaxation moments anytime during the day.

App 2: Stop, Breathe & Think

Also free, this app asks you to rate your mood and physical comfort and then suggests a few short guided mindfulness exercises. It has a strong focus on developing compassion, which is extremely useful for turning an inward-focussed anxious mind outwards. The guided exercises are pleasant and not too long, and you’re given a few options each time, so you can choose what sounds most appealing.

App 3: Headspace

This one is my favourite and I use it everyday. The first ten days are free, but afterwards you need to subscribe – it’s not the cheapest thing in all the world, but if you can afford it, and really want to take up mindfulness meditation, it is definitely worth it. If you can’t afford it, you can always just do the first ten days over as many times as you like, which will still be beneficial for sure! Your meditation guide here is Andy, and he has a really nice down-to-earth voice and approach. He introduces you to the general technique over the first month, then there are many different ‘packs’ where you can address particular problems you might be having in your life. Check it out.

Hopefully you find this helpful! Mindfulness has been a big help for my struggle with anxiety generally, but especially with practice anxiety.