Practice anxiety: Tool #11

Braving the elements to go out and practice somewhere that's not your bedroom can nevertheless be well worth it. Photo from Horn Blog.

Braving the elements to go out and practice somewhere that’s not your bedroom can nevertheless be well worth it. Photo from Horn Blog.

Go practice somewhere else + 2 extra tips

Why? If you’re like me and do a lot of your practice at home, you’ll know the struggle that is a gazillion competing distractions (internet, comfy couch, books, long to-do list, snack grazing…) that present you with many options for NOT practicing. On the other hand, when you step into a practice room somewhere else you have one purpose in mind. Granted we’ve all had those times in conservatoire practice rooms where you’re scrolling on your phone and decidedly not practicing, but it’s far clearer that you’re not doing the thing that you’re there to do.

What? So, if there is any possibility for you to practice somewhere that is not your bedroom, jump at the chance! Can you ask your music teacher if you can get special permission to turn up at the music block an hour before school (or stay an hour after) to practice? Chances are there’ll be ensemble rehearsals on anyway and you can occupy one of the practice rooms. If you’re studying music at uni, get up early and snag a practice room before the rush. It feels so good to knock some basic tech practice over early in the day. Book practice rooms during busier times. Or is there some other options available to you – rooms available at a local studio that you can book for a suitably low rate? Can you join up with some friends and rent out a small warehouse space and make a practice schedule between you? Think outside of musicians, practicing amongst other kinds of artworks can be very stimulating! Some libraries have practice rooms you can book. Is there a church in your local area that will allow you to practice there in return for maybe playing at their weekend services? Take advantage of resonant spaces – they make you want to practice more (I spent last week practicing in a ballroom and it was AMAZING)! Or if you work an office job, see if you can get access to turn up before anyone else arrives to do your scales before knock on – I used to do this when I worked as an arts administrator. Just some ideas…

Extra tip #1: Practicing somewhere else works especially well if you can only book the space for a certain time – it adds pressure that means you’ll want to make the most of the space while you have it. Think carefully about when you book practice time and note it in your diary. Treat it like a job – turn up and put in the hours you promise yourself (but don’t push yourself in the case of illness, exhaustion or injury, know when to be forgiving of yourself).

Extra tip #2: If you are overcome by the desire to check your phone or you get a call, try stepping outside of the practice room. Be disciplined – the practice room is for practice. Set a practice timer and pause it while you attend to the distraction. Or set your phone on airplane mode while you’re practicing!

This practice anxiety tool is fairly hardline, and is useful for getting or keeping you on track when you’re not struggling too much. For more practice anxiety tools that encompass moments of real struggle, click here.

Practice anxiety: Tool #10

Colouring is my "safe" activity. Image by Paula Signolfi Cyoia via takepart.

Colouring is my “safe” activity. Image by Paula Signolfi Cyoia via takepart.

Finding safe activities (for me: colouring)

Why? What do you do when feelings of discomfort associated with practice become so intense that the very thought of picking up your instrument becomes distressing? This is a danger zone, and could lead to a period of chronic avoidance, which for me spirals quickly downwards into depression.

It’s tempting to switch out and turn to the usual distractions – scrolling through social media, bumming out on the internet, playing games, and/or binge watching a tv show. But in my experience these things don’t help you deal with the situation at hand, and in fact can worsen it. They’re all fine for when you just need a little bit of time out, and as rewards for some good practice work, but not so much for dealing with more acute emotions.

I’ve already written a bit about what you can do if you’re struck by these kinds of intense feelings: the brain dump, and 30 things to do when practice feels like an impossibility (this second link includes a lot of music-related activities that can still feel okay to do even when practice doesn’t). But this time I want to write about finding a completely “safe” activity that allows you to distract yourself just a bit, calm yourself and hopefully even ready yourself to take the steps needed to get to that place where you can start practice.

What? Recently I was planning activities for a long-haul flight. I developed a fear of flying several years ago in relation to some PTSD (the event which triggered this had nothing to do with aeroplanes, but I flew very shortly after it and so flying became kind of tied up in my brain with the event) and, while I am much better at coping with it these days, I am always anxious when getting on a plane. So I always take about 10x as many things to distract myself with as I could possibly use. Searching the internet for ideas I came across colouring books for adults.

Often these are full of either abstract patterns or pictures of plants, animals, city scapes and so on with much more details than children’s colouring books. I picked up a book like this in the airport in Amsterdam and used the coloured markers I have for marking up scores. It takes some time to finish colouring in one of these detailed pages, but I was amazed at how calm I felt about it. In fact, there’s some science behind it and colouring is now being promoted as a mindful, calming activity for adults with anxiety. It’s fairly low cost (a book costing $10-15 will last for aaaaages, or just do a google image search and print some pages off! And I’m sure you’ve got some colouring pencils or pens lying around) and choosing your colour combinations is oddly soothing. I can do this for a while, and then my mind feels much more creative and open to possibilities – including music practice.

Colouring is a “safe” activity for me. For you it might be something else. Spend some time working out what that activity might be, and then make sure the materials are on hand for when those situations arise (they will).

Practice anxiety: tool #9

Interstellar improv! STS-56 Mission Specialist Ellen Ochoa plays the flute in space shuttle Discovery's aft flight deck in April 1993.  Image: NASA.

Interstellar improv! STS-56 Mission Specialist Ellen Ochoa plays the flute in space shuttle Discovery’s aft flight deck in April 1993. Image: NASA.


Why? Practicing notes on a page can be anxiety provoking – you are constantly measuring yourself up against technical and interpretive ideals. This is even the case with simple scale or tone exercises, but is especially intense when you have difficult repertoire to master. It can often be enough to lead to avoiding picking up your instrument altogether.

When talking to others about my practice avoidance, I’ve often been told that “starting is the hardest part”. This is very true, although not the full picture (what about re-starting, again and again, as is necessary? what about tension and strong feelings during practice?). Some days when I’m really struggling to start, removing the stress of notated music can help me not only to make this all important start, it can also greatly improve my connection with my instrument and lead to new sound discoveries.

Try improvising for five minutes and then, if you feel like moving on to ‘actual’ practice, set a timer and start your warm-up routine or repertoire work.

What? Improvising is a very personal thing. Just take your instrument and start to make some sounds. It honestly does not need to lead anywhere, which is what makes it so freeing. On the other hand, too much freedom can itself be limiting – where do you start?? Here are a few ideas to kick things off:

– Choose a note that generally feels good for you and just start playing long tones or repeated soundings. Play with colour and quality of attack. You’re not aiming so much to ‘improve’ your tone, but to explore the possibilities. Don’t be disturbed if it doesn’t sound the way it ‘should’. Move on to notes around it and make slow moving melodies. Experiment with intervals.

– Search for strange sounds like multiphonics, colour trills (bisbigliando), ultra soft sounds, buzzing or bamboo tones. Use whatever fingering comes to mind and see what comes out. Use normal note fingerings and see if you can find strange sounds by over- or under-blowing. I like to find two similar sounds and then move back and forward between them.

– Play or hold your instrument differently, i.e. ‘incorrectly’, and then make gentle sounds, keeping your body as relaxed and comfortable as possible. Move between this and your normal playing posture. Stand, sit, walk around. Focus on the feeling of contact between you and your instrument.

– Meditate on an idea and play some music to match it. Find some text scores as starting points. Pauline Oliveros (American avant-garde composer and improvisor) has some available for free download. Look at a picture and try to play the scene. Be patient with yourself – play for a while before settling on your materials.

– When you find a nice sound or idea, write it down however it makes sense to you. This can serve as a really nice starting point for future improvisations, and can be useful material to draw upon if you’re ever asked to improvise in a class or other public situation.

Play scale or harmonic patterns you’re familiar with if you want, but I would encourage you to go further into the sound possibilities of your instrument more as well. Pentatonic scales are always really nice to play around with, because you basically can’t go wrong!

Always try to be light with your self-judgement. This doesn’t need to sound ‘good’, you don’t need to meet any expectations. Just let yourself actually play.

Practice anxiety: tool #8

Juna (trombone), myself and Miyama (koto) improvising together at the Impuls festival in Graz, Austria back in February this year.

Juna (trombone), myself and Miyama (koto) improvising together at the Impuls festival in Graz, Austria back in February this year.

Playing with others

Why? This one depends a bit on how you experience anxiety, but for me self-discipline (enter superego!) is the biggest driver of my problems. Organising rehearsals or even just fun “duet dates” with musical peers who you respect and admire – but also trust and are comfortable with – can give you a huge boost, as well as set external deadlines that don’t involve you having to “prove yourself” (in this way it’s different to a lesson, masterclass, audition/competition or other important musical engagement with an external deadline). Finding people you feel good about playing with in a non-competitive environment and repertoire you’re excited about can give you something tangible to work towards and help you find joy in your practice.

What? The level of commitment you throw into this activity is totally up to you. Sight reading simple duets with someone is a great way to practice intonation, rhythm, chamber music skills, and also to have a good laugh. Consider teaming up with a peer-level pianist to learn repertoire with “accompaniment” – in this instance I suggest the non-pianist stops thinking of themselves as the “soloist” and works closely with the pianist as a duo, investigating more deeply how the parts interrelate. Choose repertoire that’s a similar difficulty for both of you, and by the same token, work with peers who are at a similar level.

You might also choose to prepare a piece along with several others to play for assessment or (even better) organise your own concert. This is the way that many of the world’s great chamber ensembles have formed! In addition to creating more enjoyable performance opportunities, you’ll learn important skills about organising and working well with others. Repertoire choice is really the crucial element here – seeings as you’ll be driving this yourselves, you need to find pieces that you are passionate about.

Maybe another option for working with others that you may not have considered much is working with composers. Even is new music isn’t so much your schtick, you’d be surprised how rewarding this is from an early level. If you’re undergraduate-level study, seek out the composers around your age. Listen to their music, and if someone’s writing something along the lines of what you think you could do then offer to workshop a small piece with them. Help them to explore your instrument (and maybe explore it a bit yourself!) and give sound to the notes they’re putting down on paper. Once again, this takes the pressure off you, while also improving your playing and musicianship.

A final idea for playing with others is improvising. This is great because you’re not limited by instruments that composers think should go together (see the image above for what was a surprisingly effective trio), and you can really explore the sounds you like and the interactions with your collaborators without the pressure of measuring yourself up against a score. If you’re unfamiliar with improvising, try starting with some long tones/sounds and building up some harmonies to practice using your ears to direct the sounds. Be creative! I’ll write more on improvising next post…

For some really great tips on musical collaboration, read this article on the Musician’s Way blog.

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!