Hey! I just wanted to give a brief anecdote and share a couple of reminders having to do with my recent experiences of practicing mentally, without my instrument, and coping with recital preparation stress through mindful awareness.
At the end of my last rehearsal on Friday, I noticed an ache in my elbow, where the forearm meets the joint, specifically when I moved my pinky finger. I knew I had been playing with some tension, as I was nervous about giving my recital in a few weeks, and I was playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto, which is filled with sixths, octaves, and tenths, so a little ache in my hand wasn’t surprising. The pinky is most likely a player’s weakest finger, and I was giving it a hard workout with this repertoire. So, I did some cool-down stretches and didn’t play for the rest of the day.
The two consecutive nights I had difficulty sleeping and was still experiencing elbow pain. But, I also discovered that it wasn’t just a tired hand, it originated from a tight neck. The pain began on the left side of my body, where my neck meets my shoulder, then went underneath my scapula and traveled along the back of my arm to the nerves in my elbow, then all the way down to the tips of my pinky and ring finger. I’ve experienced this before, and it made a lot of sense that I was experiencing it now for a number of reasons. One, I’m a side sleeper, and I wake up sometimes with my neck crunched in the most uncomfortable ways. Two, I hold my stress tension in my shoulders. It’s been a long haul to get to the end of this semester without a spring break, augmented by being busy preparing for my upcoming recital, so I’m holding a lot of tension in my body. And three, I wasn’t warming up and down as responsibly as I should have been, before and after rehearsing, and I had fallen out of my regular yoga practice.
I wasn’t able to practice as much as I would’ve liked to this weekend, but I was able to do some other things. I heated and iced my neck and elbow, looked up some nerve gliding elbow exercises, did some yoga, and focused on aligning my spine and holding the weight of my head in an ergonomic way while sitting. These all tended to my physical pain, but I was still experiencing mental stress about not being able to play and prepare for my recital. At the advice of a fellow musician, I went through each movement of my recital repertoire and marked the spots I knew I wanted to practice when I felt better. Many of them contained the same issue: D chromatic octaves. So, the first thing I practiced when I was feeling able was a D chromatic scale, with a drone and a metronome at 50, and just focused on playing with zero tension. I’m still working at that pace, and so far it is making the stress of preparing my recital repertoire much less scary, and way more manageable. And, when I can’t play, I’m listening to my repertoire, reading the music and mentally playing it, and continuing to take note of the spots I want to improve.
So, all this is to say that there is always something you can do to practice even when you can’t play your instrument. Having small goals to achieve, like marking spots you want to practice in the future, goes a long way because by staying present and controlling what is right in front of you, you gain perspective and hopefully ease some of the stress about the future. I personally deal with Anxiety, so I am all too familiar with the feelings of dread one might experience when they feel that something bad could happen in the future, and it’s completely out of their control. The aforementioned methods of managing my present have been grounding and calming, and have made me look forward to the next time I can practice. This isn’t to say that I’m not stressed anymore– I am of course still experiencing some stress! In the anxious part of my brain, I’m having thoughts such as: “I’m not going to be ready in time,” “I should just get over the pain and play,” and “What if my neck never stops hurting?” but with mindful awareness of my present moment, a list of actionable items, and remembering that my stress comes from a place of care–because I want to put on a great recital– I am able to get through one day and move on to the next. It’s also reminding me of the importance of playing without tension, taking care of my body, and the reality that we can’t tell the future. The only thing we can control is how we respond to our present moment.
I wish you all luck in practicing, preparing for your upcoming performances, and staying present!
P.S.: This is one of my favorite breathing exercises, I hope it helps ground you when you’re feeling stressed:
Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, hold it empty without breathing in again for 4 seconds, and repeat.
I’ve heard it called “box breathing,” “square breathing” and “4-count breathing.”