Have you ever sustained a playing-related injury? I have, and immediately found that while some aspects of the process (like the twice-weekly trips to the physical therapist) were straightforward and even mundane, living with the injury was totally disorienting in other ways.
I became injured during my last year of graduate school, and it seemed like everyone around me was being productive – performing recitals, auditioning for jobs, writing dissertations – while I was wasting away in the doctor's office. Fortunately, I was able to graduate, but things were harder without the structure of school. Anxiety about the future constantly derailed my productivity, and my happiness plummeted.
Eventually, though, I got tired of waiting for life to begin again. I wanted enjoy myself, even while on forced hiatus. Changing my thinking was a vital first step.
Some background: I'm a planner and a list-maker, the type of person who makes not only New Year's resolutions but also monthly and even weekly goals. I studied relentlessly in college, and if I missed an hour of scheduled practice, I'd make it up, even if it meant doing 6 hours on a Sunday so as not to start the next week "behind.” Often, I'd get discouraged with myself and stop practicing entirely.
I couldn’t see how destructive that cycle was, and found ways of applying it even to my recovery. My doctor kept saying, “These things take time; just stick with the plan,” but I wasn’t satisfied. I planned to catch up for lost time, thinking, I'll take 6 weeks off now, but after I get my stamina back, I'll practice extra hard for 12 weeks, so then it'll be like nothing ever happened.
As the months went by, however, any thoughts of "catching up” became ridiculous. I'd have to practice extra for years to work of my debts. And despite my best efforts to follow my doctor’s advice, I still wasn’t healing at what I deemed a satisfactory rate. So I gave up – not in dejection, but to give myself a break. One day, when my doctor told me to have patience, I listened, and let go of my expectations. After all, every body is different; for some people, recovery simply takes longer.
Everyone has lost hypothetical time. Maybe we started playing at 9, instead of 4, or we started with the wrong teacher, or we goofed off during the summers. If a perfect violinist exists, who started at 2 and has never skipped a day of practice – but still maintains a sense of musical spontaneity and wonder – I’ve yet to meet him or her.
I think about the way I'd talk to a student. Would I compare, saying to Student X, “It's taken you 6 weeks to learn this piece, but it only took Student Y 3 weeks?” Would I congratulate Student Y on having learned a piece so much faster than Student X? Of course not! Comparisons like these are meaningless at best and destructive at worst. It's easier said than done, but I do my best never to compare my timeline to anyone else's, and have found that this kind of thought adjustment is always worth the effort.
So, here’s what I’d say to my past self: Take it easy. Try to suspend notions of how you “should” be and what a person in your position “should” do. Remember that all journeys are different, and that taking a break probably won’t negatively impact your life as much as you fear it will.
In the next posts, I’ll be discussing ways of being productive, asking for help, and specific techniques and tricks that I’ve found beneficial.