Ever heard of the saying "too much of a good thing"? Despite how much you enjoy eating chicken wings, relaxing in the sun, or even drinking water, doing any of those activities too much is unhealthy.
You're probably thinking that's different for practice. Practice won't cause you to gain weight, get a sunburn, or overdose on H2O. While that's true, overworking yourself is still is not healthy.
If you have ever felt irritable, tired, or unmotivated before playing music, you may have fallen victim to burnout syndrome. By taking part in repeated, high-intensity practice, you wear yourself out both mentally and physically. It may seem that practice makes perfect, but too much of it will actually lead to a decrease in overall performance.
Don't ignore the signs of burnout. It's easy to get caught up in the daily grind of practicing, playing gigs, and networking. Add the other aspects of life on top of that, and one can see why burnout is so common among musicians.
To help you spot these symptoms before they completely wear you down, here are five signs that you're practicing too hard.
1. You're feeling down
You love music. You've chosen to make a career out of it. Yet, lately, you aren't looking forward to the activities that once brought you joy. Practicing has become an intensifying battle with motivation, and just the thought of it surrounds you in a cloud of melancholy.
Perhaps your friends and family pick up on this and attempt to console you. Of course, you respond in an apathetic and snarky manner for reasons you're unsure of. Feelings of depression like this stem from a variety of sources, but if you can't figure it out, this negative demeanor could be a sign that you're pushing yourself too hard. Ease up on the practice intensity and see if you notice a change in mood.
2. It feels like you're trying harder than normal
Another sign of over-practice has to do with effort. You may think that trying hard is a good quality, and in one way, it is. That being said, if playing seems like a more difficult task than normal, that's a symptom of overworking yourself.
If this feeling just occurs once, it's not anything to worry about, but if it continues over a sustained period of time, you should ease up. In the words of Aldous Huxley, "It's dark because you are trying too hard.... Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them."
3. You're slow to bounce back
Usually, you're a machine of recovery. Perhaps you played poorly at last night's gig and you were feeling down about it. That's perfectly reasonable, but come morning, you're back in high spirits and ready to take on the next gig.
But nowadays, those feelings of depression linger further and further into the next day. You mentally beat yourself up as your brain fills with negative feelings of regret. Trying to suppress them only gets harder, and soon enough, you're hardly thinking about music at all.
You also may find yourself slow to bounce back physically. Perhaps it used to take just a night to recover from sore muscles or feeling lethargic. But now, you can't seem to freshen up from one day to the next.
From an athletic standpoint, the treatment for overtraining is rest. The longer and harder you push yourself, the more difficult it will be to recover. It's no coincidence that your body is responding the way it is to over-practice. Slow healing is a dead giveaway of burnout, and you need to cut back.
4. Quality of music declines
This particular symptom often goes unnoticed. After all, if you're not playing as well, it must mean you need to practice even more, right? It's easy to see why that would be a good solution, but it's quite the contrary.
A large side effect of burnout is stress. As exemplified by the stress response curve, as stress becomes overwhelming and excessive, performance starts to decline.
In small doses, stress can be a healthy and motivating factor. In fact, performance quality rises with stress until you reach a tipping point. It's this tipping point that you should really worry about. Of course, you should push yourself in life and practice, but keep it under control. It's all too easy for stress to get out of hand, and your playing will eventually suffer from it.
As a result of that, your already sour mood will not be helped by the fact that you're playing poorly. It's a dangerous effect that can set off more negative events. Just as someone in a marathon wouldn't dare sprint the whole way, you, too, need to pace yourself in practice to keep your quality consistent.
5. Coping mechanisms
Keeping on top of a strict practice regimen can be stressful. As a result of the stress, people develop coping mechanisms to get through the process.
Now, coping mechanisms are completely normal when dealing with stress, but some are more helpful than others. If you find yourself drinking more alcohol than usual, smoking more cigarettes, taking drugs, or generally just acting out to "help" you get through practice, then that's simply not healthy.
Practice is supposed to be hard work, but if you end up hating it so much that you need to turn to self-destructive ways to get through it, practice becomes counterproductive.
As long as you're a musician, practice will be there waiting for you. If you're feeling burnt out, then it's better to take a break and rest up. If that's not an option, try a number of positive coping mechanisms instead. Perhaps just a good walk, a relaxing bath, or a night out with friends is all you need to reinstate your motivation. From there, you can hit the practice room with more patience and enjoyment.
Here's how to practice the right way:
- According to This Study, You Might Need to Spend Less Time Practicing Your Instrument
- How to Create a Productive Practice Space
- How to Get the Most Out of Your Band Rehearsal in 3 Hours (or Less)
- 3 Tiny Tweaks That Will Make You a Much Better Performer
Anthony Cerullo is a nomadic freelance writer and keyboard player. In his spare time, he can be found reading, hiking mountains, and lying in hammocks for extended periods of time.