A road beneath a rainbow

5 Ways to Combat Musical Burnout

With everything most of us have going on these days, burnout is a real problem for many. Sometimes it takes all of our mental energy just to address our basic needs of feeding ourselves and keeping a roof over our heads.

In busy, stressful times it can be easy to put music practice on the back-burner. After all, in most cases it will not put food on the table or pay the rent.

It can, however, still be a worthwhile endeavor. This is because music is known to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. This is huge, as those tend to be the main causes of burnout.

So although you may feel like you need every second of every day and can’t spare the time to practice, practicing may in fact be a key factor in helping you get through the rest of your day successfully.

There’s a Zen proverb that says, “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” I love this quote because it’s a reminder that our busy feelings are mostly in our minds.

If, instead of trying to fill every second of every day with productivity, we fill our days with activities that help us feel more relaxed and focused, we will often get more done and feel a lot better doing it!

Just Get Started

The hardest part, most of the time, is just sitting down to do it. It can feel so overwhelming to imagine trying to make progress on our lofty practice plans!

For this reason, it’s good to have a few other options that don’t seem so intimidating. Then once you’re sitting down, relaxing, and making music, you may find you’d like to tackle that tricky passage in your repertoire after all!

Here are a few ideas to get you started on a practice day when you feel like you don’t have the brainpower to face your usual goals:

1. Play Music You Know and Like

Two monkeys hugging
Image by Dirk Rabe from Pixabay

Playing old pieces that you learned and enjoyed in the past can be like coming back to an old friend. It’s enjoyable and good for your musicianship to keep previously-learned repertoire going, especially if it’s music you like. Playing such music can put you in a better mood, relax you, and even improve your health.

If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend putting together a folder or portfolio of all the pieces you’ve learned and enjoy playing. That way, whenever you’re just not feeling up for making progress on that new, tricky piece you’re working on, you have something else that will still bring music into your day.

(Plus, if you keep playing all the old pieces you’ve learned, eventually you’ll have an entire concert program or more of music you already know and enjoy!)

If playing old stuff sounds too boring, consider mixing it up by changing aspects of the piece like tempo, articulation, etc. Sign-up below to get your own free handout with lots of ideas for this, or read more about it in this article: Awareness Through Variation with Katie O’Rourke.

2. Sightread New Music

Music notes on paper

If your sight-reading skills have progressed far enough, you’ll find it can be very fun and relaxing to sight-read new pieces, even when you’re not feeling up for more serious practice.

If you’re not sure where to get music to sight-read, read my article: Sight-Reading: Finding Music

3. Run Technical Exercises

Hands on piano keys

Sometimes it’s nice to just be a robot with your practice and let your body go through the motions. 

I don’t recommend doing this all the time because if your brain is never engaged with what you’re doing, you’ll eventually run into problems. However, when your mind just can’t take any more, it can feel good to keep your hands busy.

For this purpose, it usually works best to run technical exercises, such as scales and arpeggios, that you already know. You can play them slowly and methodically, or see how fast you can play them without making a mistake. Most importantly, have fun and relax!

This is another one for which you could consider adding variation, as mentioned above, from Katie O’Rourke’s Awareness Through Variation Handout.

4. Improvise

Silhouette of a person holding guitar

When your mind is spinning with all the worries and plans and to-do lists, you might want to try to turn your mind off by finding an activity to get absorbed in.

Improvisation is a great way to do this. Between the physical act of making the music, the mental act of deciding what to play next, plus listening and deciding what you like and what you don’t like, it can be a fully engrossing activity, and a very therapeutic one.

If you’re having trouble getting started, keep it simple. Choose just a few chords to play and let your ear guide you for the melody. Don’t worry if it’s not as complicated as the pieces you learn out of a book. Sometimes the simplicity is one of the most relaxing things about it.

5. Take Time Off

Person's feet relaxing in front of a mountain
Image by Republica from Pixabay

If all of the above ideas still feel like too much, it’s okay to just take a break from your music. It will still be there when you’re ready to start again (assuming you don’t sell your instrument).

A word of caution with this one though: It’s very easy to stop something, but can be quite difficult to come back to it if you stop for too long. 

It may feel frustrating if you’ve forgotten more than you’d like, and many decide to simply give up when this happens.

If you do decide to take time off, I recommend setting a specific time period, and don’t make it too long. If you haven’t been playing for very long it will be easier to forget what you’ve learned faster, so try to take only a short time off such as a month or less.

If you’ve been playing for years and years, you’ll probably still retain a lot even if you take several months off. It’s up to you to decide what makes the most sense for your situation.

Bonus: Remember Why You Love Music

hands making a heart around the setting sun

When you’re having a hard day it’s so important to remember is why you are choosing to make music in the first place. There’s something about it that feeds your soul and improves your life, and sometimes when times get tough we forget that.

If you keep your love of music front and center when making all your musical decisions, you’ll surely find your way over any obstacles you may face.

Rough patches are inevitable, and that’s ok. I hope these ideas help you overcome the challenges you face in your musical journey.

Do you have any special ways you like to practice when it’s been a tough day? Have you tried any of the above ideas? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Good luck and happy practicing!

Make Practice Time Easier By Planning Ahead!

Hands playing piano keys with a metronome and pencil nearby

Learn how to plan exactly what you need to do each day to accomplish your goals. Then all you have to do at practice time is sit down and play!

The Piecewise Practice Planner will help you make meaningful progress every time you practice, even with as little as 5 minutes per practice session.

Best of all, it’s completely FREE–to opt in, click the button below!

Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

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