neuroplasticity

Did you ever take a break from playing your instrument and worry about getting your chops back in shape? Perhaps some time off to go on vacation or recover from an injury? You might experience some surprising benefits.

Back in 2019, before the pandemic, I took a trip to the UK for a week and decided to leave my violin at home. I was worried because upon my return I was scheduled to rehearse and perform in two Mozart operas in the same week – Marriage of Figaro and Magic Flute – with the first rehearsal on the day after landing. Any violinist or violist who’s ever played Marriage of Figaro knows how much of an endurance test it is, so naturally I was a little concerned about being physically in shape.

 

Even though I’ve already played both operas several times before, I spent the majority of my flights studying my part while listening to recordings to minimize physical preparation time. When I played for the first time after returning home, I spent it playing long tones and scales in 10–15-minute chunks to prevent injury. My bow arm definitely felt a little strange at first, but I was also surprised at how smooth my bow changes were. This is something I normally struggled with a lot and here I was making some of the best legato sounds I’ve ever played! Something didn’t make sense.

Growth During Rest

While we live in a culture where everyone gets praised for long hours of practice, real growth needs a healthy balance between hard work and rest. Too much of one or the other can create a disbalance. Compensating a long period of rest with an equally long period of playing can potentially lead to disaster, but more on that next time. Rest benefits growth in several ways:

 

  1. For some reason, the human mind has a tendency to find solutions to problems while it’s idle and not actively focusing on the problem. Have you ever struggled to find a good fingering or bowing in the middle of a practice session and then randomly think of something brilliant in the shower or while taking a walk? Or perhaps you find the solution for something through a connection with a seemingly unrelated skill. (Is it really unrelated?).
  2. Taking several days off from practice (especially if you’ve been doing a whole lot of it) gives the ear an opportunity to reset. We get so used to hearing our own sound day in/day out, that sometimes it makes us get stuck and plateau in our progress. The reset is one way to (potentially) break through plateaus. Of course, it also depends on what the plateau is, as this is not always the right solution. In the case of my first practice session coming home from the UK, I noticed that the reset really helped my physical bow technique and aural/mental perception of tone find a new connection. 
  3. Short-term rest (the normal kind we take between practice sessions, and overnight) contributes to our neuroplasticity in action. The subconscious mind takes this time to muscle-memorize (and aurally memorize) music and help the body ingrain new techniques. 
  4. As simple as it gets – the body and mind need to recover. Recovery lets the body “learn” what to do next time. This creates the compound effect from one practice session to the next, from one day to the next. 

To quote authors Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness in their book, Peak Performance: “Stress + Rest = Growth”

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