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What To Do When You've Got Nothing To Do

January can be a difficult month, for a variety of reasons. Holidays are over, pants might be a little tighter than you'd like, you have new goals that require you to force yourself into new routines that may or may not be sustainable. It’s cold, it’s dark, and the very thought of eating turkey makes you a little sick to your stomach.

If you’re a busy working musician, January can also be a little scary. You’ve got to be busy enough in December to get you through the next couple of months. Odds are, your next reliable, consistent gig isn’t coming until Easter. You’ve packed away Sleigh Ride and The Nutcracker for the year, but it’s still a little too early to bust out Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

Even if you’re not gigging, the downtime after the holidays can be a little daunting. Holiday concerts are done and you’re facing a blank calendar. Or you’re in the second wave of an international pandemic and your government has just reinstated a lockdown. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

So what do you do?

The good news is that this is the BEST time to go back to basics. You’ve got all the time in the world to correct those bad habits that may have crept up during the busy season.

Aching muscles and soreness after playing? Take a look in the mirror as you play to see where tension is creeping in and work on playing as relaxed as possible.

Has your tone become thin and a little forced? Reacquaint yourself with your support, do some breathing exercises (try a Breath Builder or the Breathing Gym) and work on your long tones.

Has your technique taken a hit because you simply haven’t had enough time to practice everything and repertoire took priority? Put on your best bowtie and dust off your Taffanel and Gaubert. (I’m obsessed with Monsieur Gaubert’s bowtie. That picture brings me joy.)

Make a project for yourself. Try Michel Debost’s Scale Game, learn something that’s been sitting on your shelf for a while, let your piccolo see the light of day, try circular breathing, or plan a recital.

Still feeling uninspired? Talk to your teacher! Guaranteed, they’ll give you more than enough to work on. If you aren’t taking regular lessons, now’s a great time to start. Expand your network and take a lesson or two with someone new.

Here are some ideas to keep you motivated and structured in the off-season:

  • Try a new technique book, like Andre Maquarre’s Daily Exercises, Robert Dick’s Tone Development Through Extended Techniques, Marcel Moyse’s Mecanisme-Chromatisme or Tone Development Through Interpretation, or Walfrid Kujala’s Vade Mecum.

  • Is there a piece you’ve always wanted to learn, but just never had the time? Congratulations, now you can! Even if it’s a bit beyond your abilities, that’s ok. Learn it slow, study the score, find your favourite recording. Enjoy the process without any pressure.

  • Reacquaint yourself with an old favourite. I started my COVID-19 lockdown with the Schubert Variations and the Reinecke Concerto. With all this free time I can go really slowly and methodically—it would be perfect for the Ibert Concerto. Maybe this time I can learn it without getting hurt...

  • Try something totally new. Have you ever wanted to experiment with pieces for flute and electronics? Learn traverso? Jazz? Explore the repertoire for solo bass flute? Transcribe a piece written for another instrument? The possibilities are endless.

The important thing to remember is that in this downtime you absolutely do not need to maintain the same level of practice time as you did when things were busy. Leave toxic productivity at the door, be kind to yourself, and do what inspires you. This is supposed to be fun, after all. If all you manage is 20 minutes a day, well, that’s ok! It’s better than not playing at all and you’re still keeping those muscles active (read my tricks and tips for when you really aren't in the mood to practice). Build up your new routine gradually so that you’re fresh, and when things pick up again, you’ll still be in shape.

What do you do when you’re less busy? Let me know in the comments!


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