Back in May, I decided to take on the 100 consecutive days of practice challenge. We had been in quarantine mode for about six weeks, and it didn't seem like things were going to change any time soon. So, in the interest of keeping myself accountable to my clarinet (it is my job after all) I hunkered down with a practice journal and got to work. Two hundred days later I'm still going strong, and here is what I've learned.
Like distance running, I ran into a few mental and physical walls along the way. But once I was in that mindset of meeting a goal, not doing the thing was not an option. On some days when I might have convinced myself I needed to take a day off and recover from whatever clarinet-induced discomfort, I had to find a way to be productive without that. Because I pushed through with increased mindfulness of my body I learned a lot about where I hold tension as I play and the musical or postural alignment circumstances that trigger or exacerbate it. My goals for those days became developing strategies for anticipating and counteracting those physical tendencies. If I had taken those days off, it is likely that I would have perpetuated a recurring pattern of unhealthy habits. Instead I am a stronger, more conscious player than I was 200 days ago for having grappled with those physical limitations.
Some days I just didn't feel like playing. All manner of excuses pop into our minds on these days: "I'm tired." "I had a long day at work." "I don't feel good." All of these woes are easily justifiable when we don't want to do something: "I've been working really hard, I deserve a day off." "I can't be productive if I'm not mentally fresh." "I'll feel better if I just lie in bed for a while with a book." But I couldn't indulge in any of these justifications. I made a commitment to myself. When I was mentally fatigued or creatively absent, I found that was a great time to focus on how playing felt rather than how it sounded. I would even play with the television on. Instead of trying to learn new music or make decisions about phrasing, I'd pay attention to how I was breathing and supporting my air in long tones. I'd play scales and experiment with how little pressure I could use in my fingers, and I'd find out how much embouchure tension I could eliminate with better air support. Muscle memory tests to see how much of my audition material I could play by memory with distractions on were also beneficial, and helped me identify passages to spend more time on in my next session when I was feeling more engaged.
While not all 200 days were the most euphoric practice sessions ever (some were!) I learned to meet myself at the mental and physical level I was at each day, using the "off" days to find meaningful ways to accomplish something anyway and focus on aspects of my playing neglected in busier times. These days helped me build consistency, which made possible the awesome days when everything feels and sounds great. Over time the good days happened with increasing frequency, and the stamina I had established got me through many hours of recording with little to no fatigue. I was making it through my excerpt list with much more consistency, and I was able to produce recordings for projects at work with greater precision.
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned over these past 200 days is how much power we have over excuses. Prioritizing those things that are most important to us and consistently showing up for them and for ourselves is incredibly empowering, whether it be practicing, exercise, reading to your kid every day, or remembering to take care of yourself when you're constantly lifting up others. Some of our greatest progress and self-discovery comes from those times when we didn't want to do the thing at all but powered through and made it happen. I can't wait to see what I learn over the next 200 days.
Lilly Haley, D.M.