For many music teachers, Covid-19 has closed our studios to face-to-face lessons indefinitely and moved us to an online format. While most teachers are happy for available technology that enables us to offer online lessons as a safe alternative to in-person lessons during a global pandemic, we are also encountering many unforeseen issues that we must learn to navigate on the fly. Overnight, we had to learn to teach music with internet lag, learn new tech gadgets, and learn new and different money management methods (when we could no longer accept checks or cash). We changed our scheduling, balanced our new family life with 100% quality time spent together, and learned to hold more space for the mental health of our children, students, and ourselves. It’s a lot.
One theme that I started to notice in students on day one of the pandemic was an obvious drop off in the amount of practicing they do on a regular basis. With schedules tossed out the window, we were all waiting to see what would happen, and mental health began to decline, manifesting as a lack of motivation to be productive. We all felt it.
After many weeks of online lessons, it started to become clear that, initially, we were waiting for things to go back to normal. We were in a sort of limbo. Once we were back to our normal lives, surely normal practicing would pick up again. Right? When that started to look like it wasn’t going to happen, I began to ask more probing questions of my students. I didn’t have to dig very deeply to discover that—whether 12 years old or 20 years old, male or female—emotionally, they were sad, confused, and, like me, didn’t even know what day it was most of the time.
After a few months of addressing the obvious, trying to encourage students to fall into some kind of a new routine, coming up with practice schedules, setting deadlines, and creating virtual performance opportunities, I finally realized WHY my students—teen through young adults—were having so much trouble: they already felt sad and isolated; when they practiced what they needed to (i.e., what they’re weakest at), it made them feel worse. Without the positive effects and happy brain chemicals released during performing, doing the hard stuff while practicing just for the sake of practice was, well, too hard emotionally.
Most of my students are engaged in rehearsals or performances of some kind ALL YEAR ROUND! Theatre is a sport here in Houston. These kids are fed emotionally, socially, and spiritually, and their little hearts are set into motion to want to practice their skills daily making them competitive to get that lead in the next musical, where they could perform. And performing makes them feel GOOD.
When you have something in your life that you are good at, that you receive praise for, that you feel strong in, you practice that. You engage in that. You breathe that in. You thrive off of that thing. You want to keep going and, yes, even practice to continue those delicious feel-good emotions and happy endorphins that thing provides. The adrenaline and dopamine you get from performing are addictive and motivate you to keep practicing. But accountability can also be a motivator.
When you commit to a show, you commit to every cast member, director, and future audience member that you will practice and put on a good show. That accountability helps to form good practice habits, whether realized or not. One study cited in Psychology Today‘s article, “Why Is It So Hard to Change Bad Habits“, states that, “if you are held accountable to someone else, by committing to someone that you will achieve a goal, then your chance of success is up to 95 percent” (Jaffe).
In March, that all ended abruptly when we were put in quarantine. Now, nearly 6 months later and still without a vaccine (or, at least, an effective treatment) in sight, there’s no known end date to this dry spell in the performing arts. I have been slowly watching a handful of students struggle to find their footing and become so down on themselves the last few months as they feel a few skills slipping that were so hard-earned prior to Covid-19. In short, they’re depressed, and motivation to practice in areas where they need growth is sparse while the normal motivating factors of adrenaline and accountability are missing from their no-longer-active lives.
Here’s the thing: most of us are currently in a state of fight, flight, or freeze. We’re stuck at home, anxious or waiting, with no future plans on the horizon. Our little lizard brains are just trying to keep things afloat, so, for some of us, practicing has taken a major backseat to just trying to get through each day. And—hear me now, because this is important—THAT’S OKAY! There is nothing shameful about surviving. It might sound silly to think that just sitting at home watching Netflix is a coping strategy, but it is, and it’s an effective distraction to how crazy things have gotten.
I remember reading an article a while back called “9 Healthy Ways to Deal with Distress“. One suggestion was to focus on what we do want instead of what we don’t want (Tartakovsky). In other words, we don’t want to be cooped up and quarantined away from our friends and the things that make life worthwhile for us, but we do want to be ready to perform when we get the green light, with solid skills we can be practicing now. However, when we practice, not only are we are supposed to practice what’s already good, but we should primarily focus on improving where we’re weak.
Practicing what you’re weak in DOESN’T FEEL GOOD. After all, we didn’t fall in love with singing and performing for those things we’re weak in; we fell in love with it because we were good at it and because it gave us what many perceive as more value and a purpose. When you finally get stronger in an area, sure, that feels great and can motivate you to continue to practice your weaknesses. But, in the immediate term, analyzing and working on our weaknesses can make us feel incapable, hopeless, and unworthy, and send us into despair when we can’t identify any kind of payoff for what we’re trying to accomplish.
Slowly, our hard work becomes mediocre work and, eventually, no work at all if we become consumed by those negative feelings. If we can muster up the energy to even practice for a moment but not find success after that single practice session, we only solidify the already negative feelings we were having about that weak skill. Now, we’re stuck in a negative cycle that continues to confirm itself: “I can’t do it, why bother even trying?”
This is what the pandemic has done to many of us, no matter if you’re a musician, an athlete, or just a human trying to human. And this just becomes an additional set of roadblocks for those of us who already struggle with mental health. The arts are usually a safe haven for us, where many of us find our voice, feel valued, and feel like we can contribute to society through the stories we tell. The pandemic has thrown gasoline on the fire of our emotional weaknesses, and it isn’t very hard right now for anyone to get stuck in a rut. In isolation, lots of us don’t have access to the thing that was once keeping us motivated through: performance. For others not active in the arts, that might be social gatherings, Sunday brunch with our family, school, travel, concerts—you name it, that list goes on and on.
For a couple of months, I told my students who were struggling to “just sing.” When you’re sad, sing. Happy? Sing. Just sing. Sing to the radio, sing in the shower, sing your favorite show. Anything. Forget our normal, structured practice right now. Just don’t give up singing!!! I added a few virtual performances, online workshops and master classes with professionals—anything that I could think of that would require my students to practice and prepare. And that helps, but it doesn’t address the elephant in the room for my more advanced students: if you’re at the stage in your lessons where you are preparing for college auditions/summer camps/professional auditions, you need to be not “JUST singing” but practicing efficiently in the areas in which you need growth and keeping your stamina up in the areas where you’re already strong.
Of course, no one wants to lose skills, range, or stamina; instead, we want to gain them if we’re hoping to keep going in this business. Theatre won’t wait for us to feel better, so we have to start trying to find our new normal. Live theatre WILL happen again, and, when it does, I want you to be ready to take your place in the spotlight with confidence and a healthy, well-balanced set of skills in your back pocket. The world is going to need the arts, and the world is going to need YOU!
Practicing to strengthen our weaknesses is vulnerable. And hard. And scary. I am also 1,000% talking to myself here. We know on some intellectual level that “practice makes perfect” and that there is an eventual payoff if we keep doing the damn thing. But on an emotional level, when things are already so uncertain, we tend to go into survival mode and shut down when growth isn’t happening fast enough for us. This process is a normal part of being human on any given day. During a pandemic, we’re learning that the negative aspects of that process are amplified. You’re not lazy for not being able to practice in this state. You’re coping. Then we start allowing that inner voice to shame us for all of the perceived failed expectations we have of ourselves. We shame ourselves for not jumping up and practicing those dances from YouTube that we said we would, or memorizing that monologue or song, or not working for 20 minutes today in our weakest vocal register like we were told we should before our next lesson.
Instead of allowing the shame beast to continue this negative cycle, I offer these 6 steps to getting back on track. I’m going to be doing them myself in a few areas of my life, and I hope you’ll do them with me:
- Acknowledge that practicing what you’re not already good at is vulnerable and can feel shitty—ESPECIALLY during these current times. Be present in your body—really present. What feels tense? What feels relaxed? Are you feeling a specific emotion right now? Where does that emotion show up in your body? If it’s stress and frustration, there’s a high probability you can sense some tension in your throat. We don’t use the term “all choked up” for nothing.
- Make a list of your performing strengths. ALL of them. Be specific and detailed. Note how your body feels when you read your strengths. What does pride feel like? Accomplishment? Does your stomach feel light? Arms floaty? Whatever the feeling, it all matters and means something. Write it down.
- Break your plans to practice down into chunks. Make a list of short term goals for today and this week—not everything you need to do by November 1st. Practice in tiny chunks. Accomplish things from your list in chunks. Research in chunks. Whatever it might be, just break it down. Before your practice session, decide what small thing you’re going to troubleshoot today and start there. Doing a little is better than doing nothing.
- Change your self-talk to sound less like shaming/blaming and more like what you might tell a friend who was being way too hard on themselves. This is going to feel really stupid and false at first. That’s ok. Do it anyway.
- Start your practice session with what makes you feel good. Refer back to that list of strengths. Maybe that’s an old monologue or song from a role that you know you rocked! After you feel sufficiently badass again, spend a little while on the hard stuff. Let that time you spend there become a little longer each week until you’re back up to the time you know you need to be spending there. Again, doing a little is better than doing nothing.
- Remind yourself why you started singing in the first place. We love it, right? We GET to do this. It’s a privilege to be able to move our bodies and voices in such a creative manner. Make a list of things you love about singing and all of the ways you think music has changed you. Read your list when you feel crappy about how things are going. Add to the list often.
- If you have old recordings of yourself, go watch them to remind yourself how far you’ve already come. Try to remember what it felt like to be at that stage, wishing you were where you are now. Tell yourself that a year from now you’ll look back and be able to see the same kind of progress again.
I hope it goes without saying that what we’re after with getting into our practice routine is never perfection. Perfection is boring, not to mention unattainable unless you’re a robot. We are all inherently born worthy, talented, beautiful, special, and with a song to sing. The world needs the gifts each of us has to offer. Give yourself some grace and compassion while you BUILD upon your gifts and the strengths that are already there.
An article from Harvard Business listed “A 3-Step Plan for Turning Weaknesses into Strengths“. Even though this is a journal about business, there are still some pretty insightful things about handling our emotions. In the article, it suggests making a plan of action that includes managing the inevitable negative emotions that are bound to arise when looking at where you need growth. The author says:
Simply forcing yourself to attempt a terrifying or uncomfortable behavior is not a success in and of itself; provoking these unpleasant emotions will simply reinforce that this is an act to be avoided. You must seek out tactics you can use to make the unpleasant act more pleasant, or at least manageable. By doing so, you gradually retrain your brain to change its formula for predicting how you’ll feel in your crucial moments.Joseph Grenny
This is where I think looking at old recordings that show the progress you’ve already made can be helpful and hopeful. You’ve already done hard things that you didn’t think you’d be able to in the past, and you can and will again.
Look, this stuff would be difficult anyway, even if we weren’t all locked away in our homes, impatient to get out, impatient to all be better versions of pre-pandemic selves, and impatient to get back on stage telling the stories that we love. How we spend our time right now is possibly more important than ever for far more than just our music practice habits, but also for our personal growth as humans in a community who need each other more than ever. We need your heart. We need your voice. Don’t quit, but do learn to rest.
Lastly, if you find pieces of yourself in these words but feel too stuck to see a way out, I highly encourage you to reach out to a licensed professional. I am a firm believer that everyone needs therapy and there is no shame in needing someone to talk to. It’s okay to not be okay.