Even in a normal year, the final months can bring some burnout in all areas of life, and that includes music. If you’re feeling that burnout, it can be tempting to wonder if it might be best to take a break from your instrument. To keep enjoying playing, many people try putting their instrument down for a few days. But so often, I’ve seen those few days turn into a few weeks, a few months, and often even longer. 

Why don’t breaks work like we intend them to? It’s twofold. First, it just takes more energy to begin something again than it does to continue it. If you take a break and come back later, you run the risk of “Day 1 difficulties,” the feelings that make it hard to begin something even when you want to. Secondly, even when you get over that Day 1 hump and begin playing again, you may find yourself frustrated because of all the progress you’ve lost in your time off. 

What you really need when you feel like taking time off isn’t to put your instrument away, only to come back with more challenges facing you. Instead of taking a break from your instrument, have you thought about changing your approach to it for a while?

Think back for a minute to why you began playing music: I’m guessing it was because it brought you joy. Burnout can make that joy harder to find, but it’s not solved by putting your instrument down. Burnout and exhaustion usually come from other mental baggage we bring to our music, and at the end of the year, especially this year, there’s plenty of baggage that may have hitched a ride. Instead of walking away from music to try to remedy that exhaustion, shifting the way you approach music can be a much more effective way to rediscover the joy in playing. Think of it as musician’s self-care.

Here are some ways that I practice self-care in my musical life. I hope they help you too.

1. Be gentle with yourself. When we play music, we naturally need to self-evaluate to improve. But evaluation easily turns into criticism, and criticism can easily turn into negativity and even meanness in your self-talk. Here are some keys to identify negative thoughts:

  • Look for absolutes. “I’m always ___” or “I never ___” probably aren’t true, and they don’t help you.
  • Look for judgments directed at yourself personally. “I learn too slowly” or “I just can’t get that right” are not about your playing, and they don’t help you.
  • Look for comparisons. Measuring yourself against your friends or trying to “beat” some arbitrary standard does not help you.

Instead, replace negative thoughts with gentler, positive thoughts. These thoughts evaluate without criticizing and are curious, kind, and patient:

  • “I often make this mistake here. I wonder why and how I can improve it.”
  • “I am allowed to learn at whatever pace I need.”
  • “I will improve one thing today, and that is enough.”
  • “I enjoy playing this tune.”

2. Measure what you put in, not what you get out. You can hold yourself accountable for effort, but not for outcome. If you set the goal to play one part of Soldier’s Joy perfectly by the end of the week, you are aiming for something that is out of your control and may very well discourage you from practicing for fear of failure. But if you set the goal to put in thirty minutes of attention to that part every day, odds are that you will make much more progress and feel much better while you do it.

3. Play things you enjoy. This seems simple, but it’s often overlooked. If you focus all your playing time solely on improving, you may miss out on the sheer enjoyment of playing for the sake of playing. Make time every time you pick up your fiddle, even if it’s the only thing you do, to play something that makes you feel good. Don’t try to “fix” anything—just play. It’s called “playing” for a reason, after all. Let your hair down a little bit.

4. Listen to music you love. One way I love to get reinspired is to listen to music I really adore. Usually, it’s music that makes me want to dance or sing or laugh or cry, something that really speaks to me. It helps me remember why I play music.

5. Remember the ebb and flow. Sometimes you’ll feel gung-ho and want to practice for hours every day. Sometimes you don’t have the energy or the time for that. That’s okay. Music is something that can fit into your life as your life changes. It’s not limited to people who have hours to practice uninterrupted every day. It’s something you can do with kids, with jobs, with limited time and energy. It’s something you can mold to your needs. If your normal practice routine doesn’t fit into your life right now, change it! It’s okay. Better to do it messy than not to do it at all.

I hope these tips help you rediscover the joy of playing this winter and going forward. Any time you feel like taking a break, ask yourself why. Usually, it’s because one of these self-care pieces is missing. Are you exhausting yourself with negative self-talk every time you play? No wonder you want to walk away. Are you putting too much pressure on yourself? Music shouldn’t be a source of pressure. Instead of putting down your instrument when you feel these things, return to it in a different way. Be curious, be kind, be gentle. Return to the joyful bits and leave the rest. You’ll thank yourself (and so will your fiddle).