The Idle Pianist

… it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top

– Virginia Woolf

We are all so busy these days. Musicians, by necessity, tend to be busy people – busy practising, performing, creating performing opportunities, meeting and working with colleagues, applying for funding, teaching, preparing lesson plans, doing admin….. The peripatetic nature of our working lives means that we are often trying to keep a variety of balls in the air at the same time, and many of us feel that being busy validates what we do. As a fellow musician tweeted on Christmas Eve,  “does anyone else find Christmas slightly angst-inducing? Feels odd not working.” Because for most musicians work shapes every hour of the day.

But that’s not all….

In today’s modern society many of us seem caught in a “busy trap” – and one which is almost entirely of our own making. Idleness, or doing little or nothing, is considered A Bad Thing because it is perceived as unproductive, while being busy reassures us that we are doing something useful or purposeful with our time. Many of us are busy because of our own ambition or anxiety, or because we’ve become almost addicted to being busy and dread what we might have to face without it. Telling others that we are busy also helps to endorse our activities: I have a concert pianist colleague who emails me on a fairly regular basis to tell me how busy he is with concerts, reeling off lists of works and venues. At first glance, this seems terribly exciting and wonderful that he is keeping so well-occupied doing the thing he loves. On another level, I wonder if it is a perverse form of attention-seeking, a complaint disguised as a boast. In an ideal scenario, I suspect he’d prefer to do less, to have more time to listen to and enjoy music, go to concerts rather than always be the one giving the concert, read, spend time with family and friends, and maybe even embrace idleness now and then as an antidote to the relentless, and self-imposed, treadmill of his profession.

Of course as musicians we need to practise: this article is absolutely not a suggestion that we stop practising and simply loll around in our practise rooms eating chocolate truffles. Music students can often get very quickly caught up in the “busyness” of practising, where things are “done” – scales and exercises rattled off, pieces played through relentlessly –  and these habits of practising are carried forward into their professional lives, with little consideration whether such a regime is truly productive. In our working lives, where so many of us are freelance and peripatetic, it is often necessary to accept work because you don’t know when the next lean patch will come. This can result in us becoming suffocatingly over-scheduled, which in turn can lead to ill-health and anxiety.


Social media doesn’t help either: seeing what others are posting, sharing details of their exciting concerts, events and activities, and broadcasting their seemingly vibrant and busy lives across Facebook and Twitter et al may make the rest of us wonder if we are really doing enough. In addition, there’s an avalanche of email that needs to be read and replied to right now, because turning on an auto-reply message may look as if we’re not busy nor sufficiently engaged…….And smart phones, tablets and laptops mean we remain connected 24/7 with no division between our working day and time off. Filling our lives with activity can be exhilarating and invigorating – until that activity, that busyness, becomes overwhelming.

So maybe some of us need to reappraise how we use our time. Sometimes a life event forces such a reappraisal: a friend of mine had a gardening accident at the beginning of 2016 and had to have surgery on her back. While recuperating at home, unable to do much more than potter around her house, she made several important decisions about her working life. The result of this enforced period of reflection led her to leave a job she disliked and set up her own consultancy business. She now works from home – and she works less and achieves more, with a much better work-life balance, with time for her family, herself, and extra-curricular activities such as music and sport which she enjoys.

Much is made of “me time”, but too often this feels hard won, desperately shoe-horned into our over-scheduled days as a rare indulgence rather than something that might actually be beneficial, enabling us to work and function better. Taking time off, a “me time” day, can feel like a guilty pleasure, when all around us others are keeping busy. But idleness is good for us: not just an indulgence nor a vice, it is in fact indispensable to the brain, and the space and quietness of idleness can create unexpected connections, resolution of seemingly intractable problems, and those Eureka! moments of inspiration which are crucial to the creative person’s day-to-day life. In addition, our brains require down time to process the information with which we are deluged every day, consolidate memory, reinforce learning, and to recharge the batteries. Even Seneca, writing in the first century, recognised busyness as both a distraction and a preoccupation:

“No activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied … since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply, but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it”

From the outside, creative people – musicians, writers, artists – quite often seem to be “doing nothing” when they are not actively and, more importantly, obviously engaged in making music, attending book launches, or exhibiting their paintings. But it is that very idleness which triggers new ideas, sparks creativity, and helps develop more focused attention – all important considerations for the musician.

For the idle pianist, may I suggest the following ‘unbusy’ activities which may actually be beneficial:

  • Practise intelligently. We’re constantly being reminded of the benefits of intelligent practise, but all to often we engage in mindless, repetitive note-bashing, which may feel like practising, but is rarely truly productive
  • Exercise more self-compassion and be kind to yourself. So what if you didn’t complete the full three hours of practising this morning because you’re tired from last night’s concert? Allow yourself time to recuperate and recharge: your practising will almost certainly be more productive as a result.
  • Take time away from the practise room to enjoy music. A number of professional pianists whom I’ve interviewed as part of my Meet the Artist series have expressed frustration at the demands of a profession which can rob them of their love of music. Re-connect with the music you love through listening or going to concerts.
  • Time away from the instrument reading scores, listening and simply thinking about the music (playing through sections in one’s head, for example) is always useful and allows one to stand back from the music and consider it more objectively
  • Take regular exercise. This seems obvious too, and yet many of us are too busy to include exercise in our daily routine. Walking or swimming can be particularly beneficial to the musician: it is enforced time away from the instrument while the rhythm of repetitive physical activity can free the mind to process issues encountered during practise, allowing us to work through them in a more considered way.
  • Schedule “doing nothing” time, or even a day off, into your working week, in the way you schedule a task like practising, and don’t feel guilty about it.

My New Year resolution for 2017 is to do less, to be more selective about which events and concerts I attend, to make time for regular exercise, to not feel guilty if I don’t always get in as much practise time as I would like, and to enjoy periods (if only 10 minutes in a day) of idleness. Already this new regime seems to be working: my head is full of new ideas for blog posts and I’ve been inspired to learn some new music from simply spending time listening rather than playing.

(Lolcat by Sylvia Segal)