The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Experimenting with Drugs (don't try this at home!)


Usually, when preparing for a concert, I put in a lot of time practicing, and at some point along the way, I notice that I’m “in shape.”  I can count on my sound being beautiful every day, even at the beginning of my warm-ups.  My body feels relaxed and strong at the same time, and there’s a palpable sense of everything coming together and falling into place.  I don’t mean that I play everything perfectly all the time (I wish!), just that I gain that reliable level of physical confidence with the instrument that means I’m in shape.

I’ve always thought that being in shape was the purely physical result of doing a lot of practice.  I’ve never calculated the hours, but I’ve had that experience enough to expect it after a week or so of regular, intense work, meaning about 2 ½ to 3 hours a day. Recently, however, I had an interesting experience that taught me something new about being in shape.

I had a recital this past January, and began practicing the program in earnest right after Christmas. The days of practice became weeks, and, strangely, I never got that feeling of being in shape.  I was also really struggling to learn the new pieces on the program, even though it wasn’t particularly difficult rep.

At first it was a little mysterious.  As time passed by, though, it became frustrating, and as the recital approached and I kept putting in the hours, I became quite worried. I tried to explain it to myself as a symptom of my flute being a bit overdue for its yearly clean-oil-and-adjust, but troubling questions kept bubbling up in my mind:   Was I losing my touch?  Doing something fundamentally wrong?  Being abandoned by my own talent, or by god?  Were my skills failing with age?

Although my recital went well, it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I figured out what was actually wrong, when I began to try and memorize one of the pieces for my next performance, and I couldn’t do it. Not only did I not feel physically in shape, I also felt like nothing was sticking mentally either.

I had worked for days to memorize a single phrase of the music (This Floating World by Edie Hill). I tried all of the practice tricks and tips I have mentioned here on this blog.  I tried smaller and smaller sections, but to no avail. Finally, I narrowed it down to a string of 7 notes, and I spent 20 minutes on it (breezing right past the 15-Minute Rule in my desperation), and still couldn’t learn it successfully.  Since that’s no more information than a phone number, I began to suspect that something was quite rotten in the state of Denmark (or at least the state of my mind).

Finally I realized that my problems could be related to a medication I was taking.  I had been taking topomirate, a drug designed as an anti-seizure medication, but often prescribed (as in my case) to prevent migraines. I had been taking it since November, gradually increasing the dose as prescribed by my doctor.

Once I thought about it more, I realized that I had actually noticed a couple of cognitive side effects prior to the memorization incident:  I had mysteriously lost my ability to parallel park (up until then a point of pride), and was having difficulty reading non-digital clocks.  I had dismissed both as symptoms of pre-concert stress.

After the memorization incident, however, I immediately began to wean myself of the topomirate.  The first day on the lowered dose, my ability to read clocks was instantly restored, and I knew I was doing the right thing.  Over the next week, my ability to learn new music gradually, but definitely, came back.

Here’s the most interesting thing, though: some time in that first week off the drug, I started feeling in shape again.

I had always thought that feeling in shape was purely physical, but the only thing that had changed was that I was off the meds.  That is, the only thing that had changed was that my brain was working better.

Do you realize what this means?  Being in shape is as much a result of your mental state as it is the result of your physical state. It’s not just how much you go to the “practice gym” that counts, it’s what and how you think while you’re there!

So, what’s the optimal way of thinking to generate that feeling of being in shape?  While I don’t know yet, I will be exploring this in practice and in future posts.  If you have any opinions on the topic or similar experiences, please share them in the comments below. I would love to hear from you – I am sure your thoughts on the subject will spur me on!

Photo credits:  Shutr & digitalbob8

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6 Comments to

“Experimenting with Drugs (don't try this at home!)”

  1. On June 18th, 2010 at 4:21 pm Matthew Taylor Says:

    Hi Zara
    Your observations are so true. I have had other anti seizure medications and it has the same effect on me. Glad I’m not the only one who feels this. I love your blog keep it up.
    Matthew Taylor

  2. On June 18th, 2010 at 4:28 pm admin Says:

    Thanks for the instant reply, Matthew! My doctor looked at me like I was crazy when I described the effects, so it’s interesting to hear that you had a similar experience.

  3. On June 21st, 2010 at 3:26 pm Helen Bledsoe Says:

    Zara, I’ve also experienced serious concentration problems while on antibiotics. That meds mess with your mind is true, and what is interesting is your _perception_ of whether you are in shape or not. What is going on there? Is one in shape or not? And if so, why don’t you feel as if you are? What’s missing? I don’t know. Best wishes, Helen

  4. On June 23rd, 2010 at 10:58 am admin Says:

    Interesting that you’ve had issues with antibiotics. As for being in shape, I think that there must be some sort of ‘mental’ component…there’s the physical part that is your various muscles being trained, and then maybe a mental state that ties them all together? I don’t know yet, either!

  5. On October 27th, 2010 at 2:39 am tom seaman Says:

    check out a book by Csíkszentmihályi Mihály, I believe it is called “flow”…
    about the feel of being in shape, in the flow, etc.

  6. On November 12th, 2010 at 1:10 am invlove Says:

    I’m also concerned that maybe all these years all we really need is a mental diet. I’m currently on for 2 weeks now. I eat 6 times a day & all I do is watch exercise tapes. Imagining that I’m really doing them and yet some how my arms are toner & my legs hurt.

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