When I was growing up I spent most of my holidays on music courses. The time I spent away from the cello was minimal and I cannot remember ever really taking large chunks of time “off” from playing the cello. There was too much going on, and anyway, I enjoyed practicing, playing the cello was never work to me, and thereby was never something I needed or wanted to take time off from. When the holidays arrived I could practice and enjoy myself with my instrument without having to squeeze it in amongst school and other activities. I could relax with it.
That being said, in my late teens and early 20s, there were times I did feel the need to take time off. Certain periods could get very busy and I would feel the need to recharge and to spend more time with the people closest to me.
The longest period of time I have ever taken away from the cello was after my marriage. Just prior to the wedding I had been very busy. I believe I was finished with this hectic period about 10 days before the wedding. At this point my focus went to my family, logistics and tasks relating to the upcoming wedding. After our wedding my wife and I went on a fantastic cruise and all in all I had 4 weeks without playing a single note. My plan was to pick up the cello again 1 week before playing a recital at a festival.
I think the most I had ever been away from the instrument in one stretch at this point was 2 weeks. I had never been taught how to practice after time away and the results that particular time after 4 weeks away were disastrous.
I went straight into practicing 4-5 hours. I expected to be a little sore, but that it would feel better by the 3rd or 4th day. However, by the 3rd or 4th day I was instead experiencing intense pain in my left hand first finger.
It turned out that I had burst a blood vessel in my finger at the exact point where my finger touched the strings. I not only had to cancel the recital at the festival, but I had to cancel everything for the next 3 months including an opportunity to jump in at short notice in a chamber music concert at the Wigmore hall.
After this experience I started to experiment with different ways in which to get back in shape after time off. These days I usually only take 2 weeks completely cello free in one go. But I have taken 3 weeks away a couple of times and I have been able to get into shape safely and reasonably efficiently.
I say reasonably efficiently as the first important principle of getting back in shape after time off safely is to have enough time to get back in shape! It takes time to loose calluses and thick skin on the finger tips, and it also takes time to loose the strength you have built up in your arms (or anywhere else playing related). Unfortunately in my experience it takes just as long (or longer) to build it all back up.
After taking one or two days off I usually won’t notice anything and I can get right back into a full practice and rehearsal schedule. After three to four days off I notice a little soreness and I may spend 3 days building up from 1 hour to 2 hours just to be on the safe side. After one or two weeks away from the cello I definitely get sore fingers, I can’t seem to get the sound I want, and I get easily tired in my arms. This is of course very individual but I believe most people will need at least as much time to get into reasonable playing shape as they took off away from the instrument. For me this means that if I have taken 2 weeks off then I will build up my playing over 2 weeks too. I don’t expect to practice fully and attack repertoire or have rehearsals until I have been building up my stamina, muscles and skin/calluses for 2 weeks.
I went straight into 4 hour practice days after 4 weeks off in 2002. What I should have done was build up the time spent with the cello gradually. I have done this in different ways over the years but in more recent times I have even started with 15 mins practice on day 1 (a very comfortable and short work day after 3 weeks off) and then I simply add 5 or 10 minutes daily until I am up to 2 hours. Once I have 2 hours of stamina I am ready to tackle repertoire and rehearsals. If I have taken 2 weeks off then I will spend 2 weeks getting back into shape and it looks something like this:
Three important principals for how you use this time that there isn’t time to write in depth about here:
There needs to be a build up in the amount of time you spend playing.
There needs to be a build up in the difficulty of the music you play.
There needs to be a build up in the accuracy you demand of yourself.
I call this process after time off my «cure» as it is a time where I can really focus on resetting my playing and take a closer look at the basics.
I hope you enjoyed this! Happy practicing and getting back into amazing playing form safely after your holiday!