I am a really big fan of taking a lot of time off and away from the cello. I believe that the time spent at a desk, studying music, or outside on a run keeps the analytical mind fresh and ready to tackle all problems that arise during regular practice. Small practice breaks (see my lecture on organized practice) during individual sessions and larger breaks (multiple days) away from the cello serve the same purpose: to prepare and ready your body and mind to achieve big things in the practice room.
I've previously discussed organizing your practice to allow the brain some time off. It's incredibly important to allow your mind to recover from the rigors of analytical practice. The body does this naturally, of course, in our daily lives: we sleep! Just as an athlete also takes time to allow his/her body to recover from the rigors of exercise, both long term (overnight, for example) and short term (a water break, or cool down routine) so must musicians allow for time to recover, physically and mentally, throughout our practice time.
I encourage my students to practice 5-6 days each week, for 50 minute hours (or, for my younger students, 25 minute half hours). During these 10 (or 5) minute breaks, I tell them to do whatever they want. I tend to refill my coffee, walk around my house, stare at nothing in particular, or peruse the latest headlines. I'm sure that at least one of my younger students tears out the door to play basketball or run around the track at the school behind his house. Whatever works for you!
Of course, shorter breaks are great for short term relaxation, but what about longer practice breaks? What about time immediately following a big performance, or those days when things just aren't getting better? Well, I posit that large breaks, of multiple days - and perhaps up to a week or more - are just as effective at curing what ails us as small breaks are at maintaining concentration during practice days.
I'm not alone in my belief! I know string players who have battled bad habits (like tense shoulders, or a bow hand position that juuuust doesn't quite work) who have taken a small (though still significant) time away from the instrument to get themselves back in to practice shape. I think it works in the same manner as practicing away from the instrument (something you can still do during these extended breaks): a little vacay allows the body to relax and figure out what it's doing. You go about your day, you don't worry about that shoulder tension or right index finger curling around your bow.
Take 6 days off, and come back fresh. I've tried this recently and found that this technique works wonders! I always remember how to play the cello, but a weeklong break forces me to remember how it feels to play the cello. All of a sudden my shoulders relax, my back straightens a bit, the endpin is pulled out an inch longer and my left thumb grips the neck a bit less. Habits that I had been STRUGGLING to fix for months rolled away. My right hand allows the bow to do the work. My left hand vibrates, fluidly connecting notes.
What I find difficult is determining what to do while on these breaks. It's one thing to take a break, but quite another to be productive! This week, I spent an enormous amount of time going over music for upcoming programs, spending time with tough music (learning rhythms, tentatively deciding on fingerings/bowings), and working on extra-musical things - like websites, press materials, and scheduling. No matter what, a long break shouldn't be totally "music free," instead it should allow the body to recover; allow the mind to take a break; and reenergize one's musical spirit!
Instead of rambling on here, I'll conclude by saying that breaks are GOOD! Those folks in the world of 9-5 jobs get vacation, and so should musicians. We may not know what a forty hour work week feels like and we may not have experienced a weekend in decades, but we deserve - and REQUIRE - these breaks just as often as non-musicians! Happy relaxation!