How to Practice Part 3

Negative Vibes

Like the journey of life, the student’s musical journey isn’t always a straight line. Actually, it looks more like this:

Line graph showing success that is not a straight line
Welcome to the struggle.

If you’re in one of the descending phases, it can feel like you’re blocked. You keep going over those phrases slower, faster, up and down, but no matter how hard you try, you can’t master them. Plus, your teacher might think you’re not practicing when really you are, you just can’t figure it out.

You’re frustrated with yourself, frustrated with the music, and frustrated with your teacher for thinking that you’re not trying. It’s a lot.

I remember one of these moments vividly. Shifting (moving your left had to play higher on the neck of a stringed instrument) is second nature to advanced violinists, but it’s still something that you have to learn to do. For whatever reason, my stupid hands couldn’t figure it out.

After a month of practicing an exercise with little success, I fought back tears as I said to my teacher, “Someday I’ll be playing Paganini and still be trying to pass this exercise.”

It feels like you’ve hit a wall, and it is frustrating.

Paganini playing violin
I’m aware that you can’t play Paganini without being able to shift. You get the idea.

This is a make or break moment for young musicians: Either you persevere and scale the wall, or you turn back and walk away.

If you or your student were able to scale the wall, great! Give yourself a pat on the back. Unfortunately, I have bad news:

There are more walls waiting for you.

Do you have a strategy to climb it?

Strategy 1: Go to your teacher

Air your grievances.

You should feel comfortable enough with your teacher to share your frustrations. They’ve undoubtedly been there before so they will be understanding.

You may find that a little empathy is all you need.

Man with broken guitar
There’s solace in knowing no one has it together.

Ask their advice.

There’s more than one way to get a job done. Maybe you need to look at your music in a different way. How else can it be explained? Teachers have more than one strategy at the ready just for these occasions.

Ask for a different exercise.

Your teacher will have different method books that teach the same material but with different exercises. If you’ve spent too much time with one exercise, get a fresh one. That may be all you need.

However, you don’t want to get into the habit of quitting music that’s hard for something you like better. Once you’ve mastered the technique by another program, come back to the original exercise that gave you trouble. You’ll probably breeze right through it!

Strategy 2: Reference other sources

Do you easily learn new techniques at your lesson but can’t figure them out when practicing?

We learn by hearing, seeing, and doing, so it’s easier to pick up new information when you’re with your teacher who is telling you, showing you, and working with you.

Utilize every learning strategy.

Watch videos of professionals, look at instructional videos and blogs, read about how others perfected their technique…whatever would be beneficial to you. But, be cautious when you do.

If your teacher has limits on what or how much to watch, respect their instruction. They don’t want you to pick up bad habits from unreliable sources.

Practice with others.

Got some friends learning the same stuff?

Boy gets his head stuck in his friend's tuba
Neither do I… Just kidding!

Practice a couple of times with someone else. They may see something you don’t and can help you master a new technique (and vise-versa!).

Strategy 3: Take a break…

During your practice session.

You can always skip the hard stuff for now and circle back. If you’re getting frustrated, this will give you some time to cool off.

For the day.

If your’re still frustrated, cut yourself some slack and revisit it tomorrow with fresh chops. Negativity is counterproductive in the practice room, so sometimes ending early is more beneficial to you.

From the instrument.

As much as we hate to think of our students quitting, sometimes it’s the best option. Is the challenge truly too much right now? Would it be easier if they were a little older? Would some time away help them realize how much they really love it?

If you do opt for this option, talk with your teacher first. Explain that you think the benefits are not outweighing the negatives, and some time to breathe would be helpful.

Person walks away with guitar
It’s better to take a break now than to burn out later.

Put a time limit on your break. 

A slated amount of time will help you really assess if you want to continue study or not, and will keep you from unintentionally walking away permanently.

Final thoughts

Above all else, don’t get discouraged. Challenges seem like they will hold you back, but defeating them will only make you stronger.

Remember:

  1. The success of your practice depends on your attitude.
  2. Be patient. No one is expecting you to be a professional in one session.
  3. Studying music is an emotional process. It’s okay to have a response to what you’re doing.

 

What strategies do you use to get through tough practices?

 

Need to figure out how to practice? Check out Parts One and Two of this series!