How To Overcome Challenges When Practicing

Anyone learning to play a musical instrument may be assured of one thing: while practice may not make for perfect playing, practice will become an essential part of the budding musician’s life.


Unfortunately, practicing an instrument for hours at a stretch, whether daily or weekly, can be tedious. Most people give up playing a musical instrument before they reach any level of competence simply because they are frustrated with a perceived lack of progress. The frustrated novice may also find running scales or learning fingering technique is not nearly as exciting as playing in a recital or on-stage to a capacity stadium crowd.


For those who are feeling burned-out on their instruments or perhaps think they are not making sufficient or quick progress there are a few tips that can help in staying motivated and dedicated. These tips for preventing burnout all address the key issue of frustration.


First, it is best to acknowledge the frustration felt rather than ignore it. Saying to oneself, “This is hard. This isn’t feeling right to me. This doesn’t sound right,” is a positive step. It does not mean one is a failure, it means one recognizes the challenges faced in learning to play well.


After allowing the admission of being frustrated the next step is to identify the source of that frustration. For those who are learning to sight-read sheet music, pacing and keeping time are important. Measure for measure much of what is practiced may flow smoothly but one particular phrase or even bar may cause problems. Play through the piece again. Is there a measure that is troublesome? Even if not playing with sheet music play the piece again until the specific chord or note that is causing a stumbling block is isolated. From that the practice session can at least become a way to progress once the problem is identified.


When hacking away again and again at a piece of music that doesn’t seem to coalesce into a smoothly flowing whole, another good tip is to simply stop for awhile. This is better than practicing repeatedly over the same error, committing it again and again with increasing frustration mounting with each badly executed note. If necessary, literally stand up and leave the instrument for about five or ten minutes. Take a few deep breaths. Once a sense of calm has returned think about the sound desired from the musical passage that was attempted. What will it sound like when a complete run-through is over? How does the music feel as it makes its way through that successful run? This is a mental exercise, one designed to take some of the focus away from the problem and imagine the ideal instead.


Another part of the process is to identify the problem. This is not the same thing as identifying the source of one’s frustration but instead it is the nuts-and-bolts of fixing what is wrong. Ask small questions that will lead to a solution. Is the problem technical (e.g., an instrument that won’t stay in tune)? Is it a matter of technique (one’s hands cannot seem to execute the notes that wanted)? In the latter case experiment with different ways of getting the fingers to comfortably play through the troublesome passage. If necessary, get someone else (a teacher or friend) to listen as the practice piece is played—as a problem-solving exercise the extra ears and eyes may help.


Finally, it is patience that will be most rewarded when avoiding burnout from frustrating practice sessions. It is better to experiment on correcting one measure of music for 45 minutes (taking some mental notes) and still not finding a solution than it is to play the passage incorrectly for weeks or months without any progress. It’s important to have patience and to think strategically about the time spent at the instrument. Sometimes, solutions can be found in time spent away from the instrument, too—in the car, while taking a walk, or right before falling asleep. Realizing experimenting with technique is part of the learning process when tackling a musical instrument means also understanding the reality that it will simply take time to excel.


These tips for alleviating some of the frustrations of practicing musicians can help. While no suggestion will eliminate challenges (these always present themselves) these can aid the practicing musician handle them more effectively and with more enjoyment.