Practice Tips: A Quick Guide for Musicians When the Going Gets Tough!

Practice Tips: A Quick Guide for Musicians When the Going Gets Tough!

by Robert Fisher, Catoctin School of Music

Have you ever felt like quitting? You’re in the middle of an extremely technical etude and after many endless hours of practice, testing new techniques and tips, it hits you like a ton of bricks: I just want to quit! Or maybe, it is simply a feeling of defeat one may feel after trying various approaches and methods of practice. You can’t produce quite the right “sound” or phrasing you are looking for. Or you realize you are in over your head and the piece of music is just too difficult, beyond your level, or not the right fit in this season. In any case, any experienced musician and teacher knows that hitting the proverbial “brick wall” in music is just a part of the process of learning and growing. Here are some reminders for any musician hitting the wall in their practice and playing:

1) Pause and Target the Problems: the definition of crazy is to try and solve a problem by continually doing the same thing over and over and over and over and ov…  yet, we may often find younger students make a technical mistake and then proceed to replay a note or passage repeatedly, only to repeat the passage once after the correct note or chord is finally sounded. Most teachers know that this kind of “glitch” practice with frequent pause-and-restarts can only go so far in a student fixing mistakes. Worse yet, sometimes students may even practice their unintentional mistakes and pauses, followed by a fix, and thus, memorize “glitch” pauses into a performance! What do we do to address this? We encourage students to stop, pause and look over the area centered on the mistake. Take a pencil and write in reminders, mark notes, or identify phases. After pausing their playing, we have students’ zero in on the actual mistake and correct the mistake. Pianists are often encouraged to focus on just one hand at a time. Wind players may pause playing on the instrument and practice breathing technique, mouthpiece work or tonguing, without sounding notes! Strings players may “finger” notes/passages on their instrument without a bow. Vocalists may be encouraged to pause and incorporate a melodic leap/interval taken out of a longer passage and turn it into a brief vocalise going up and down the scale. In all these instances, the solution to addressing difficult passages or specific parts riddled with mistakes is to first stop playing through the entire song or section and remove distractions and non-relevant elements. Focusing in on the problem is key and a fundamental part of what any good music instructor does with their students as they guide them through correcting mistakes in rehearsal.

2) Take a Break. Really! Sometimes, mistakes and problem sections in music can lead musicians to an endless flurry of approaches and angles in their practice. There is a time to stick with it and keep at it and there is also a time, after countless attempts and efforts are made, to simply take a break. A wise music professor once said the difference between someone who stayed committed in their musical growth and studies throughout their life as opposed to someone that didn’t is knowing when to take a break! Musicians can sometimes be known for being persistent, patient and even stubborn – traits that can have some benefit in music if applied correctly. There is, however, a benefit for the body and mind to sometimes stop and take a break from playing the same difficult run for the hundredth time. Close the book. Put the sheet music away for a moment. Look at another piece, a new composer, or simply rest the instrument and go for a walk and reset! Often, a good break, nap or distraction is just what our minds and bodies need to “process” the difficult passages we are learning. We know from neuroscience that synapse connections in the brain and with memory are often built and reinforced during deep, restful sleep. For musicians, this means progress and memory is literally built over time (days or weeks) as opposed to super long, exhaustive, and less productive “cram” sessions of practice. Sometimes a break or rest allows you to revisit a piece with renewed interest or new perspective not revealed before. Take a break. You mind and body (and music) with thank you later!

3) Give Yourself Grace and Seek Joy! To all the perfectionists out there -calling all musicians – most have at least a tinge of this trait in their blood – cut yourself a little slack and give some grace! We often beat ourselves up and can be our own worst critics. I sometimes encourage students to record themselves in their practice. This is not always for immediate analysis/self-critique, rather, this is so they get used to the fact that mistakes are inevitable and common as human beings. With regular practice recordings, students can go back and hear mistakes they might not even catch by themselves in the middle of playing live. This can be useful in a couple of ways: 1) to reveal unrealized mistakes and make improvement if necessary; and 2) to learn to grow “accustomed” to playing “for someone else” (whoever the recording is shared with). Students sometimes share that they feel they play “better at home” when they are practicing alone, and things sometimes seem to fall apart when playing for anyone else including their teacher. By having students get in the practice of “playing in front of others” with a live recording device (so easy with most phones these days), students can begin acclimating to performance and lower their stress meter when playing or singing among others. This in turn can help resolve or prevent mistakes that rise from nervousness playing.

Finally, seek joy! Many have heard of the term “spark joy!” made famous by expert home organizer, Marie Kondo. I like to tell students to “seek joy!” in their playing. A big factor I’ve found with the success of any musician is an emphasis and prioritization of keeping “joy” centered in their music. Yes, practice is sometimes difficult, and scales aren’t always the most thrilling despite being essential. Joy, however, should be one of the driving factors at the forefront of every student and musician’s motivation. Bored or burned out by a particular etude, genre, or style? What makes you joyful to hear or play? Seek out songs that create joy! Tired of only playing at home? Seek out performance opportunities and let the sparks of joy fly off your face live on stage! Enjoy a particular musical, TV show, video game or movie? Seek out arrangements (there are many resources online!) of theme songs and nurture your joy and love of playing or singing.

Give yourself grace and rekindle your motivation with your music by seeking joy!

Catoctin School of Music
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