Music becomes magical in the moments when it touches our vulnerability, and this can be anywhere: performance, jamming with others, or even on our own in the practice room. But this magic is built upon hours of arduous work, many of which can be frustrating if you’re not used to practicing patience with yourself.
Learning how to practice is one of the most difficult parts of taking up an instrument (or any other hobby), and unfortunately a teacher can’t show you the best way for you to practice. You have to discover that on your own.
Concert pianist, music theorist, and overall music analyst Jeremy Denk writes that his teacher once said
You don’t teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice—the daily rite of discovery that is how learning really happens.
Discovery can be thought of as a science: it takes experimentation on your own to find out how you learn, how music touches you, how it makes you feel. I have a quote above my piano to remind me of this:
Many times, we focus too much on our technical exercises and not enough on the magic we can create from our music. The consequence of this is that we get bogged down by work and forget why we even care. Here are a few tips to help you find the balance between precision and magic and keep your head from banging on the wall in frustration:
1. Spend a little time with your instrument every day instead of a long time a few days.
This is one of those things like flossing that we’re all told to do, we generally agree it’s good for our health, but we just don’t do it. I can promise it is much less frustrating to work for 15 minutes a day on piece or passage than to try to cram it all in four arduous hours.
You’re also kinder to your body and will prevent injury by practicing consistently instead of in bursts. Tendonitis is one of the most common injuries that plague musicians, and many times it’s caused simply by overdoing it a few days instead of practicing consistently.
Physical injury can be frustrating, but so can mental burnout. If you consistently push forward and don’t let yourself relax into the music, you also risk creating music that sounds more formulaic and heady than organic music that lives and breathes.
Madeline Bruser writes in The Art of Practicing,
Practicing can proceed without a rigid plan. You don’t have to do things in the same order as yesterday or pick up where you left off in your last session. You don’t always have to start with the most difficult section or practice every tricky passage three or ten or fifty times in a row. Hidden under such rigid programming is the voice of creative intelligence. You can listen to that voice; you can follow it and see where it leads you.
Let music become part of your everyday life. It doesn’t have to be a chore every single day. Make sure you play something you really love each day too. You can have your stretch pieces that challenge you physically and mentally, but also take time for the stuff that you’ve already mastered and love dearly. You’ll be a lot happier that way.
2. Set achievable daily goals.
Most students take lessons once a week, so many teachers assign practice like this: “Learn these two songs, work the end of this piece, and of course the scales for this week.” That definitely motivates youto get to work at home, but trouble comes when you try to break down these larger goals into the smaller, step-by-step goals.
Goals like, “I will learn two pages of this piece today because I have to have it perfect by next week” have the tendency to cause frustration because it doesn’t take into account how long it will actually take to learn those two pages.
Instead, it’s a little more helpful to discuss with our teachers how long practice is expected to take each day and re-word our goals to something like, “I will spend thirty minutes a day on this piece this week.” More than likely, you’ll reach the goal of learning the piece, and if not, your teachers are around to help you figure out how long we should practice each day to achieve our goals.
If you don’t have a teacher but are having trouble choosing both long-term and short-term goals, I highly recommend the advice of Dr. Josh Wright, a concert pianist and esteemed pedagogue.
He suggests a rotation of 3-4 pieces at a time. Don’t spend more than around a quarter of your practice sessions on technique; focus more on repertoire, as that’s how you “create momentum in your practice sessions.” You don’t have to play each repertoire piece every day. Sometimes a day off a piece is helpful! Just divide up the rest of your practice time by spending say twenty minutes on a piece.
Here’s a him explaining how to divide up your sessions:
Not everyone is a planner, and the first point noted that you don’t always have to practice according to a rigid schedule. This method is how I personally combine the two ideas: goal-setting, but I’m also not trying to figure out what I need to do next. A little bit of guidance in the practice session can prevent a lot of frustration.
3. Take a break, for both your mind and your body.
If you find yourself getting frustrated, and you’re beginning to pound out notes, it’s time to move on. You can get a sip of water, close your eyes, stretch, just breathe. Stop thinking about the music for a second, listen to your breath, to the sound of the lights above you buzzing, to the doors in the hallway slamming open and shut, the violinist two doors down. Just be for a moment.
The human brain’s attention span is somewhere around twenty minutes, so don’t beat yourself up if you’ve been practicing for an hour straight, and your fingers suddenly forget what they’re doing.
It’s also good for your body to get up and stretch every so often, as tension can build up in your back, hips, and wherever else you tend to store it. I personally will do a couple yoga poses to help loosen up: child’s pose, cow and cat, and a vinyasa (or cycle) from chaturanga to upward-facing dog to downward-facing dog.
As a side note, if you’re interested in trying yoga but don’t want to commit to a studio or would rather do it on your own, I recommend the Down Dog app (they didn’t pay me to say this). It’s completely free, no ads, and you can choose to pay for extras if you’re really into it. I especially like the Restoration cycles, as they’re perfect for relaxing before bed or for loosening up in the middle of practice sessions.
Overall, remember to focus hard as long as you can, but definitely take time to rest; your body and your brain will thank you.
4. Celebrate the little things, and look how far you’ve come.
Because we are taught to be critical of our sound, we tend to forget to get excited when we play correct fingerings at tempo for a tricky cadenza that was killing us. Celebrating is so important, and it will help you stay in a positive-growth mindset. And that’s where we all need to be.
Shoot for at least three things you can be excited about, and write them down in your practice journal or tell someone about them. Then, when you’re feeling down or angry during a session, you can skim back through that list of accomplishments.
I applied this rule to life in general, and it’s helped me feel a lot better about life and has taught me how to brush off frustration and obstacles. At the end of each day, I write down three things I’m thankful for that either happened that day or I thought about, no matter how terrible my day is. It’s a good way to end strong and calm my mind enough to have a good night’s sleep.
Another way to celebrate how far you’ve come is to record yourself. It’s up to you (and the storage space on your recording device) how often you do this. Some record every practice session, some once a month. I had a friend who sang the same song every year over the course of undergrad and then spliced them together as a little graduation gift to himself.
I record myself whenever I think of it. I do wish I would more because it’s crazy to look back at my very first recordings and see how much easier piano has gotten over the years; it’s humbling and rewarding.
When you find yourself doubting your abilities, take a moment to think about all the things you never thought you’d be able to do that you’re now doing. Flip through that list of things you were excited you learned, watch those videos from years ago or even a month ago. Just be excited for all you’ve worked to do, and there won’t be room for frustration anymore!
5. Remember why you’re practicing.
This halts me mid-practice more times than I’d like to admit. These doubts of my purpose in the world leave me wondering why I lock myself away in a practice room for hours a day when I could be doing fun things with friends or doing a job that’s less work.
We all feel this way, so the best thing to do is ask yourself again why you do it. This is an entire post on its own, but to sum it up, you can ask:
- Why did you start playing?
- How are you making the world a better place with your music right now?
- Who are you working hard for?
Make music a part of your daily life, and don’t force it. Just let it be natural and curious. Take a step back when you need to. Breathe. Stretch. Celebrate how far you’ve come and how many cool things you still get to learn. Remember why you’re trying to make music in the first place. You’ll get there, and maybe you’ll even start loving your practice sessions. I certainly hope so!
Go a step further and learn how to create more positivity in your practice sessions in 5 Ways to Find Joy While Practicing an Instrument.
Book Review: The Art of Practicing by Madeline Bruser , Girl in Blue Music.
The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart, Madeline Bruser.
How to Divide Up Your PRACTICE Sessions, Dr. Josh Wright.
3 Questions to Ask When You Feel Pointless as a Musician, Girl in Blue Music.