Music might be this magical language of the soul, but it can still be infuriating to practice, especially if you’re fairly new to the craft.
I recall countless high school hours spent banging out Hanon exercises or Bach (I vividly remember anger associated with my left hand when I was learning his Two-Part Invention No. 1, BWV 772). The longer I practiced, the louder it got because I was angry. Luckily for my family, all we had was a keyboard, and I always used headphones.
Looking back, I’m amazed I didn’t do more psychological damage from self-directed hatred (or, you know, physical harm to my hands). Somehow, after all that angry practice, I got into a decent music program and continued my piano studies.
Many teachers will tell you they don’t teach students how to play; they teach students how to practice. Jeremy Denk writes that his teacher, “Sebők said many times that you don’t teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice—the daily rite of discovery that is how learning really happens.” But the student still has to focus on adventure in the practice room and trying to find the best way to practice.
No one can tell you.
That’s frustrating; it really really is. But there are a few tips I can pass along that will hopefully help at least a little bit.
1. Practice Every Day.
This is a duh, but some of us still don’t do it. You can’t “catch up” by practicing longer one day if you didn’t practice the day before. That’s not how learning works. It’s better to do 15 minutes each day than four hours one day. We’ve all been guilty of this thinking at some point, so we’ll just get it out in the open.
2. Set small goals.
Until you have an idea of how quickly you are able to learn a piece, I don’t suggest sitting down and saying, “I will learn this whole page today.” You’ll only feel you let yourself down when you don’t achieve that.
Instead have smaller goals, like “I will practice for 20 minutes without stopping today.” Until you have a lot of experience, you can’t know how quickly your fingers will take up a certain piece. Once you get to know your learning tendencies, you can then make more challenging goals.
3. Keep a practice journal.
This helps direct your practice. Sometimes it’s hard to get your mind into the practice space, especially if you don’t have as much time as usual. School, work, difficult people in your life, and your bed calling out to you will all inevitably creep into your mind and cause you to mess up if you don’t do anything to focus.
Write down your goals at the beginning of the practice session and then reflect on how well you achieved them at the end. Connect this to your future practice session by setting your goals during your reflection time. Review these at the beginning of your next session, and bam, you’ve got a focused mind that is less likely to get distracted.
4. Celebrate the little things.
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. Then, when you’re feeling down or angry during a session, you can skim back through that list of accomplishments.
5. Take a Break.
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, just breathe, even take out your phone (but really, don’t let yourself look at it for more than a minute. If you can’t control yourself, leave it outside the practice room).
The human brain can really only focus on one thing for about 20 minutes at a time, so don’t get upset with yourself if you can’t stay diligent for longer. The professionals take water breaks too. Plus, hydration helps your brain work better too.
6. Move on.
The kitchen timer practice method actually helped me more with frustration than anything else. In it, you practice a phrase (around 4–6 measures) for a specified amount of time (I’ve pretty much settled on two minutes), and when the timer goes on, you move onto the next phrase.
This method forces you to plan out your practice session because you need to come back to each phrase at least two more times in the session. It’s the returning to it that helps you learn. More than anything, though, it helps me avoid getting fixated on something I can’t seem to get. And most often, I get it solidly by the next go ’round. I do technique practice this way too.
The classical music community on Tumblr jokes a lot about practicing including lots of tears, banging your head on the wall, or just lying on the practice room floor in the dark. Practice is hard. Accept that. But find a way to make yourself smile too.
You’re doing amazing things that so many others can’t even understand. Find something that can make you smile.
I have a few inspiring quotes above my piano that remind me why I’m torturing myself with practice. My favorite right now I mentioned previously, and I’ll put the picture here too because it just makes me happy.
All in all, take a step back when you need to. Breathe. Remember why you’re trying to make music in the first place. You’ll get there, and maybe you’ll even love practicing!
What are your favorite tricks to keep yourself going during a difficult session? Do you have any favorite quotes? Share them below! And if you like this post, don’t forget to hit that like button and share, so I can keep making awesome content!