7 Ways to Avoid Frustration While Practicing an Instrument

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.

7. Smile.

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!

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Meet the Composers: Palestrina

Meet Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Known as the “Prince of Music” he is responsible for hundreds of works that are known as “absolute perfection.” I love his music so much that he is a supporting character in a novel I wrote (not yet published; I’ll let you all know when it is).

Perhaps this is because he avoided chromaticism in his music, or it’s simply because of the natural beauty in his voice leading. Whatever the case, there’s so much to dig into in his music.

Sicut Cervus is one of about 250 motets Palestrina composed. I encountered this piece in high school, and many of my music friends say the same; thus, it makes a good introduction into the work and style of Palestrina.

The text is based on the first verse of Psalm 42, “Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.” Or, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” Good ole KJV.

It’s curious that this version of the Latin uses the term “fountains of waters.” I know that some cultures view fountains as symbols of good fortune, so I’m curious if “fountain” is used in the original Hebrew, or if it was added in some translation. History buffs, please share if you know anything of this; I didn’t have enough time to dedicate to research this.

The way Palestrina sets this text is divine. It makes you want to just sit back and absorb the sound. Sicut Cervus uses imitative polyphony, which is kind of like a round. Think of when you sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” with a large group of people. One subgroup starts, and when they get to “Merrily, merrily,” the next group starts at the beginning. The melody sounds good on top of itself and creates harmony internally. Imitative polyphony is also commonly used in the fugue.

The 16th century relied heavily on this style, but it is not the only style Palestrina used.

This imitative polyphony enhances the image of flowing water in Sicut Cervus. You can most easily see this in the last repetition of “ad fontes aquarum” particularly in the top two voices, as the moving parts of the melody trickle down from the soprano and into the alto, like water trickling from a fountain.

Sicut Cervus remains one of my favorite works of choral music of all time, and it will be for some time, no doubt. As we explore more of Palestrina’s works, we’ll dig more into technique and style, but for now, sit back and enjoy this recording.

Creating Music, Part One: Where to Begin

Classical musicians are cover artists. We play the scores of composers from long ago, and we get to put our own spin on the music.

But what about creating our own from scratch? It’s not always easy to start off. Compare it to writing in your own native language (English for the sake of the analogy).

You started reading somewhere around the age of five. Then you probably began to write short sentences and progressed to essays during the time of grade school. You learned to write poetry, the easiest form being the haiku, and possibly some fiction. Throughout this process you learned to express at least some part of yourself in a literary manner.

Now think about your journey with music. Your parents may have started you in lessons when you were just starting school and learning to read, or you may have waited until you could join band in the fourth grade, or maybe you didn’t even think you’d like music until you started taking piano in high school.

Nonetheless, the fact that you are reading this probably means you are a musician and have studied musical literature in some way, shape, or form.

You probably know at least the bare basics of theory, and if not, you’re not afraid to ask for help. The internet is full of resources.

And maybe you’re like me. You want to learn to express yourself with music too. Playing already composed music is one of the most amazing things you’ve ever done, but you also feel this urge to create.

Yet, instead of starting you off with short sentences, the music education system had you learn all the grammar, had you read only the very best of musical sentences. And the result of that is you know how elementary your own creations seem.

You have to start there though, and that’s okay.

You’ve got all the knowledge of theory and grammar that you need to learn how to write music much, much faster than when you learned to write.

At the risk of adding to an already loud discussion of advice blogs and Youtube channels telling you how to break into arranging and composing, I hope to help in any way I can.

Remember how all your teachers always say to “listen more than you play.” They’re referring to paying attention to your technique, to other members in your ensemble, to recordings of the greats. But something they don’t always talk about is that tiny voice inside you.

You experience the world differently than anyone else. For synesthetes, it’s very obvious; they literally see color when others don’t. For the rest of us, it’s the memories we’ve made that paint the world in different shades in our minds.

You hear things in a way that no one else does.

So when you’re listening to a song that you want to arrange, you might add notes here or there, or you might sing along and add harmonies.

Listen.

Be confident in that voice. Arranging and composing is one of the rare times when you actually get to listen to that voice.

For the rest of your life, you’re encouraged to be more objective, to listen to technique, to think about what the audience or the judges are looking for. But here, in this creative space, listen deep inside.

Your instincts will guide you.

Of course you still have to work hard. There will be countless hours when you don’t know how to finish a song. The muse refuses speak to you. But keep trying different things; it’s a puzzle to be solved. You’ll find the answer.

Exercise: Pick one of your favorite songs that gets you moving, one that you either literally or figuratively dance to when no one’s watching. Learn the melody on your instrument (or just sing it) and then turn off the track and have fun with it. Don’t worry yet about writing anything down. Just let yourself have fun. Good luck!

I plan on doing a series of arranging tips, so this is the first. There are so many resources available today for musicians, so I’ll gather up what I’ve found helpful and try to build upon that. Let me know if there’s any specific topic regarding arranging or composing that you’d like me to touch on. You can do so in the comments below or send me a private message via my contact form (or even on tumblr if you prefer)!

I Lived

Inspired by the Daily Post’s daily prompt, Retrospective.

Looking back isn’t always easy. A lot of you are probably thinking of cringey moments from high school or college when you should’ve done something differently, but you can’t; the moment’s passed.

Until recently, I’d been pretty good about not letting myself regret mistakes or big decisions. To, as Longfellow puts it, “Let the dead Past bury its dead.”

But now I look back at my time in university and am shocked that two years have already passed since I graduated.

I could go on and on about what I regret most in my time fleeing my calling after leaving school, but that’s not very productive. Sharing music seems like a better idea. Plus, it cuts to the heart of matters a bit quicker.

“I Lived” by OneRepublic seems fitting. I listen to this a lot when I’m feeling nostalgic, and I hope I can pass these ideas down to someone younger than me. And I hope I also learn to listen to this advice going forward.

It’s not about striving for success; it’s about living.

What about you? Are there any songs with ideas you’d like to share with younger folks?

Career Thoughts

Careers have been on my mind a lot lately. I recently gave up a job accompanying a choir full-time and a job teaching piano in favor of a full-time, assistant manager retail job. And I really don’t know why I did that.

It certainly wasn’t for the pay and probably not for the experience. I fell back on retail because the places where music took me weren’t a good fit.

The short of it is that I don’t enjoy practicing that much repertoire all at once, so a job in piano performance is not suited to me. I also don’t enjoy teaching, at least not from the very beginning. One thing I do love is giving presentations, which is teaching in a way, but it targets a specific audience with a predetermined level of knowledge in a subject.

My dislike for teaching baffles me. Growing up, people always told me I was so good at teaching, so I thought that’s what I had to do. I gave it a try, and here I am at square one again.

Perhaps I’m not starting completely over though.

At least I know where not to go. One thing to consider is the skills that make me a good teacher. These run deeper in each individual than the public is likely to notice. Thus, when I ask friends and family why they think I make a good teacher, their answer lies somewhere around, “You just have the personality for it.”

But what, in that personality, makes me a good teacher?

Through the experience of trying a multitude of jobs, I have come to the conclusion that I am an effective communicator. I possess the ability to present any idea, regardless of complexity, in a way that anyone can understand. That skill lends easily to public speaking, management, publishing, writing, music, and yes, teaching.

That’s the point of this lesson: skills are transferable.

A kid that’s good at soccer doesn’t have to find their career in athletics. Perhaps that person is a good forward in the game due to their aggressive nature: they go after what their team needs. In this example, it’s the ball. In their future, the target might be a merger in the business world, or a bigger budget for a school arts program. It might even be a flight to the next destination.

Most of the time, we have to identify these skills on our own. We are the only ones who can answer the deep “Why?” underneath people’s accolades of our so-called talents.

Now that I understand the reason why people tell me to teach, I can confidently say, “Teaching is not for me.” I no longer feel obligated to teach. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on my true calling, whatever that might mean.

I could write stories, make music, pursue business, become a scientist that publishes sound papers of discovery, and so much more. I feel like a kid again, the whole world before me like a map with so many paths to discover and many more skills to understand. Even though I have yet to find my fit in the world, I am hopeful that I will find it.

Never stop asking why. It’s never too late. Become that kid again. Maybe you won’t find your place immediately, but you’ll begin the journey to finding your role in the world.

If you have any advice regarding careers or finding one’s place in the world, please share below! You’ll help many people by sharing your story.

Time Well-Spent

I don’t remember much of anything I learned in high school. Most of us don’t. But there was one phrase my high school biology teacher said at the beginning of every week that really stuck with me: “Time spent organizing is time well-spent.”

At the time, I could see some benefits of giving us extra time in class to organize all our binders, but I never really appreciated her catch-phrase until after college.

Guys, organize your music. Do it. Right now. It will save you headache, heartache, and mini-panic attacks. Your brain cannot remember where you put that one sheet of music two years ago. Even if you know for certain you didn’t throw it away, it will take you hours to find it, hours you could spend doing something productive like practicing.

Believe me.

The day that inspired this post was when I had just scheduled an audition for a job accompanying a choir on piano. The director of the choir wanted me to play something from memory (easy-peasy) and then read a hymn for her. My go-to hymn, “Lord, Here Am I,” (not “Here I Am, Lord”–there’s a difference) is not in the hymnal at my house. The only hard-copy I possess is a photo-copy from my old music teacher back in high school.

I lost it.

It was somewhere in my room; that I knew. I had recently pulled it from my active binder (the one I carry with me 24/7) and stuck it either in another binder, on a shelf, or in a folder, or in the closet, or it fell behind it…..Many, many, many hours later, I was in tears and on the phone with my boyfriend who convinced me to pick a different hymn (of course I had back-ups, but “Lord, Here Am I” is my favorite).

After practicing another couple hymns for the audition the next day, I started putting the sheets of paper, at that point coating the floor, back on the shelf. Voila! There it was!

The moral of the story is not that it was there somewhere; it’s that I could’ve found it in mere seconds if I kept my music organized.

I do have binders on my shelf that are somewhat organized by type of music and composer, but the problem is my laziness. I rarely put the music back where it belongs.

No more!

Taking the two seconds to put music back where it belongs will save me hours later down the road when it really matters.

So there you have it. Organize your music, fellow musicians. And may you be as lucky as me to have a boyfriend who offers to help with that part. Best of luck to you all!

Positivity

Negativity is something we’re all warned against. We’re told to be optimists, to see opportunities where others don’t, but we’re not always taught how. Turns out, it has a lot to do with discipline (something I need to work on).

Lately, I’ve been obsessing over many different kinds of Ted Talks. From neuroscience, to music performance, to becoming a good conversationalist, the thing that unites all these topics is optimism. If you want to get better at using your entire brain, if you want to be a better performer, if you want to get better at talking with people, you have to learn to see opportunities everywhere, and it turns out it only takes a few minutes a day to train your brain that way.

From all these lectures, I’ve gleaned that writing down three things you’re thankful for each day is enough to change the mode of your brain from focusing on failures to discovering opportunities. I’ll give it a try and let you guys know how it goes (among other personal discipline experiments I’ll be trying in the next couple weeks).

For today, here are three things I’m thankful for:

  1.  I’m thankful for the ability to find an outlet in writing; whether it be fact or fiction, simply feeling the pen travel across the page is therapy enough.
  2. I’m thankful for true friends who are always there, even if you can’t always see them.
  3. I’m thankful for God’s perfect timing, or fate or destiny, whatever you’d like to call it. Things have a tendency of happening when they’re supposed to, so I’m thankful they happen when they do, so I can learn from all of it.

That’s it for today. I hope you’ll join me in a few thankful things each day. Share some positivity in the comments!

Christmas Music

Most musicians who’ve been at it for a long time come to tolerate the long Christmas season. What audiences don’t realize is that while they might get tired of all the Christmas Carols from November and December, musicians start practicing them back as early as August.

That’s how much time it takes to make something beautiful.

And somehow, we still find passion enough in the repeated repertoire to present magnificent pieces spanning the birth of Christ to Santa on the roof. Now, I’m a little bit of an outlier, but I truly love Christmas music. There’s something inherently joyful about all of it, even ones that say, “I’m sorry I can’t be there for Christmas.”

Something even cooler about Christmas music is the vast genres it encompasses. While being a genre itself, it also includes jazz (some of the only jazz people listen to), classical (think Handel’s Messiah), choral (carols and hymns alike), instrumental, vocal, mixes, mashups. Anyone who wants to be anyone in the music world does Christmas music. There’s just no way around it.

Even though it’s a consumer holiday at this point, I find myself more hopeful because of the music, because even musicians can find some passion in it. I’ve arranged and recorded five songs for Christmas, which I will share each Friday starting after Thanksgiving!

~GirlInBlue

Hello There!

This is the first post on a shiny new blog!

It is my goal to post something, anything at least once a week, probably on Fridays. This blog is mostly to keep me accountable regarding my practicing and also share the many thoughts that plague this writer and musician’s brain. I’ll try to keep it music-related, but since art is somewhat universal, some other parts of culture and life might sneak in.

A little about me (since this site is definitely under construction) before we begin: I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Music (Piano Performance) and English Literature back in May, so around six months ago. I’ve loved everything about studying those two subjects in particular (many more thoughts to come), and I can’t wait to learn more about them in the future. For now, I’m happy working retail during the day and arranging piano music and writing fiction during the evenings.

I can’t wait to get to know you in the blogosphere, and I hope that some of my practice qualms, adventures, and successes can relate to you fellow musicians and writers out there!

~GirlInBlue