How to practice and master music
with minimal frustration

Mindfulness and music study skills are
the key to rewarding practice


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What's the key? Talent, discipline, or both?

Some people learn and memorize music very quickly, with minimal effort and frustration. We tend to think of them as naturally talented. And we can easily conclude that they possess some kind of advanced and essential artistic aptitude. Indeed, this may be somewhat true, but I'm going to try to convince you that such students succeed primarily because they rely on routines and study skills that foster rapid acquisition and strong retention. And that their rapid successes further encourage their progress, determination and willingness to take on greater challenges.

Now you may wonder, "Can I be like them?" The answer is most assuredly yes ... but only if you practice music with study skills that work for you. Unfortunately many people do not. Granted there are some savants, and this advice is for the rest of us.

So let's dive in and learn about a simple and effect list of skills and approaches. But first, a sobering quote from Mark Twain: "Man is the animal most capable of learning from the experience of others ...but few do."

My perspective

I've written this article from the perspective of a music instructor with over 40 years of experience teaching private lessons.

The suggestions I outline provide an excellent place to start. I've seen these proven steps work for countless people who adopt and adhere to them.

And quite frequently I've witnessed my most successful students initially bucking the constraints, believing that their intellectual prowess and intuitive approach would suffice, or I find innocently clueless, vague and resistant regarding the very tools that will help them advance.

And sometimes even when results are clearly achieved through the recommended approach, students have the tendency to stray the path. I can only conclude that:

So my point is it's hard to get on track, like when adopting a physical exercise program. And even harder to stay on track until you know "in your bones" that it really does improve you life.


This article explores a number of steps and techniques for effectively memorizing music repertoire and for mastering physical skills. It also provides pointers on minimizing frustration while maximizing your enjoyment and accomplishments.

Cull through the techniques and make note of what works for you. And pay attention to your successes as you practice and see if you can pinpoint what methods supported those advances.

Even if you find value in the points expressed here, try to avoid fundamentalist thinking and conclude, "I've finally found THE right way!" Keep an open mind. Explore and research what others have to say about the topics of learning and memorizing music. Talk to some good musicians you know. Ask a music instructor or professor. Work with whatever bits you understand. See what fits.

But be forewarned, many experts are not great educators. Some started their journey so early they simply don't remember what contributed to their advances. And there's a big difference between competence and conscious competence. Many extremely proficient musicians are not consciously aware of the details involved in their approach to practice; and even those with conscious knowledge may struggle in expressing those points concisely and clearly, in a manner that's easily comprehend. In my opinion, musicians are famous for failing to write and communicate clearly. When I encounter articles on various music topics and music theory I often think, "If I didn't already know what this person is trying to say, I'd have no idea what they were trying to say." And often these authors make gross generalizations, they simply fail to say what they mean, or what they express raises more questions that it answers.

Detours to avoid

Before outline and explain study skills in any depth I'll caution that music students predictably take various detours off the road to success:

  1. Most people are unfamiliar with physical learning. Consider the number of physical skills you studied and learned from a masterful teacher in grammar school, high school or college. Juggling, gymnastics, high level proficiency at a sport ...
  2. Because people have limited experience in the fields of memorization and developing physical skills, they often pick an impractical approach, one that seems logical and feels right, but that stifles their progress. They they to think that our normal intellectual learning skills will suffice—this assumption can be a painful and frustrating mistake, and usually leads to persistence trips down the wrong path.

    The solution is to truly commit to a certain type of practice (we'll get to the details shortly) for at least a month or two, and see if it works better than your default approach or reckless meandering. But please be aware, this commitment is an accomplishment in itself: a) understanding the details of a practice regime b) adopting and evaluating their efficacy for a lengthy trial period. It requires mindfulness, discipline, honest reflection and delayed gratification.
  3. Study skills don't sound like fun ... nor do notions of structure, regime and discipline. When someone embarks on a journey toward music, or toward anything that looks so magically pleasurable, he or she wants to quickly get to the fun; that's precisely why the journey began. But rushing or dabbling rarely produces the intended accomplishments; it usually ingrains mistakes and bad habits, and eventually leaves the student disheartened.

    Inevitably dabbling and "messing around" is fun only for a short time. Then disinterest sets in, because you don't like the sound you make, or you see others getting better much faster than you do. One would think that the limited results would foster the search for an superior approach, but hope springs eternal.
  4. The turning point does not come easily for most. It's most likely to occur when you directly experience that the oft overlooked and oft "disliked" study skills ultimately produce quicker accomplishments, deep satisfaction, and greater fun. In other words, some hard work produces more fun. And you'll need to experience and remember this truth deeply enough that you're motivated to continue using the skills, or ... that you use them most of the time. They in kind will elevate you reliably that you no longer perceived them as burdens; you'll come to simply know them as the quickest path to deeper joy, and of becoming a more musical person.
  5. Repetition and speed are essential in establishing memories. But most people quickly get bored or frustrated with repetition. So they pursue speed improperly. Speed is an incredibly important tool, particularly with regard to memorization. But using it means learning to calm one's self, practicing in short sessions, staying the course, and appreciating small accurate gains. And to intimately understand and honor that speed is double-edge sword—it can help you and hurt you. Always hold it by the handle!

There are many aspects of music study, so it's impossible to commend a single study style that works perfectly for all individuals or every aspect of learning music. Nevertheless, one thing is clear.

Practicing with an approach that produces little progress will likely lead to frustration. And from a teacher's standpoint, it's rather astonishing to see how strongly most students adhere to thankless work and repetition. Even when rewards are promised (and experienced!) within the recommended skills, students often quickly fall off the path, and persist in or revert to inappropriate use to time and energy. So there's a good chance that the vast majority of students need to be escorted, on a continuing basis, toward refining their study skills.

Learning Styles / Learning Theories

It's become common knowledge that learning styles vary somewhat from person to person. There are learning theories that assign people to various categories such as"visual," "auditory," and "tactile/kinesthetic" learners. So I'd like to comment from personal experience.

First , the concept of visual, auditory, tactile/kinesthetic learners are useful, largely because they make us thing of teaching from multiple angles, and to use as many form of stimulus as possible. However these concepts may not apply in ways we'd expect with regard to memorizing physical skills. In lieu of delving that topic now, suffice it to say, when confronted with the task of memorizing a piece of music—a choreography of refined finger movements—a small, particular set of study skills works well with many "types" of learners, whether visual, auditory, tactile/kinesthetic.

Second the auditory, visual, tactile generalizations are often misunderstood, and people conclude that the best, primary way to reach a "visual learner" is by imagery and visual demonstration, that auditory learners will respond best to voice and explanation over imagery, and that kinesthetic learners best assimilate new knowledge by doing and hands-on experience. But this is not always true and a mixed "balanced diet" is often the best.

Here's a personal example. I'd classify myself as an auditory learner. Learning to read music notation was very challenging for me, because initially I could learn something by ear far more easily than from notation. And here's another indication. When I'm trying to understand something new, when I'm grappling mentally and trying to assemble new understanding, or when trying to construct my next question, my thought process is quite "verbal". My thought process is "internally audible." But here's the rub. Further auditory input proves distracting. I'm thinking hard, talking it through with myself, and an additional voice is like having more than one radio station playing simultaneously; I become distracted from my thought process and it becomes effortful to hear further spoken input. At such times, though I am primarily an "auditory" learner) benefit greatly from visual or kinetic input, because my preferred "auditory" channel is full. Nevertheless, while mulling and processing my auditory thoughts, I can understand and easily grasp insight from a picture or illustration. In other words, images and visual input are often a very useful form of explanation for me. Again, sometimes the key is mixed diet, not a single magic bullet.

So I have a simple conclusion regarding learning styles. Let's shift the focus from classifying students. I'd suggest that teachers consider their own preferred "presentation method" and see if it's primarily auditory, visual or tactile. In other words, have instructors classify themselves. Then attempt to expand their style and teach with a bouquet of presentations. The more a teacher can vary their presentation style the better the chance their message will resonate with a range of students. So teachers, when a idea fails to take root, notice the channel you've used, and try another.

Innate or learned knowledge?

Some music students choose an effective approach to practice instinct or intuition. Perhaps it the way they learn and memorize in general happens to work well in music study. Other students may need the steps explained to them initially. Then, once "knowing and willing," they can learn as quickly as anyone else, even those who intuitively knew.

So it doesn't really matter whether a student unconsciously chooses the appropriate paths, or if he or she deliberately chooses an array of recommended study skills. It simply matters if those who use the skills thrive.

This is a bit of a side note worth mentioning. Ironically, when students excel because they've unconsciously chosen the excellent paths to success, they may struggle or flounder when they encounter a challenge they don't know how to accomplish, precisely because they may have little conscious awareness of study skills. Or because they're not accustomed to grappling.

In contrast many of us who struggle initially need an introduction to learn various study skills to get off the ground. As a result our self esteem and willingness to grapple are bolstered. We stand to handle new challenges better, because we've seen that difficulties can be overcome, because we know we can learn matters that seem insurmountable. We know how to pace to persist when tenacity and grit are required. When new challenges arise we look for skills that will enable us to again prevail.

In short, the instinctive learners are fast out of the gate indeed, but they may also need to learn study skills, and they may also need to learn to tolerate a less meteoric pace when necessary.

Ultimately you must find various paths that work, that you can tolerate, and that you eventually learn to enjoy—for most people this requires patience, exploration and honesty, so there's a journey ahead if you're willing to delve.

Repetition and frustration can easily become linked

Repetition itself is often inherently frustrating particularly when our result falls short of our intended goal.

Here's a classic definition of frustration:


noun: the feeling of being upset or annoyed, esp. because of inability to change or achieve something

There's nearly an intrinsic tendency for repetition to trigger frustration, so we must learn to gently keep that under control. And we must practice in ways that require the least amount of repetition, and derive the most gain from each repetition.

Managing expectations while acquiring new physical skills

It's important to understand the amount of repetition required in the learning of a physical skill, because you can more comfortably tolerate repetition when you know roughly how much to expect.

People typically acquire new physical skills somewhat slowly. Indeed this is how it goes for most beginning musicians. Usually a significant amount of careful repetition is required. But repetition can quickly elevate us or eventually frustrate us, we must use it wisely! And within repetition cycles we must attend to various types of mindfulness.

Mastering a physical skill "in a short period of time" may simply amount to a few minutes, or it might mean three to ten minutes of practice per day over a period of weeks. And this is important: it will almost never mean intense practice on a single task for more than 10 or 15 minutes per day. Generally an obsessive approach is a unproductive approach, because it's naturally frustrating, because it doesn't feed the memory well, and because it tends to generate boredom, resignation or defeat.

By understanding and honoring the ways we naturally learn, you can accelerate the mastery of physical skills. This might mean mastering new physical techniques or movements, or perhaps memorizing a passage of music, a scale, or arpeggio.

What if progress truly seems to elude you?

When a physical skill remains out of reach for an extended period of time, the reason is usually due to:

Defining your own path

Good learners explore learning techniques. They evaluate and discover which use tools work for them, and they use different tools for different tasks—a hammer can't do what a saw can, and visa versa.

And as you proceed you may notice that some people may benefit from paths other than your favorites. Nevertheless there is a wide swath of study skills that will most likely work for most people.

The trick with evaluation any learning skill is simple. Give it a good, honest try, and employ it even if it steers you out of your comfort zone and away from immediate gratification. (That said, the ability to delay gratification is a cornerstone to music progress, as is the ability to enjoy the work in the meantime.)

If you seriously want to accelerate your learning and improve your retention, try approaches that are likely to work (REALLY try them) and determine which makes the biggest difference for you. Then keep an open mind while exploring more options. You many not need to collect an entire quiver of study skills, but you will need to come to know and use a trusty few.

Our education system teaches little about understanding the acquisition of physical knowledge

Schooling in western culture and modern society often fails to teach us to be sensitive to subtle inner awarenesses: emotion, intuitions, grace, balance, body awareness, sensing our limitations, keeping calm. Our schooling focuses mainly on intellectual pursuits and matters of the mind. It teaches little if anything about honoring the pace of the body, and thus many people don't understand how to train the body, so they fail to employ practice techniques that foster quick mastery of new or challenging physical skills. They don't realize that physical learning requires more repetition than intellectual study. They focus on the rudder before hoisting the sails, which won't get them anywhere. Or they're so busy getting their sails up they can't steer their course, so they arrive at some unintended destination. In Jane Wagner's play "The Search for Signs of of Intelligent Life in the Universe" Trudy the street lady said, "I always knew I wanted to be somebody ... now I realize I should have been more specific!"

Productive repetition — Divide and accomplish

Many people naturally enjoy the amount of repetition inherent in learning music. Some enjoy the physical sensation of moving through the steps. Some find it soothing to perform a familiar task. They like getting absorbed in it, possibly because it draws their attention away from the cares of the day. Many students don't start out at the point, but come to enjoy the repetition for similar reasons. If you're not the former, I hope to encourage you to be the latter.

Key steps for memorization are:

The steps listed above can be helpful for learning to play well while reading, but they are intended primarily as memorization tools, and any excessive reading or peeking at notation can undermine the result and the speed at which it is attained.

"I'm reasonably smart, but I just can't get it!"

Bright quick-minded people frequently have little patience for the amount of repetition required in learning a musical instrument. They feel limited by the rate that their body learns. They get frustrated, like they're stuck tutoring someone who just doesn't get it. Though they've indeed acquired a perfect understanding of what they're trying to accomplish, they mistakenly believe that their understanding should produce mastery over a new physical skill: a new song, scale, arpeggio, or strum. Often they persist in such wishful thinking, and they do so despite witnessing for themselves that understanding alone fails to produce refined and reliable control over complex physical skills.

If a student becomes discouraged about the pace and repetition naturally required, they usually wish they could somehow get their body to learn faster. They want to learn faster, and get a feeling of accomplishment.

If you have this type of impatience you probably need to learn to accept the pace and rhythm of your body. The steps are simple, but they require a sense of inner calm, and the willingness to submit to more repetition, making sure that it's nourishing repetition.

And please don't take the following point lightly, adopting the required pace may feel nearly as challenging and pointless as sitting calmly for three minutes.

Intellectual flashes occur, but they're not the key foundation to learning to play music

Understanding is often instantaneous. Insights and mental clarity often come in a flash of light. In a split second a person may envision floor plan for a house remodel. That sort of vision is an idea and a type of understanding. It may appear in an instant, full born, clear as day. But implementing the plan is much different story. Turning the mental image into a sketch takes time. Turning a sketch into a true floor plan requires more work, care and experience. And a full set of architectural plans, with structural engineering, wiring, lighting and plumbing—that takes weeks of work and may require expertise beyond one's realm of experience.

And yet we're still in the realm of imagination, conceptualization, and thought, and visualization. This is quick Mercurial stuff. Then there is the building. And while the implementation take dedication and time, is really still quite different than the work and patience required in learning new physical skills.

Understanding is a great rudder, but unlike wind in your sails, it affords very little drive. The desire to succeed, the passion to play and enjoy music, and the willingness to try again, to refine and try yet again and to find exhilarating successes ... that what provide's the drive.

The nature and origins of frustration

Frustration is an emotional reaction to a thwarted goal or achievement. We experience frustration even in small daily events, like fumbling or dropping something for a mere third time.

There's something inherently frustrating about repetitive failures, especially when we're in a hurry or we're attached to the outcome.

And here's the rub. In music we must acquire lots of physical skills, and the acquisition of physical skills requires lots of repetition, lots of trial and error. There's no way around that. Each day you must arrive at the scene, open to the possibilities, able to select small manageable goals, with a clear understanding of your goals, with the willing to focus on them repetitively and the discipline to observe and correct ... Repetitively.

We often feel frustrated when we try to do something but can't. If you aim for unattainable goals, when you bite off more than you can chew, frustration will follow. You can avoid frustration by using good practice habits.

Frustration also occurs when we are interrupted or when you're exposed to distractions. It's difficult to practice when you can hear other music playing. The mere sound of people talking can interfere with concentration. It's even more distracting when someone is talking directly to you, giving directions, offering suggestions, and certainly when they openly criticizing your efforts. It's also frustrating to be falsely accused.

And then there's the frustration of the voice of the distracting inner critic.

Each of us has a type of evaluative, judgmental thinking — voices that we'll refer to as the 'inner critic' and the 'good coach.' The inner critic is full of critical comments, which are largely false accusations. When present, the inner critic can quickly inspire a spiral of frustration. So the good coach must be the antidote. Well sort of. But when practicing or performing, even the friendly encouragement of the good coach can distract us to the point of frustration. More on these char actors later.

Expect the inevitable and graciously accepting repetition

You can more comfortably allow room for repetition when you expect it. This in itself tends to reduce frustration.

Although you may never eliminate frustration entirely, if you approach a project with the proper perspective, if you proceed at a proper pace and use the proper tools, you can keep frustration at a manageable level. When all else fails, take a short break.

Even when you understand that repetition is needed and normal, be mindful. Not any repetition will suffice. You must manage your repetition effectively and spend it wisely!

For instance, practicing at a slow speed is not always the best speed. And people often practice slower than is helpful, and this contributes to the amount of repetition required, and that can eventually generate frustration. Much more on this later.)

Learning like a child

Our minds are incredibly adept at learning physical skills, we just need time and repetition, and the opportunities to make corrections. Early skills like speech and walking are learned by imitation and experimentation, and through countless episodes of trial and error. As we grow older, it is assumed that we loose some ability to learn fundamental skills, like speech. Indeed we can learn a new language, but it will take more time and effort than when we're young ... such that in four years we may have accomplished less than a four year old has with his or her native tongue.

Aside from a fresh brain and clean slate, a toddler has a number of advantages over older learners so the quick learning can not be attributed entirely to neurological or chronological youthfulness.

A young child has full-time language emersion, a full-time coaching community of family and friends, few distractions, little stress, and plenty of rest and sleep. Young children may have an undeveloped superego or inner critic; if this is the case mistakes are viewed neutrally, curiously, and ideally with a sense amusement. Lightheartedness spares them embarrassment and future reticence.

As we exit childhood, our biggest liability is impatience. In most people this is fueled by a harsh inner critic, one that demands perfection, yet is unwilling to submit to the amount of repetition required to escort perfection's arrival.

The body learns slowly ... but remembers well

Although the body has an incredible and nearly inexhaustible ability to memorize movement and music, it's important to realize that some approaches are destined to fail.

Here are a couple of key points:

1) We can only focus on one new task at a time.

2) We are very limited in the amount of new information we can hold in short-term memory (often called working memory.)

To elevate your playing skills, you must free your mental attention from the role of executive process: remembering ideas, images, directing movements. As you shift from executive process to kinesthetic/motor memory you can use more attention to observe the sounds that you create and refine various details of movement. When you use your kinesthetic memory to play, your mental attention remains free for such tasks.

The Inner Critic

Many people suffer from an inner source of frustration. They have an inner voice that runs rampant within their stream of thoughts — a voice that constantly belittles them. A voice with erroneous opinions.

We all have an inner critic. But with some people the critic is overactive, and it becomes particularly vocal in certain circumstances like social settings and learning environments.

One of the hallmarks of maturity is the ability to consciously observe the inner critic, and the ability to dismiss it when appropriate. It's when you fail to notice the critic's presence and message that it has its strongest influence — nearly complete control — and it causes the most turmoil. Once you've become aware of this voice and readily notice the messages that it sends, you have the option of responding appropriately.

The mature response is simple. When you hear a message from your inner critic, evaluate its credibility. If it is a pointless message of self doubt or judgment, dismiss it, possibly replacing it with a thought that's more accurate and reassuring. Or, if there's any truth in the critic's skepticism, reframe it with a positive tone, and continue on your way toward your goals.

Sensitive people make great musicians. Unfortunately they frequently have overbearing inner critics. To successfully study and perform music, they need to learn to put the critic at bay. This takes lots of practice. Learning to notice is the most important and challenging step.

How do you know when the inner critic is present during practice?

If the critic operates unconsciously, how do we know when it's present and spoiling our fun? Frustration is the tip off. If you feel frustrated when practicing, stop and review your thoughts of the previous minute or two. At first, people usually draw a blank. It takes some practice to successfully peer behind the veil. But you can learn to do so.

When ever you start to feel frustrated when practicing, stop of a half minute and try to remember your recent thoughts. Write them down. Any thoughts: good or bad. In the process you may notice a trend of positive or negative thoughts. You'll have created a log of what the critic says to you. You're list may contain judgmental statements like:

    "You should know this by now."
    "You're never going to learn this."
    "Everyone else can do this already."
    "You're so slow!"

People say things to themselves that they'd never say to anyone else. Similarly they tolerate inner criticism that they would never tolerate from another person. So the goal is to respect yourself as much as you respect others.

You can learn to speak positively to yourself, like a parent calming a hysterical child. People do this all the time. After reading the last sentence perhaps you experienced a wave of disbelief, and said something to yourself like, "Right. Me calm myself? I'd never learn to do that!" If so, ask yourself, "Is that your true opinion, or was it just a message of doubt, courtesy of your inner critic?" Even if you think you can't, maybe you can. This underscores the essential point. Messages from the inner critic are spoken, heard and believed unconsciously, they wield the most power.

Ignore the critic

Sometimes the easiest way of dismissing the critic by ignoring it. You can easily do so by becoming thoroughly involved in the task, by directing your attention toward physical awareness. This siphons attention and away from thinking, which is where the critic lives. Almost sounds too simple, but it really works. Just stop, tune in to physical sensation, any sensation (your feet of the floor, you shirt sleeve on your arm, relaxing your jaw) then hold this sensation in you awareness as your practice. You'll naturally exclude the critic simply by filling your attention with sensation.

Consciously challenge the critic

The critic often makes exaggerated statements, or excessive and inappropriate demands, like "You need to practice more. You'll never improve unless you practice at least an hour a day!"

Perhaps you should challenge this. Ask yourself, "Is this true?" Maybe at present the opposite is true. Perhaps you'll cause more damage than good by attempting to practice more than you want to! Maybe you have good cause to steer clear of practice. When your practice improves and you start having more fun, you'll automatically want to practice more.

Read more about practicing music ...


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