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Practice Tips

Dealing with Frustration


A music teacher's most important tasks are:

  • to establish a positive mentoring relationship with students  
  • to get students to appreciate and enjoy listening to music
  • to get them to enjoy playing, rehearsing and performing
  • to get them to understand when curiosity and play are sufficient ... and when serious work is required.

Despite what students may ultimately achieve musically, a music education should be an enriching experience — one that builds confidence and self-esteem, one that opens them to sensitivity and relaxation, that stimulates curiosity and creativity, and acquaints them with the tools for learning and mastering physical skills.

Hopefully their successes with music will help them to pursue their goals in life — and of course, enhance the possibility that they will enjoy playing music throughout their lifetime, whether as an amateur or professional musician.

Attaining these goals involves engaging the student's interests, tapping into their passion for music, teaching them to practice effectively, showing them how to set reasonable goals and how to overcome obstacles, developing their understanding of the nature and order of music, fostering fluency in reading music notation, encouraging their creativity and experimentation ... and introducing them to various social and cooperative aspects of music such as playing in bands, orchestras, and recitals. Over the course of such endeavors, as much as possible, it's essential to steer students toward fun, pleasure and meaningful rewards.

Pleasure is the Key!

(Frustration is a warning sign.)

No matter what their age or level, students need to balance fun and work.

Many music students toil away dutifully, devoting countless hours to practice, believing that lots of hard work will inevitably lead to artistic achievements and good musicianship. They think that the harder they work, the faster they'll proceed. The more strenuous their efforts, the more strain they endure, and therefore, deeper the reward. It's easy to think that long hours spent struggling invariably produce great accomplishments. Our "work hard" push-harder cultural ethic wholeheartedly espouses the view that our sweat, discomfort and sacrifice should reap assured rewards. But often this is far from true. What if you're using the wrong tool? What if you're headed in the wrong direction?

Everyone understands that plenty of hard work is required, but music students should avoid pointless work and needless struggle. They need to steer clear of excessive hard work— the type of effort that fails to improve their musical skills, and produces frustration, resignation, and ingrains effortful and inefficient physical approach, a road that leads away from mastery. Sometimes the difference between a poison and a cure is the dose. Whatever the case, in most instances obsessive pushing is to be avoided.

If a student frequently endures boring, or nonproductive, practice sessions, and little enjoyment is found, something's seriously amiss. When students practice in this manner, understandably, they usually they do so unenthusiastically. Eventually they'll tire of the frustration or drudgery. Worse, they may erroneously conclude that, while the pursuit of music looks like fun, in reality it's endlessly boring, unattainable and unrewarding.

Everyone encounters significant challenges in learning new knowledge and new skills. It's not always a cakewalk, but if you take an intelligent and efficient approach, the rewards are immense. In other words, nothing is more important than learning good study skills, and devising a practice regimen that suits your personality and keeps frustration and struggle at bay.

Click to read more about how to practice music without frustration.

When students take a productive path, they can easily accomplish a great deal in a short time. Difficulties dissipate quickly in the presence of a patient, intelligent, and effective type of practice. This requires a positive frame of mind, and the habit of holding attainable goals in mind during practice. Before each pass at a phrase or song, the student should have one or two goals in mind; after completing the section, he or she should evaluate if the goals were attained, and if more repetition is warranted.

Indeed students must assume a personal responsibility for maintaining their enthusiasm — no one can do that for them. They should enjoy the majority of their practice time, making sure to structure it around both fun and hard work. The exception here is the very young -- while they need more attention and positive feedback for their accomplishments and effort, they too should be encouraged and rewarded for practicing independently and productively.

Still, most students need guidance in attaining a positive, productive approach to practice. Few know how to do so intuitively. While an instinctive or intuitive understanding is the saving grace for students who fail to receive instruction on practicing, it is not essential. Every aspect of this understanding can be taught, and the student can see the value of the approach when coached during lessons. Getting the horse to drink is another matter.

A skilled music teacher helps students achieve good practice habits by having them practice at their lessons. Rather than structuring each lesson as a recital/critique session, the teacher simply asks the student to practice the piece ... and then asks them a number of questions:

  • What areas could use improvement?
  • What would you do you get better in one such area?
  • What would be a good way to achieve this improvement?
  • Have you actually improved in the last few minutes of practice?
  • If not, what might help?
  • Is there something that might work better?

Most students need lots of friendly reminders on how to make quick progress. Sometimes they fail to identify the problems. Or they're clear on the problem, but fail to use a method that helps them. When guided along to a true accomplishment, even if it's five minutes spent learning a single phrase, they eventually begin to see what works for them.

Along the path a successful approach begets a more successful approach. An accumulation of achievements and successes naturally elevates the student to a new plateau, to a higher state of self esteem, and to yet another level of enjoyment and satisfaction.

When this occurs, the student comes to recognize that hours dedicated to practice are indeed a worthwhile investment. And when the next challenge appears, though daunting at first blush, the student perceives it as yet another attainable goal. He or she naturally focuses on exploring paths that work, avoiding the dead ends.

By pursuing and excelling in music, people may come to realize that many goals and dreams that seemed impossible at first, are often within their grasp. They learn to trust in their ability to proceed, even when they realize that results don't always come quickly, that they must build step by step.

George Leonard expresses this concept beautifully in his book entitled Mastery. He illustrates and underscores that the people who achieve a high level of mastery are those who can tolerate being on a plateau for an extended period of time. No only is success built on understanding, attention to detail, memory techniques, it is also build on tenacity, tolerance, patience and faith.


Fiddle Lessons & Workshops. Guitar Mandolin, Banjo & Bodhran Lessons

Private Music Lessons
Workshops • Performances