All musicians; students, amateurs and professionals alike go through ups and downs in their playing and practicing. As the owner of a music school do you know what I never hear? “I used to play piano/guitar/violin/etc. and quitting was the best thing I ever did.” What we do hear over and over again is the following lament, “Wow, I took lessons, and then I quit and it is one of my biggest regrets. I wish I could play now. I wish my parents hadn’t let me quit.” To which I say, “The one great thing about music is that it’s never too late to begin (again)!”. The point is that everyone who plays and studies music goes through time periods when they are discouraged. When you or your child is going through a “rough patch” sit down and talk to the teacher about it. Often it just takes a change of piece or different method book to overcome a hurdle. Introducing a different style/genre of music made all of the difference for one of my children. Last resorts can include trying another instrument or changing teachers.
Many “rough patches” begin with difficulties and challenges which is why knowing how to overcome them is so important. Some of the solutions to these difficulties are really easy but because they go against our nature we don’t necessarily think of trying them. For instance, did you ever notice how you always know the beginning of your piece better than you know the rest? I bet you always start practicing from the beginning. Why? Well, because it is the beginning. Where else would you start? I bet some of you will even return to the beginning in response to making a mistake, thinking, “I have to learn to play this through from the beginning to the end”. What is happening is that you are playing the beginning of the piece way more frequently than the middle or end. All of that repetition really does work and so after a while, you really know the opening passages well. As long as you keep starting at the beginning the later passages are never going to catch up.
By now the solution probably seems really obvious. Don’t start at the beginning of the piece each and every time you practice! Instead, begin with the newest passage introduced and play it over and over again before going back to the beginning and trying to play the piece through. Whether you are practicing or performing, you should never go back to the beginning in response to a mistake. Instead, when practicing, start at the “mistake” and work to correct it before going on. Another excellent place to begin is with the most difficult and challenging parts, isolating and drilling them. All newer or difficult measures and passages should ideally be isolated and practiced separately.
Here is what I mean by isolating and practicing sections separately. First play the piece through once or twice and identify which passages are giving you the most difficulty. Create a challenge for yourself, playing that section slowly, over and over again. Engage in mindful practice. Don’t just go through the motions. Focus on all aspects of the passage. Work on the rhythm (refer to the previous post). Work on the pattern of the notes and the fingering. Do you need help with the fingering? If so, ask your teacher for other options that better accommodate your hands. Once you can get through the passage challenge yourself to play it correctly, three or four or more consecutive times. Play it with the music in front of you. Play it from memory. Don’t stop when you know it, play it until it is easy! Play it until you can play it up to tempo. The next challenge is to go back a few measures and play from that point into the passage you have been working on until you are able to actually play it within the context of the piece. Finally, if you are like me you will need to practice playing a few measure beyond the isolate passage as well. Now you can add this passage back into the piece.
Note: this can take some time!
Please keep in mind that sometimes or oftentimes, a difficult section will not become perfect, the difficulties will not be totally resolved, in one practice session. If you are working on a passage that is particularly challenging for you, it is unrealistic to expect it all to fall into place when isolating and drilling it for the first time. Yes, it will get better, but it will not be perfect the first time out. Remember, the beginning of the piece that sounds so great? It did not get that way in one day. In fact what often happens is that after working on a difficult passage you will make nice progress and feel really good. But then a moment later you’ll start to make silly mistakes and talk about frustration, not be able to play it as well as you just did.
For me that is a sign to move on to the next section and come back to this one either a little later or the next time you practice. When you do go back to that section the next time you can really appreciate your progress. Repeating the drill for several days in a row will result in the previously difficult section becoming easier and easier until it’s actually as good as, or even better than anything else in the piece. For some passages this process takes just a day or two, for others it may take longer. It all depends on how difficult the passage is. The good news is that every time you practice effectively your ability to handle difficult musical passages increases and things that used to be difficult become easier and things that were once impossible to consider are now just difficult. Since you know how to handle those difficult passages, this is when you know that you are becoming really good at playing your instrument.
Music is extremely multifaceted. There is always another aspect to add to your practice; touch, sound production, dynamics, accents, vibrato, breath, emotion, etc. Most students find it necessary to focus on just one or two technical skills at time. We can discuss a bit about that and the benefits or using a metronome the next time.