Why Do I Play Worse at My Lesson?

Is there any music student anywhere who can honestly say that they have not experienced the phenomenon of playing better at home than they do at their lesson? The fact is that most students and teachers have first hand experience with this unfortunate occurrence.

There are many psychological and physiological reasons for playing better at home. Rather than focusing on the technicalities of right brain, left brain function I will use this opportunity to focus on other contributing factors; factors that students can learn to overcome such as nervousness, unreasonable expectations (on the part of the student) and avoiding distractions.

Overcoming nervousness might just happen over time as you become more familiar with your teacher. Remember that it is natural to feel nervous and exposed when you are playing in front of others. Learning to play an instrument is difficult. Your teacher is not a critic but a mentor who is  there to guide you on your musical journey. Despite your harshest thoughts about yourself, you are not the worst student that your teacher has ever worked with!

Playing in front of others can be intimidating. You can begin to get used to playing in front of others in many different ways. I’d like to suggest starting benignly at first. If the weather allows, try practicing with your windows open so that others can hear you without your seeing them. Or practice while others are in the house but not in the same room; whether they are family or friends of the family. Either way, it is important to have the mindset that someone is listening. In time you should be able to invite someone into the practice room with you (other than the family pet!)

Learning to play an instrument is inherently difficult and it takes time. Allow yourself that time. Regular, effective practice habits are beneficial for that and many other reasons. As you progress you will gain confidence in your playing. It is a good idea to record yourself practicing. Listening to recordings that you make over time can help you to realize that you are indeed making progress. This can help you to adjust your expectations of yourself.

Overcoming your nervousness about playing in front of others (including your teacher) and adjusting your personal expectations are only part of the cure for learning to play better outside of your own familiar environment. There is another very valid reason that you play better at home.

When you learn your piece, you are not just remembering how to play the notes. Your memory is also absorbing your surroundings. This means that when you play in the relatively unfamiliar surroundings at your lessons, your memory isn’t as strong and as you are already nervous, your playing suffers.Some students have found that visualization can be helpful with this.

Before practicing sit with your instrument, close your eyes, relax your muscles and visualize being in the studio where you have your lessons. Try to focus on the whole sensory experience; the atmosphere, the lighting, the distracting sounds, having the teacher sitting beside you; try to focus on the differences between the two environments.

Once you have can visualize in this way, try to start playing your piece while holding that visualization in your mind and project it into the room around you. This is difficult when you are playing, because it is hard to concentrate on your playing and have your mind focusing on something else but it is a very worthwhile exercise. If you begin practicing at home while visualizing, you will learn your pieces with the image of the other environment, which will affect how you remember them in your lesson. Of course after a few minutes of visualization, it is important to give your actual exercises and pieces the attention they deserve.

We are programmed to care about what people think of us and to worry about how they judge us. Your nervousness isn’t all in your head. It is an automatic reaction of your nervous system that is engineered into your makeup. As you know it has a profound effect on your playing at lessons. The best you can  do to fight your natural instincts is to practice and keep practicing and where possible, in an environment that closely simulates the environment that you will be “performing” in, whether that eventually includes an actual public performance or just playing in the studio with your teacher.









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