I am here to assure you that though many of us have felt this way, it is absolutely not the case. More practice does not lead to worse playing! As long as you are engaged in mindful practice, and follow proper practice techniques that you will have learned from your teacher, or those published in previous posts to this blog, you are most assuredly making progress. There are however, some reasons that you might actually feel that the more you practice, the worse you play.
To begin it is important to understand that we don’t learn in a linear fashion. We develop skills in a step by step fashion. Here is a gross simplification. First we learn about a new skill as an idea. At this point we understand what we want to do, but not how to do it. Next we learn the concept or the technique that helps us to perceive how to actuate the new idea that was introduced. Finally, we practice and practice and practice to develop the muscle memory that allows us to consistently perform the new skill.
Learning to play an instrument involves your entire body and mind; your senses, your autonomic nervous system, your muscular and skeletal system, etc. all of which respond at different rates when faced with responding to stimuli and they are all part of a loop. When we produce a note we first feel it with our hands and or/lips (depending on the instrument), next we sense the vibration being sent into the room and finally we hear the sound with our ears. All of that is processed by our brain which sends instructions to various muscles to react and respond. It takes many hours of mindful practicing/listening/feeling to be aware of these sensory issues and to have them automatically modify your playing behavior. This is not an intellectual process!
When learning to play an instrument, the development of your ear (auditory response) is always ahead of the development of your technique (muscle response). The technique will never catch up to, or surpass your ear which is why even very high level performers are always striving to be better. As you practice your ear becomes more and more discriminating so that your expectations are always several steps ahead of your actual ability. Compounding the frustration is that not only does your ear develop first; it often improves faster than your technique. Sometimes the two aspects move fairly fluidly as though both are floating on the same current and sometimes they drift apart temporarily widening the gap between how you are hearing vs. how you are playing. When that happens we begin to feel that we are playing worse despite our practice.
All of this makes it very difficult to determine if you are improving without an objective teacher to guide you. You won’t learn if you are just practicing without being properly focused, but if you are practicing carefully and mindfully, it is impossible not to get better over time. There may be individual challenges that change your rate of progress but if you are putting in the time, internalizing how you are practicing and really listening to what you are playing, then your playing skill will develop. There will be leaps of understanding to rejoice in and plateaus to struggle through but you will improve.