How To Turn Frustration With Your Practice Into Musical Progress

We all have those days in the practice room…days where you can’t seem to get anything right. Where you’re fighting your instrument and you want to scream…

I’m sure you know the feeling of a frustrating day in the practice room.

It’s frustrating because you’ve set aside time in your day specifically for practicing and improvement…but as soon as you start you struggle to get a decent sound. Your reeds are bad, your chops hurt, your technique is slow, and you can’t concentrate.

Exercises that you had down yesterday are suddenly worse. Tunes that you thought you were OK, sound mechanical and boring. Suddenly your big musical goals feel out of reach, even unattainable.

Bad practice days are a fact of life as an instrumentalist, but the key to continual  improvement is knowing how to beat them.

What do you do when your instrument and your brain aren’t cooperating? How do you turn your frustration and musical obstacles into productive practice time??

In today’s lesson we’ll answer those questions and more. Here are 5 techniques for overcoming your worst days in the practice room

1) Stop!

If you’re hitting a wall, if you keep making the same mistakes, and if you’re ready to throw your instrument out the window…

Just stop.

Because let’s be honest, playing through that etude 100 more times with mistakes, or struggling to squeeze out those high notes, or mindlessly jamming along with that play-a-long isn’t going to help.

If your technique isn’t working, if your focus is down the tubes, and you’re getting worse…don’t force it.

Repetition is necessary for improving in the practice room…but only when you’re getting it right. Playing something haphazardly or incorrectly 100 times in a row isn’t going to help. No practice is better than bad practice.

Trying to learn something when you’re frustrated, unfocused, and tired is not a recipe for success. Over time, you’ll actually ingrain the very things that you’re trying to get rid of in your playing.

Do this instead…

Rather than beating your head against the wall and trying to force the right notes out, try a different approach when you encounter an obstacle:

  • Reset and start over

Whether you’re warming up, practicing a tune, or transcribing a solo always start with a calm & focused mind, and work toward a goal. It’s crucial that you don’t proceed until you’re playing correctly! Some days this takes longer than others, and at times you’ll have to stop and reset. Be patient.

  • Take the pressure off

Remember, you don’t have to solve everything in this one practice session. Remove external expectations and pressures like competition and self-judgement. The goal of practice isn’t getting to the end of an exercise or checking everything off your list – it’s about improving.

  • Find the root of the problem

Rather than getting frustrated, giving up, or getting depressed, take a step back and look objectively at the problem. Calmly say to yourself:

OK this is interesting, something is off here. Let’s find the culprit.

Maybe the problem isn’t that you can’t play the exercise, it’s that you’re not breathing correctly or your posture is terrible. Maybe you don’t suck at improvising, you just haven’t practiced ii-V’s or learned language for the basic chords.

These little details have a big impact in the practice room and can be the difference between hitting a wall and making progress. Instead of reacting emotionally with frustration or despair, get to the root of the problem.

2. Focus on smaller tasks and perfect them

One of the main reasons many musicians find themselves frustrated or failing in the practice room is that they’re trying to do too much at once.

As musicians, we feel like we have to transcribe entire solos, learn hundreds of tunes, and quickly master techniques. But this isn’t a manageable expectation for an average day in the practice room.

It’d be like walking out your front door and trying to run a marathon on your first day of training – you’re going to hit a wall. Taking on too much at once or attempting things that are too complex right away leads to frustration and even failure.

If this sounds like your practice routine, it’s time reset your expectations about what practice should be.

Instead of attempting huge goals in a single practice session, start with one note, one scale, or a single musical phrase. Get your form perfect, focus on the details, and lock in your sound. By reinforcing these small skills everyday, you’ll be able to achieve your big goals.

Rather than trying to make drastic changes, focus on perfecting smaller tasks. 

Look at your own practice habits, are there places where you’re trying to skip right to the finish line?

For instance, instead of pushing through three pages of technical exercises, start by perfecting your sound on one note and focus on one phrase at a time. Instead of trying to master Rhythm Changes, start by mastering the V7 chord or perfecting the I-VI-ii-V progression.

Every big goal that you have is comprised of smaller skills or tasks that you need to master first.

3. Get away from the physical element of playing

I’m guessing you’ve heard the saying that professional sports are 90% mental and 10% physical.

It’s the idea that high level performance in things like golf, archery, running marathons, or boxing is more dependent on a mental approach than a physical approach.

And while it might sound like a cliche, this is especially true for musicians.

All of the musical skills that you’re trying to cultivate in your playing begin in your mind. Sound, time, technique, articulation, musical style – all of these things start as mental concepts.

Before you even touch your instrument, the way you think about sound will determine the actual sound coming out of your instrument.

Your instrument is essentially an amplifier for the music in your mind. This is important to remember in the practice room, especially when you encounter an obstacle.

When problems pop up we often get bogged down in the physical aspects of the instrument. We suffer from a type of “paralysis by analysis,” obsessing over every physical action required to produce sound.

However, this not only won’t fix the problem, it can drive you insane…

A great way to reset your practice session when you’re stuck is to focus on the sound of what you’re trying to accomplish rather than the physical actions that are required to produce it. Envision the desired result regardless of the barrier you’re facing.

The late great tuba player of the Chicago Symphony, Arnold Jacobs, often stressed that musicians played two instruments – the instrument in the mind and the instrument in the hand.

Strive to play the instrument in the mind and let the instrument in the hand follow along! If you’re having a bad day in the practice room or in a performance, focus on what you want to play instead of the minutiae of how to play it.

Here’s what I mean. If you’re encountering a technical problem in the practice room…

  • Put the instrument down and turn off your judgmental/analytical mind
  • Listen to a recording of a player that has your “ideal sound”
  • Visualize not only this sound that you’re trying to achieve, but the feeling of ease with which you’ll produce it
  • Meditate on every aspect of the sound and imagine it coming out of your instrument. Let your body figure out how to produce it.
  • Imitate. Now come back to your instrument and imitate the sound, the articulation, and the musicality of the recording without thinking about it.

You’ll be surprised at the results. By removing yourself from the technical aspect of playing and instead, focusing on the desired result, your body will find a way to efficiently produce the sound.

4. Improve your musical skills without your instrument

When you’re having a bad day in the practice room you don’t have to give up on your musical progress. Even if your chops are shot, your technique is fried, and your motivation is gone.

There are many other ways to work on your musicianship that don’t involve you playing your instrument. Here are a few ideas:

* Listen – time spent on focused listening is essential for every musician, and it’s something that we don’t do enough in a serious way.

* Revisit your goals – define your long and short-term musical goals and make a practice plan for the next day or the next week in the practice room.

* Ear Training – Work on ear training exercises like ingraining intervals, triads, chord tones, chord types and progressions.

Focus on the non-playing aspects of learning a tune: listen to different recordings, sing the melody, visualize the chord progression, sing the root of every chord, learn the lyrics, etc.

* Spend time at the piano – If you play a wind, string, or percussion instrument, work on your piano skills. Study common chord progressions, play the melody and changes to the tunes you’re learning, & work out language that you’ve transcribed.

Use visualization exercises to ingrain the theory and technique of the jazz repertoire. Visualize scales, chords, and progressions, ii-V’s in all keys, the arpeggios of major 7 chords, etc.

* Compose – Work on composing a tune, a chord sequence, or write down a melody

These are just a few things you can do to build your musical skills without your instrument.

5. A bad practice session isn’t the end of the world…

When you hit a stumbling block in the practice room or in a performance the key is not dwelling on the negative.

Think about it. This day is just one of many (thousands) that you’ll have playing your instrument. A drop in the bucket of your musical life – so don’t sweat it!

When you hit a musical or technical barrier don’t overreact. Thinking “I never be able play this,” or “What’s going happen when I try to perform this, I’m going to bomb,” or “I’ve failed as a musician” is not only useless…

It’s irrational – one day isn’t going to make or break you in the practice room.

The four tools we mentioned above are useful for getting back on track, but sometimes you just need to stop, put the instrument in the case, and start fresh tomorrow.

As a practicing musician it’s important to have other parts of your life that are non-musical, areas where you can have fun, change your focus, and recharge your inspiration and creativity.

Get outside, workout, hang out with your friends, watch a movie, read, and explore other hobbies. Find something that will inspire you musically so the next time you enter the practice room you’ll be inspired, determined, and focused.

Resetting and coming back with a fresh mindset can do wonders when you’ve reached your wit’s end.

Aim for progress everyday

Everyone has bad days in the practice room…

The difference is that the best musicians have figured out how to deal with them and quickly get back to making progress. And with these 5 techniques you will too.

“If you’re trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I’ve had them; everybody has had them. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” ~Michael Jordan

Where inexperienced players might get frustrated and try to force out a technique, you’ll know to stop, reset, and find the root of the problem.

You’ll know to focus on perfecting smaller tasks instead of grasping for giant goals and to focus on the sound of what you’re trying to achieve when your technique hits a wall.

And even on those day where you’re burned out, you’ll have ways to improve without your instrument…

I can’t guarantee that you won’t have another bad day in the practice room. Or that you won’t encounter frustration with your technique or a demoralizing performance. But now you have five tools to deal with these situations, so you can quickly get back to the business of making music.