by Madeline Bruser

“I can’t get this passage to work! My hands won’t do it!”

“Yesterday this piece went so smoothly. Why does it feel so uncomfortable today?”

“What’s wrong with me? I’ve played this phrase a hundred times and it still sounds wretched!”

Probably every musician can identify with at least one of these expressions of frustration in practicing.

Mastering a piece of music involves all of our faculties—physical, sensory, emotional, and intellectual. It’s a great feeling when all of these are working well together and we can be thoroughly engaged in making music. But because practicing requires us to coordinate so many of our abilities at once, it’s bound to include many moments of frustration.

But Now What?

The question is, what do we do when we feel such frustration? Do we stop and look into what might be causing it, with an open mind? Or do we fail to even notice our frustration before it gets out of control and turns into a storm of clenched hands, curses, and despair?

Your answer to this question may fall somewhat in between these two extremes. But in any case, how you answer this question can make all the difference in how effective your practicing is, and in what kind of energy you bring to performing. It can make the difference between joy and misery in your musical life.

See if you recognize yourself in some of these common responses to frustration in practicing:

Pushing Yourself Harder

“If this passage won’t fall into place and lie flat, I’ll just make it do it.” Witness the clenched jaw, tightening arms, and rising speed and volume, as the passage gets worse instead of better.

This approach often leads to the next one:

Berating Yourself

You throw up your hands in despair, blaming yourself for being too uncoordinated, untalented, stupid, or lazy–or all of the above—for not being able to get the music to sound the way you want it to. You forget how to smile. Your life looks doomed.

Which may lead to the next one:

Practicing Excessively

You obsess about practicing and decide to reinforce any weak spots you perceive in the passage with the equivalent of concrete and steel, spending ten hours a day at your instrument, and putting your meals in the blender so you can save time by drinking your food instead of chewing it. (I actually did this once, though not because I was determined to nail a certain tough passage but because I wanted to learn and memorize Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in a week. I can’t remember a note of it now.)

Funny? Good. We need to laugh at ourselves for such lapses in our sanity.

The good news is that in experiencing such insanity, we can be inspired to look for an alternative. In fact, that’s how I ended up trying mindfulness meditation, which led me to develop the Art of Practicing, and later, to write the book.

Bigger Issues

We definitely have to work with the huge, crucial issues of having a reliable instrumental or vocal technique, intimate knowledge of the score, and complete engagement with the sounds, sensations, and rhythmic flow of a piece of music. But apart from meeting these major demands, we can also free ourselves from frustration by following a series of intelligent steps.

Stepladder to Freedom

  1. Recognize that you’re frustrated. This is the essential first step. Typical signs include less enjoyment, more stress, tighter muscles, and creeping self-doubt. Notice where the tension or stress is located in your body.
  2. Realize that the reason you feel frustrated is that you care a lot about the music and about your playing, and you want to do well.
  3. Appreciate yourself for caring and for investing so much time and effort—right now, and during all the years you’ve spent studying your instrument.
  4. Notice if taking a moment to appreciate yourself in that way changes the energy in your body. Do you feel softer, warmer, or more settled? More human and alive? Happier? Where is this energy located in your body?
  5. If any of these changes happen, realize that this kind of energy is more conducive to making music than getting caught in a knot of frustration.
  6. Reflect on what you love about the music you’re practicing, and about being a musician.
  7. Ask yourself if there is any fear linked to your frustration—are you afraid that you’ll never get this music to sound the way you want to? Or that you’ll never accomplish what you want to accomplish as a musician? Are you afraid that “you don’t have what it takes?”
  8. If you find any fear under your frustration, let yourself feel the fear. Take a minute or more to just let it live in you, and notice where it’s located in your body. Notice if the energy of the fear grows, changes, moves, or dissipates after a while.
  9. Approach the music again with no goal in mind except to feel your appreciation of the music and to let it come through in your playing.
  10. Notice if there’s any difference between how you’re playing now and how you were playing when you were in the grip of your frustration.
  11. Check to see if other sections of the music that eluded you before are easier now.
  12. Get curious about this process and continue to explore it as a means to being more connected to the music you’re practicing.
  13. If your frustration really feels out of control, take a break—maybe even until the next day.
  14. Talk to friends and colleagues about your experience. Compare notes. Create a community of musicians based on this approach.
  15. Celebrate that you have begun to triumph over destructive habits and to fulfill yourself more as an artist.
  16. If you teach, encourage your students to use the same approach when they are frustrated.

With these suggestions in mind, you might find those moments of frustration al little less worrisome. In fact, you might even begin to recognize them simply as messages that lead you to discover greater ease, strength, and wisdom within yourself, and more freedom and richness in your playing.

And that can go a long way in growing your confidence for performance.

I wish you much joy and success.

Madeline Bruser

Q & A of the Month

I have one more year left at my conservatory, and I’m really starting to panic about how to make money when I get out. I know I can at least get some piano students, but I feel like I’ll end up bored out of my mind teaching middling level students. And anyway, I really just want to perform. And that is so unbelievably competitive. What are your suggestions?

This seems to be the number one question for serious young musicians. In previous issues of this e-zine, I’ve described my own experience as an example of how to find your true place in the music profession. But I’d recommend that you start with asking yourself some penetrating questions.

These questions may not be easy to answer, or they may seem easier to answer than you think. But if you think beyond surface answers and really look within yourself for how you feel about these things, you may come to a new understanding of how to create the musical life you want.

Find a time to contemplate these questions when you can relax easily. It could also be helpful to actually write down your answers, so you can clearly formulate your thoughts.

First, why do you want to have a career in music?

What images and feelings arise when you imagine having the kind of performing career you dream of?

How much of your desire to fulfill yourself as a professional musician has to do with satisfying your ego, and how much has to do with connecting with something beyond your ego?

What is that something beyond your ego?

What do you want your audience to experience?

When you picture yourself teaching the kind of students you want to teach, what feelings and images arise in you?

What would you want to accomplish as a teacher?

What would you want your students to experience in their musical lives?

Do you have enough knowledge and wisdom about music, the piano, and the ins and outs of professional musical activities to know how to proceed toward the goal you most want?

If you don’t have enough knowledge and wisdom to do this, where can you get it?

I suggest that you allow a lot of time to contemplate these questions, You might even want to listen to a piece of music that touches your “soft spot” while you think of your answers—something slow, gentle, and poignant can work well.

Enjoy the process of answering these questions. And please feel free to contact me again if you’d like to discuss these questions further.