Have you felt “stuck” in your practice sessions? Can’t seem to figure out what the next step is? Raise your hand if you have felt like you are banging your head against the wall when in your practice room. (My hand is raised) Unfortunately we all have felt stuck and unsure of what to do or what to fix. This sickness can have various symptoms. Here are some symptoms I have felt:
I’m just totally unsure what to fix
I know what is wrong but don’t know how to fix it.
I don’t know what the next step in the process is.
My brain is fried and I simply don’t know what I am listening to anymore.
My hands simply won’t do what I am asking them to do.
This is beyond frustrating because of the helplessness one feels. If you know exactly what to do, it’s just a matter of doing it, but if you are lost…. Well it can seem impossible to find a solution.
Believe it or not there are a number of ways to dig your way back out of the hole. The most important thing to remember when you find yourself stuck is that now of all times is when you must practice smart! It may seem like you are wasting time but the first thing you have to do is step back and really analyze the situation. In lessons when I see a student growing progressively frustrated with something they are trying to accomplish; the first thing I do is ask them to step away from the instrument. They usually give me a half laugh knowing they are frustrated. I tell them to take a deep breath and then try again. Being smart, slow, and methodical is the only way to make progress when you are stuck. To help pinpoint what you are struggling with here are some questions you should ask yourself. Be very honest with your answer…
Is it a technical issue?
Is it a musical issue?
Is it a consistency issue?
Is it a mental focus issue?
Is it a time issue?
Are you just simply so tired that you aren’t capable of practicing well?
Are there multiple interpretations and you are having trouble committing to one?
Could what you are playing actually be sounding great and you are looking for something wrong when there is nothing to be found?
One of the main reasons I see players “stuck” is when they get into a routine and don’t know when or how to move out of it. Routines are great, but we evolve as musicians and sometimes we need to move to new exercises and routines to fix new problems. If your view of your playing is through a very small window, it’s hard to see the solutions that might be lying just outside your focus. Sometimes it’s easy to get a little too comfortable with that you are working on and not realize that it is time to move on. Then, when it really is time to move on, the change is even more uncomfortable. I liken this feeling to beginning practice after some time off. Getting back into a new groove can be tough.
I also see students commonly get stuck when learning a solo. They feel they are making good progress on learning the notes and working it up to tempo but once they get about %80 of the way there, they get stuck. The solo refuses to get better. There are a variety of reasons this can happen. Sometimes it is a technical deficiency in ones playing that isn’t allowing the player to play the piece the way they want. Sometimes it has taken a student so long to get to the %80 mark that they are simply burned out on the piece and can’t finish the job. The most common reason this can happen is because critical steps were skipped early on in the learning process and they are coming back to haunt the player. These steps are both musical and technical. If the larger musical picture isn’t studied early on, the piece will come together very disjointed and not flow musically. It will take more work in the later stages to get the piece performance ready. It is also very easy to ignore technical issues when the work is slow and new. Students often don’t solve technical issues at the slow tempo and so they arise at the faster tempo. The typical solution to this is just to repeat, repeat, repeat, hoping that it will get better but in reality a larger problem must be solved. Being able to see that you need to take 2 steps back in order to take 4 steps forward is important to mature as a player.
Because it is very easy to get stuck looking at every single “tree” while practicing it is easy to miss the “forest”. For this reason recording yourself and listening back is the best way of analyzing in the practice room. You can pinpoint right where your playing can improve. It can be tough to analyze your playing while actually playing. Listening to a recording immediately after allows your brain to focus solely on listening. It is a way of giving yourself a lesson when it isn’t possible to play for someone else. It is also instant feedback right there in the practice room.
Playing for other people and seeking advice is key to making progress as a musician. Especially when you are stuck! Seeking out teachers, colleagues and other students for advice can be the only way out when your brain refuses to work. Teachers and professionals have years of experience you can draw on. They usually can spot your issue much quicker than you can. However, sometimes your fellow students can be the most helpful because chances are they are going through the same issue you are. They can work through it with you and commiserate through the process.
Occasionally I have seen students stuck in the practice room and the reason is because nothing is actually wrong. What you say?!?! As students and musicians we are trained to constantly be looking for what is wrong and what can be better. That is generally why the world’s best musicians are as good as they are. However, sometimes… Nothing is wrong. I vividly remember playing the Lt. Kije excerpt for Michael Burritt in a lesson once and he said “Play it just like that. That’s pretty good.” I was confused and almost shocked. You mean to tell me something I played didn’t need fixing? Once I got over my shock, I found it very empowering and my confidence grew. The best teachers in the world know when to say “Play it just like that!” rather than continuing to mess with the performance and possibly make it worse. You may find that after a lot of analysis, your performance may be pretty good after all!
Getting stuck in the practice room can be the worst, but this is the time more so than ever to take a step back, be methodical, and practice smart!