How to practice when you are “Stuck”

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:

bang head here

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.

IMAG0135(I can not confirm nor deny if I was involved in this incident…)

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!


Technique Improvement and Maintenance: My Warm Up Routines – Cymbals


Cymbals are one of my favorite instruments to play in the orchestra. They can define a huge climax or color a soft, delicate passage. The color palette is extremely wide and the opportunities for experimentation are just as many. We sit in the back of the orchestra for so long, waiting for a chance to play, that it is nice to be creative when given the chance. I also think that cymbals can be one of the most intimidating instruments to play; especially for younger students. Just like your soft snare drum roll, if you don’t spend dedicated time to practicing it, chances are it isn’t going to be very good. Scheduling regular practice time on cymbals in vital to having a good, consistent crash.

So how should we practice cymbals? Learning a good basic crash should be the first item on the to do list. This should cover the mf and above dynamic. The first thing we are all taught is that the cymbals need to come together with a flam. You can have the top hit first or the bottom hit first. Either way will work. This will prevent the air in-between the cymbals from ever being totally trapped and compressed, which causes an “air pocket”. All percussionists are more familiar with the air pocket than they would care to admit…

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I also practice the cymbals coming together in super slow motion to find the best angle in which they like to come together. I’m not worried about the sound so much right now as I am finding a comfortable flam between the two cymbals.

Once we find a nice comfortable angle at which the cymbals can come together, the cymbals have to come apart. This is an often forgotten part of the crash and can lead to the dreaded air pocket. When choosing which end of the cymbal should hit first in my flam I prefer the bottom hitting first because the natural weight of the cymbals and gravity cause the cymbals to come back apart. The video below shows how gravity can help the cymbals come apart. When the top hits first (my personally feeling is) the hands and arms have to do more work to get the cymbals apart.

Now that we have a basic crash, we need to be able to repeat it. Consistency is a huge part of cymbal playing. You should be able to play 10 crashes in a row and they all sound the same. Not an easy task! So this is how I start my practice routine. I play a series of crashes at no particular tempo with the goal of them all sounding the same. My focus is on sound and my hands executing the same motion every time for a consistent crash.

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Keith Aleo‘s book Complementary Percussion, is a fantastic resource for exercises and etudes to work on all complementary instruments. Once I have consistent crashes I work through his exercises on page 33 & 34 to start controlling the cymbals with a specific tempo on the metronome. I do all of this at a mf or louder dynamic.

Just like with snare drum, I spend specific time practicing soft. The soft crash is slightly different than a mf crash or louder because all of the movements are minimized. The crash still needs a flam but the angle is smaller, the softer you get. I also slowly shift where the cymbals are in my preparation so that the cymbals are more vertical the softer I get. I find that at the soft dynamic, my eyes need to be more involved in checking the angle of attack. At the louder dynamic I can do this by feel, but at the softer dynamic, I need my eyes to do it. The pictures below show the progression of how I prepare from mf to ppp.

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To get used to this concept I will play Keith’s exercise A but with a long crescendo and then a long diminuendo.

So we can play a crash, but now we need to stop it… Muffling the cymbals is just as important as the crash itself. A lot of times the composer doesn’t give us a lot of information on how long the note should be. So we have to make that decision ourselves. We also have to determine if the end of the note is quick or if we want to slowly damp the cymbals so the end of the note is less apparent. All of these options should be practiced so they are comfortable when in a performance situation. From a purely technical standpoint, I muffle the cymbals with my stomach. This keeps these large metal objects away from my ribs so I won’t have to worry about injury.

To round out the rest of my crash cymbal practice session, I will work on one of Keith’s etudes a day. Once I get to 10, I’ll go back to 1.

There are some extended techniques that can work great in specific circumstances. Occasionally I will leave the cymbals together a little bit longer than necessary on a soft crash and let them sizzle. This happens right as they come apart. I will leave the top edges still touching and lets the cymbals vibrate against one another for a nice effect. I will also occasionally scrape one cymbals against the other for a long note. This can also be done on suspended cymbal but the effect of two cymbals is different and can be very nice in the right situation.

Crash cymbals are only one part of the demands on the cymbal player. Suspended cymbal playing is a huge part of the symphonic repertoire. Granted it isn’t the most technically demanding aspect of percussion playing but it might be one of the most creative! Just like mallet, bass drum, or timpani playing; I have a lot of sticks that create different sounds on the cymbals. Think of these sticks like different articulation options for the cymbals. You can scrape the cymbals with a file to create a long sound. You can strike it with a stick for a quick sound. You can tap it with a triangle beater for a ping sound. You can softly strike it with a soft mallet for a warm sound. Experiment with different options so your spectrum of available colors if wider. The picture below is of all my suspended cymbal sticks. I also use a variety of triangle beaters for scrapes and such but they wouldn’t fit on the table!

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There are some great resources out there for continuing to work on your cymbals playing. Zildjian has a great online Education Guidebook that is perfect for beginning players and teachers. They also have some great resources for how to pick out your first pair of cymbals. The Art of Bass Drum and Cymbals Playing by Tony Cirone and Garwood Whaley is another great resource.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next post about more accessories featuring triangle and tambourine. As always leave comments below if you have something unique that you like to practice on cymbals.