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!


Shaking Off the Cobwebs of Summer

I’m back! Is the summer really flying by this fast? Thanks to my regular readers for being patient while I took July off. I was quite busy but took a much needed break from the musical world. Possibly the longest I’ve taken since high school! Now I am back and energized to practice, get ready for the season, tackle new projects, get better and write some blogs! The focus of today’s blog will center around exactly that. How to get back in gear after a much needed break. I encourage all of my students to take a week or two off in the summer as all the hard work done during the year can be exhausting and eventually wear on you. See my blog on when not to practice. Today I will focus not only on practice techniques to get back in shape but also on ways to get organized and set goals so this coming year can be your best!


I know this isn’t a picture of “shaking off cobwebs”, but thought it was much cuter…

I love music, but it sure can be nice to get away from it for a while. Sometimes when I come back however, I feel a little lost. My routine is gone and the whole process feels foreign. My hands feel terrible and I start to worry how long it will take me to get back in shape. I’m sure many of you have experienced similar feelings. While you may be motivated to get better and conquer the world, sometimes it’s tough to know where to start. Everyone is different but here is how I shake the cobwebs off and set myself up for a great year.

First I establish goals. This may seem very high school councilor of me, but it works. It makes it tough to improve if you don’t know what you are trying to do. I encourage young students to do this especially. It may seem that you should just follow what your teacher tells you to do, but you should be involved in your own education. Communicate with your teacher and discuss options and your own thoughts on what you want to do. There may be times where your teacher strongly pushes you in a direction because they feel it’s what is best for you. They are probably right for doing that. However, they should also listen to what YOU want out of lessons and music study. After you have talked to your teacher and spent some time yourself thinking; write down some goals. They could be areas you want to improve. Pieces you want to learn. Styles of music you want to dive into. A new instrument you have never spent significant time on. An aspect of your playing that you feel really could use improvement.

Once you have these goals you should give them a timeline. When you want them done by. A lot of this timeline is probably predetermined based on your school or professional schedule. Say you know you have a recital in November. A lot of your Fall goals are going to be focused on getting ready for your recital. Then, maybe you have some auditions in February. Most of your winter goals will focus around getting ready for those auditions. Maybe there is a pocket of time where you feel you don’t have anything immediately pressing. That is my favorite!! Take advantage of a 2 week or even month long span of time to dive in and improve something very specifically. It’s really hard to dissect a skill and take a few steps back to fix something when you have a recital, audition, or big performance coming up. Try to find periods of time in your year where this can happen.

2015-08-01 17.10.41

I set up a very loose calendar of the year with the big events on it and start filling in the gaps. I will work backwards from an event. This helps me place markers of when I want the repertoire to be at certain stages. I can’t stress enough how important this is. I am planning on writing a longer blog on this later, but this sort of preparation is key to being ready to perform when you need to be ready. It also helps to see visually how much time you have to prepare. And don’t forget the little stuff. Make sure you put that percussion ensemble piece that you need to learn. Sure it may only take 5-6 hours to prepare but you can plan for that once it is on your schedule.

Every year I look at one aspect of my playing that I want to make a concerted effort to get better. (maybe I should look at multiple things…) It can be something really small or it can be large. Some examples have been:

large interval shifting on marimba

soft snare drum control (specifically doubles and rebound control)

snare drum roll control

cymbal crashes and consistent angle of attack

bass drum and bass drum with cymbals attached (yes you actually have to spend time doing these things!)

vibraphone pedal control

This year for me it’s my tambourine roll. I’ve never been happy with it. I know I am using an inefficient method for producing my roll, and while it has worked, I know it could be better. Well, it’s going to get better!

Now that you have this giant calendar for the year it might seem a little overwhelming! Well, take a deep breath and relax. Because, luckily you have the entire year to accomplish all of these goals. You don’t have to get started on every single item right now. By doing all of this preliminary work, you will have a much better idea of how to plan a practice schedule for the first few weeks going forward. This will help you decide, “OK, what am I working on today.” I would look at the next month or two and let that dictate where my general focus is for these individual practice goals. I wrote a series of blogs about warm ups and technique improvement routines last year that should be helpful for whatever area you need to focus on right now. I set short term goals, so these long term goals we have made, can happen.

Something I am doing this year, and have done in the past is to look WAY ahead and start preparing early. If you make this sort of long term calendar you can see potential conflicts before they happen. My January this year is going to be pretty nuts. I have 2 major performances of extremely difficult repertoire; Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars and Bob Becker’s Girlfriend’s Medley with orchestra. I also have some pretty major events in November and December, so I know my practice time is going to be limited in the winter. I have played the Becker but not the Messiaen. With all of this in mind I’m planning on learning the notes to the unfamiliar Messiaen this fall. I’ll then put it away, probably around October, so I can focus on other things and bring it back in late November. I just simply don’t have the time to learn it from scratch right before the performance, so I’m starting now. You might find similar situations in your schedule, where you need to do some preliminary work on a future project.

Everyone practices and prepares differently but I believe getting yourself organized and having a plan is a huge key to success. Establishing goals, making a timeline, focusing on weaknesses, and writing out a practice schedule are four great ways to improve your playing. Before you even play a note!