Why Practicing is Frustrating

In my sophomore year of college, I was an RA (Resident Advisor) on the girl’s hall of the Music Dorms. One of the responsibilities as an RA that I really loved was meeting with the girls on my hall twice a semester to check in.

 Lauren Pierce - Responsible Adult

Lauren Pierce - Responsible Adult

One of my girls, Abby, was double majoring in Music and Math, and in this meeting she told me she was thinking about dropping her music major. She said, “I just don’t like how open-ended practicing is. With math, I learn theories and use them to solve problems – I accomplish something each time I go to work. Music isn’t like that, and I never feel like I’m getting anywhere, even though my teachers tell me I am.”

The frustration Abby shared with me is not unique to her. Practicing is frustrating to many of us – professionals and amateurs alike – because it is so different from most things we do in our everyday life.

We live in a Type-A, task-based society that survives on to do lists, schedules, and deadlines.

We love crossing things off our to do list. Sometimes I’ll write things I’ve already done in my to do list just so I can experience the endorphin rush of crossing them off.

The problem is, the learning process doesn’t function on a series of lists and comprehensive steps that apply to everyone in the same order - or even at all. But, like anything, you can’t practice properly if you don’t understand how it works.

Here’s the thing: Practicing is a process and a skill, and not an instinctual one. We need to be taught how to practice in the same way we’re taught how to play an instrument, but I’m not so sure that happens. I don’t think the problem most people have with practicing is with the actual act of practicing - I think the problem is with the conversation around practicing.

So, let’s start a new one.


Instead of talking about what you need to do in the practice room, what if we talked about who you need to be?
 

Practicing needs 3 qualities to thrive:

  • Patience

  • Persistence

  • Curiosity

 

The good news is, all of us have these qualities already. You don’t need to change the core of who you are to be a good practicer - you just need to know how to apply the qualities you already have in the practice room.


Patience

Patience is quite possibly the hardest of the three qualities to have when you’re learning something new. Our impatience comes from being unfamiliar with the path and the process of learning - not knowing if we’re going at the right pace or if we’re even on the right road at all. Understanding the stages of the process is the first step.

I am not known for being an especially patient or calm person. I have a lot of excess energy. I exercise 6 days a week. Worrying and over-analyzing are two of my favorite activities. Once, a friend told me, “You look like you would have the heartbeat of a hamster.”

So I don’t exactly radiate serenity.

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Surprisingly, I’m very patient in my practicing. The best evidence I have of this patience is the way I learned Victor Herbert’s 2nd Cello Concerto. It was the most difficult piece I had ever undertaken, and it took me a year to learn. It is beautiful, heroic, and 25 minutes of pure, never-ending virtuosity. At that point, I was the first person to attempt it on bass, which meant I couldn’t look to anyone for help or ideas.

If there is such a thing as a Patience Marathon, learning this piece was like training for it.

I wasn’t ready to learn the Herbert - but honestly, I don’t know if you’re ever really ready to learn a piece like that. Also, I really wanted to play it and I’m stubborn.

In that year, I started to understand what I call the stages of learning. I originally thought these were unique to me and my process but, as I started teaching, I realized the process is very similar to most people.

Here’s what they look like:

  1. Learning the choreography
  2. Ingraining it into your body
  3. Refining the moves
  4. Becoming second nature

These 4 stages are based around putting in time. By choreography, I mean the techniques that go into being a good bassist and musician - left hand technique, bow control, intonation, where to put your damn fingers, etc. Your brain needs time to wrap itself around what you’re telling your body to do before it can be comfortable. You need to put in the right work with proper technique, but sometimes the answer to thing you’re frustrated with is that your body just needs more time to learn the moves in order to make them second nature.


persistence

What allows us to be patient is persistence, and what allows us to persist is patience with ourselves and the process. You can also think of it as resilience, grit, or, as my partner calls it, stubbornness. This is what keeps us going when we aren’t making the more obvious strides we expect - when we reach the plateau, or even feel like we’re getting worse.

Running for the touchdown!

I felt this way constantly in my training for the Patience Marathon, the Herbert, which I might have mentioned was a bit tricky. The entire concerto is nuts, but the piece ends with what is essentially a 3-minute Hail Mary of a finale that I can only describe as bananas. It is 3 full pages of blazingly fast 16th note patterns in every concoction and permutation you could possibly imagine. There are moving octaves, there are barred thumb fingerings, there are notes off of the fingerboard - all written idiomatically for an instrument that is not the bass.

The finale essentially became the qualifier for whether I would ever perform the piece in public. If I couldn’t play the finale, I couldn’t play the piece.

 Me playing the Herbert, looking to the gods for patience, persistence, and a miracle.

Me playing the Herbert, looking to the gods for patience, persistence, and a miracle.

For a while, I couldn’t come close to full tempo. I would do my slow practice routine, day after day, trying to push the tempo a bit higher. If I pushed the tempo up too far before my hands were ready, I would have to retrace my steps. If I made 1% progress, I was ecstatic.

The reason I kept pushing through was because, deep down, I believed I could do it if I just kept at it. I believed in myself and in my method of practicing because I had seen it work many times before. In that way, practicing is not only the faith that you can do it, but also the experience of having done it before. If this is feels daunting, look to people ahead of you - teachers, inspirations,colleagues - and have faith that the process you’re going through is the same road they have travelled. Whatever fuels that fire of stubborness, grit and determination for you, keep it well stocked, knowing that the frustration is not a roadblock in this process, it is part of it.


Curiosity

Curiosity is the driving force of persistence. It’s the thing that keeps you coming back day after day - what interests you beyond the end goal of playing the piece of music or instrument.

This is why I kept working on the Herbert for an entire year, despite common sense telling me otherwise - I of course wanted to perform it because I adored it, but the driving force, for me, was that I was perpetually interested and curious about the puzzle that was this piece.

Creativity is curiosity’s secondhand woman. Once you know more about your skill, you can be more creative with your problem solving by allowing yourself to experiment and think outside of the box.  It’s creativity that pushes you to find that the culprit of messy fast notes is actually your bow tripping up over the string crossings, not the left hand like it usually is. Creativity is also what pushes you to explore an alternative way of working out the kinks.

Curiosity is about many different aspects. It’s about the interest you have in your instrument or the music that keeps you intrigued, but it’s also about problem solving. You need to be curious to hold yourself accountable. When you have a trouble spot, curiosity and creativity are what give you the keys to figuring out what could be causing the issue.

 Rehearsing right before the first public performance of the Herbert.

Rehearsing right before the first public performance of the Herbert.


Ultimately, practicing is a process and the skills you cultivate don’t have clear endpoints, or even signposts to progress along the way. This is actually one of the things I love about practicing.

I can’t help but wonder how many people have given up music that shouldn’t have because they didn’t learn how to practice properly, which in turn didn’t give them the opportunity to learn the way that works best for them. They didn’t get the opportunity to love it.

Learning how to play an instrument isn’t like putting together a bookshelf from IKEA, so don’t put those two things on the same list. However, the skills you learn from learning how to practice will outlive the bookshelf and resonate in all aspects of your life.

“Learning an instrument” may never be an item on your to-do list that you get to cross off. Instead, it can be an activity of cultivation that you feed everyday - a lifelong skill with hurdles, sharp edges and challenges that will constantly arise and change as you grow. Take your time, persevere, and keep being interested in your life, your practice and your creativity.

Lauren Pierce

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Credits:

Written by Lauren Pierce
Editor/Creative Development by Fiona Brannigan
Victor Herbert - Concerto no. 2 in E minor for Cello, Movement 3

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