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The Quickest Way to Sabotage Your Music | Practice Tips for Musicians


a staircase with the words "the quickest way to sabotage your music as a classical musician"

When you’re trying to make progress in your music (or anything, for that matter), start by moving from Step 1 to Step 2 instead of Step 9 to 10.


For the sake of explanation, pretend that any piece of music or musical exercise that you want to learn has exactly 10 steps, with Step 1 representing seeing the music for the first time, to Step 10 being “done,” whatever that means to you.


The biggest sabotage that I see my flute students do to themselves is either mindlessly starting in Steps 8-10, or expecting Step 10 to happen quickly, because “I should be able to play this by now!”


How the sabotage happens


If Step 10 is the final stage of a piece of music and you start (eagerly and impatiently) from Step 9 by trying to play it at performance tempo, you are not setting yourself up for success. You’ve skipped way too many steps, so you sound sloppy. Your expectations are inappropriate for your early point in the process, so you wind up disappointed with how “bad” you sound. You’re comparing your sound to what “done” should sound like even though you’ve barely even begun. Which is… hard. And when things are hard, we get tense.


When we’re in the practice room, unnecessary tension isn’t the goal. We want our playing to feel mentally and physically light and easy, even if the music is challenging.


So if we’re telling ourselves that the next repetition HAS to be it, this HAS to be the time I get this right, that’s a lot of pressure. You’re wondering why your painting doesn’t look complete when you’ve barely even painted two strokes.


Comparing your rough draft to a final manuscript is never going to measure up. It’s reasonable and encouraged to keep the final result in mind as you start, but to expect the first sounds out of your instrument to be performance quality (or just “good”) almost immediately, is foolish.


Imagine this instead...


Imagine instead that your journey begins with going from Step 1 to Step 2. The expectations are lower and there is less clouding your vision. That doesn’t mean that your expectations should STAY low, it just means that your expectations will rise gradually as your skills build gradually. 


Step 1 to Step 2:  it just has to get a LITTLE better. Fix something but not everything. That’s manageable. It’s so manageable that it’s incredibly effective. The rhythm of this section doesn’t make sense yet, but what if you try just one measure and take out the ties?


And then you go from Step 2 to Step 3. Same thing: manageable, effective, and way more satisfying than playing fast with tons of mistakes and zero consistency. You notice a sense of ease and control as you try looping one measure at a time.


Alright, that was enough detailed work. Let’s just casually try Step 10 now.


But suddenly going from Step 3 to Step 10, now again, the pressure is on. It has to be perfect this time.


Tension sets in and somehow it sounds worse. It’s hard, it’s scary, and this isn’t fun anymore. Why? Because you skipped Steps 4-9, and your expectations skyrocketed disproportionately to your ability!


Here’s the thing: maybe you have resistance to going through each step because it’s boring. I don’t want to go slow. I don’t want to break down the rhythm. I don’t want to work on long tones. 


Or maybe the eagerness to reach Step 10 stems from excitement. I WANT to play this piece fast because the recording I listened to sounded so vibrant. I can’t help myself, I want to do that now. Just to try. Just to see if I can get performance-level results on the first try. The second try. The 15th try without ever slowing down.


But gosh, it’s FRUSTRATING to try to be excellent right away. Even when you intellectually know these things should take practice, surely you have ENOUGH experience, now, to be able to get it relatively close to good... or perfect... and easy... on the 5th try... right? 


Your resistance to building your skills gradually is valid, AND…


I want you to consider how fulfilling and satisfying it is to play something with complete control. When you KNOW you have it. It’s motivating, things click, and it just feels great. It usually inspires even more of that same thing, just up a level. Imagine how much fun it would be to set yourself up for success at every practice step?


What’s the tiniest, most manageable Step 1 you can think of? Is it: 

  • Counting all the rhythms or playing them on one pitch?

  • Playing every single pitch as quarter notes?

  • Listening to the piece?

  • Playing through a section extremely under tempo?


There are many options for your Step 1 in the music practice room. The only option that is NOT available for this strategy is playing it perfectly on the first try.


Think of it this way


Here are a few ridiculous examples to illustrate the point even more explicitly:


That baby has been crawling for days and they STILL can’t walk.


That person has been learning Spanish for 2 years and they STILL can’t read an advanced novel in Spanish.


The inappropriate expectations are obvious in the most extreme examples that have nothing to do with us, but it’s more nuanced when it comes down to: 


I’ve been playing flute for years, why is it STILL so hard to read ledger lines and remember fingerings?


I’ve learned music much more complicated than this, why is the rhythm STILL so daunting to me?


Is it much different?


You wouldn’t expect a baby to walk before learning to crawl because you are familiar with their sequence of growth. Even once a child CAN walk, you aren’t phased when they take a tumble at 2 years old. The process, albeit exciting, is somewhat neutral. We know what to expect, and our expectations are realistic and gradual.


If you’re learning something new in the practice room, can you approach it with a beginner’s mindset, even if you’re not a beginner anymore? Excited but neutral?


Can you start a new piece by appropriately adjusting your expectations at every step of the way? Can you start by sliding from Step 1 to Step 2, instead of launching yourself into Step 10?


The 10 Steps are a simple representation. There might be hundreds of tiny dynamic steps that you can’t plan out ahead of time. But whenever you get stuck, see if there’s an even tinier step you can go back to.


Bonus


Do you find yourself learning music extremely quickly? Do you get all the notes and rhythms, thinking you’re done, and then your teacher is always asking you for more? Consider this: perhaps you’re always stopping at level 8 or 9, where the notes and rhythms are learned, but the expression isn’t coming through. Or maybe you learn things slowly and cautiously, but to get to Step 10 you need to bump up the tempo. Step 10 is where the magic happens in music; keep searching for it!



Use these thoughts to fuel your practice as well as other practice tips for musicians and let me know what you think!


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