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Practice Makes Progress

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

I recently had a student tell me, "Sometimes I'll pick up my violin for the first time all day and play something through with no mistakes. But the longer I play, the more mistakes I seem to make". They summarized by saying, discouraged, "It seems the more I practice, the worse I sound".

Although this may seem like the opposite outcome we would expect from practice, it is actually not uncommon. See, mental state plays a HUGE role in our approach to playing an instrument. I would argue this is especially true for those who play the violin. It's a mind game! If you're not thinking about one thing (rhythm, bowings, tone), you're most definitely thinking about the other (intonation, finger patterns, note accuracy). It's all very taxing, and we can easily find ourselves entangled in an endless web of frustration and confusion.

So, why might you discover yourself sounding "worse" the more time you spend practicing? The answer, although nuanced, is actually pretty simple. Allow me to illustrate. If you roll out of bed in the morning, make your coffee, let your dog out, and pick up your violin to practice, there's a good chance your mind is fairly clear and fresh with optimism. You haven't yet cluttered it with negative thoughts of what you're doing wrong, and you certainly haven't yet exhausted yourself with hours of practice.

If you do find yourself becoming frustrated at any point in your practice session, I would advise you to do three things. One, stop. Pump the brakes, set your violin down, walk around your house or around the block, breathe, stretch, have a snack, and come back to it with that fresh optimism you had earlier. Practicing while stressed and becoming increasingly frustrated rarely gets us anywhere.

Two, be gentle with yourself. As we've spoken about already, being harsh with ourselves rarely results in progress. So, if you find yourself habitually using negative self-talk when you mess up, try instead thinking of what you would say to a child who's made a mistake. Or, what your teacher would say to you. Chances are, neither of those would be a variation of "You idiot! Why can't you do anything right?" So, don't say those things to yourself, either. Remember where you were last year. Last month. Last week, even. Think of the progress you've made in that timeframe, and allow yourself to move forward.

And three, practice efficiently. If you find yourself playing your piece from beginning to end ten times in a row, you might make a little progress, but you will mostly run yourself ragged, and increase your chances of making silly mistakes that you wouldn't otherwise. So instead of spending most of your time on the things you already know you can do well, take bite-sized chunks, and slow down! If there's a particularly tricky spot in your piece where you know you always fumble, take only that spot (preferably no longer than a couple of measures to a line) and repeat it slowly until you've perfected it. This gives you the opportunity to see your immediate progress, which will undoubtedly encourage you and give you enough momentum to power through whatever else you need to tackle.

So, I hope this serves as encouragement if you've been dealing with something similar, or just generally frustrating practice sessions lately. We all have those times, but the important thing to remember is that we have the power to change our mindset and to improve our chosen skill while still being kind to ourselves.

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