Is there a musician in the history of the universe who has not experienced frustration during practice, at least on occasion? Let’s face it—learning to play a musical instrument is challenging, and practicing is hard work! Because musicians are generally passionate people and because we value excellence, it is only natural that tears or a mild tantrum might disrupt the occasional practice session. In his book, Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin shares an enlightening perspective on the practice process:

“Instead of doing what we’re good at, we insistently seek out what we’re not good at. Then we identify the painful, difficult activities that will make us better and do those things over and over. After each repetition, we force ourselves to see—or to get others to tell us—exactly what still isn’t right so we can repeat the most painful and difficult parts of what we’ve just done. We continue that process until we’re mentally exhausted.”[1]

Is it any wonder that frustration is a byproduct of effective practice?

Most exhibitions of frustration occur when expectations exceed results on the part of the student, the parent, or even the teacher. We can strive to keep frustration at bay by maintaining a healthy balance of challenge and satisfaction.

Maximum Efficiency

First of all, it is important that basic human needs are fulfilled. A tired, hungry, thirsty individual is not equipped to make the most of a practice session. We must approach the task with a body that is primed and ready. Recent research [reported by the Society for Neuroscience] indicates that deep sleep is essential for processing new information and securing procedural or skill-building types of memory. What this means is that we can’t really expect to see the fruits of our labors until the next day or after several days of organized repetitions. In a 1992 German study of conservatory musicians, researchers concluded that the highest achievers not only spent more time practicing, but they did most of their practice in the late morning or early afternoon while they were still fresh. They got more sleep, both at night and by taking afternoon naps.[2]  Perhaps this explains why late-night and last-minute practicing is not very productive or enjoyable!


The aforementioned research supports the idea that it is important to maintain a daily routine of practicing in order to produce this ideal sequence of skill-building (practicing) and memory integration (sleep). In a series of essays titled Practicing for Artistic Success, Burton Kaplan states:

“To develop consistent control, you must practice on consecutive days. Skipping a day increases the possibility of forgetting. When you achieve your first success, your experience is stored in what psychologists refer to as short-term memory. It takes three to five consecutive days of repetition for what is stored as short-term memory to be transferred to long-term memory. When you have the feeling that your control is automatic, that it seems to occur without your trying, your control is stored in long-term memory. Your confidence and consistency of control will not be at an optimum level if you leave daily gaps in your practice schedule.”[3]

It can be very frustrating to lose the skills you practiced so hard to attain only because you lost a day or two of practice. On the subject of consistency, Dr. Suzuki simply said, “You don’t have to practice every day, only on the days you eat!”

Do It Again

In order for any task to become easy and stored in long-term memory, it is important for each specific skill to be repeated in a desirable manner. In order for your muscles to perform any given task consistently, they must practice doing it the same way many, many times. Frustration arises because the brain understands the task many repetitions before the muscles have had a chance to file it into the I-couldn’t-possibly-do-it-any-other-way category. It’s a constant struggle between the quick-witted brain and the recalcitrant muscles! Repetition is the key to excellent muscle memory. Dr. Suzuki said, “Skill is knowledge plus 10,000 times.” There are many amusing ways of accomplishing repetitions such as rolling dice, drawing from a deck of cards, counting marbles, etc.

Verbal Applause

There are several basic principles rooted in the Suzuki philosophy that will help curb frustration. One of the most important of these principles is the idea of maintaining a positive practice and lesson environment. Parents and teachers alike are encouraged to follow each performance with verbal applause, giving a positive comment regarding a specific aspect of what we’ve heard and seen. We can help orchestrate success by guiding the student to make sure that posture and position are secure before the first note is played. If posture and position are not established at the outset, it is unlikely things will improve during the course of performance. And it saves the teacher or practice partner from having to make corrections during or after the performance. It is also helpful to encourage the child to focus on one particular aspect of technique or musicianship before he/she begins to play. A person, especially a child, is only able to focus on one thing at a time, and if asked to think about more than one thing, the likelihood of success is slim.


Another source of frustration is choosing a task that is too difficult. If you carefully analyze any given trouble spot, you might find that there are several problems. It is a good idea to tackle only one problem at a time. For example, if you encounter intonation issues, eliminate rhythm, bowings, and articulations, and play the passage in even legato notes, focusing solely on playing each note in tune. If string crossings are a problem, eliminate the fingers and play the passage on open strings. If rhythm is the problem, count and clap the passage, then play it on a single pitch many times before adding the written pitches and articulations. Make each small or simplified step easy enough that the probability of success is very high. Repeat each step many times. With each new day, rather than starting from where you left off the day before, repeat the sequence of preparatory steps, but with fewer repetitions.

A second way to approach a problem spot is to reduce the practice segment to the minimum number of notes required to solve the problem. It may involve only two notes if the struggle involves something like an awkward interval or a tricky shift. After this unit is mastered through repetition, the next step is to incorporate it into the phrase by making a new practice unit which includes notes preceding and following the original unit.


In my experience, insufficient listening to the repertoire is the number one source of frustration. Listening is actually more important than practicing in terms of learning a piece in a relatively effortless and timely manner. The student needs to listen enough that the sound of the piece is memorized. The melody, harmony, tone quality, rhythms, form, articulations, and expressive devices are internalized before the fingers attempt to coax notes from the instrument. In order to alleviate future frustration, begin listening to pieces in upcoming volumes well in advance, and get a heavy dose of the most imminent ones. Keep listening to recent pieces as well because the ear deciphers more details as the piece becomes more familiar.

Critical listening is a habit and a skill that will serve a person in many capacities. This skill might allow a future mother to recognize a breathing abnormality in her infant or it might help a future physician to detect an anomaly in a heartbeat. As an orchestral musician, listening is the first thing I do when I start to practice music for an upcoming concert. Why? Because it substantially reduces the amount of time I will have to practice, and time is a commodity that I value highly.

Mistakes Are Good

Often times, musicians are disappointed when they make mistakes. In his book, Intelligent Music Teaching, Robert Duke writes, “All intelligent, skillful professionals recognize that error is an inevitable, necessary, and even productive part of thinking and learning.”[4] As developing musicians, we would do well to embrace this idea: mistakes are good. They point out to us those things that still need work. Every failure elucidates the path to success.

For the Joy of It

Sometimes it can be frustrating always to be struggling and working and repeating. When do we get to experience the joy? Will the first time we play a piece uninterrupted be when we get up on stage to perform? It is important that opportunities be designed to play for enjoyment: times when a child knows there will be no corrective feedback, no repetitions of a phrase fifty times, no reminders about that recurring posture problem. There should also be opportunities to practice performing. Arrange concerts for friends and family or for an audience of stuffed animals, or plan a program for a retirement home. Choose only polished review pieces. Follow with enthusiastic[5] applause!

This list of ideas certainly won’t rid your practice sessions of frustration, but perhaps it will suggest that this sensation is to be expected and that it’s okay to feel a degree of frustration. Daniel Coyle writes in his book The Talent Code:

“Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways—operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes—makes you smarter”.5

It takes a lot of hard work to build a strong brain and a beautiful heart!

[1] Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, (New York: Penguin, 2008), 71-72.

[2] K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” Psychological Review 100, no. 3 (1993): 363-406.

[3] Kaplan’s essays have been assimilated in the following book where a similar quote can be found:  Burton Kaplan, Practicing for Artistic Success: The Musician’s Guide to Self-Empowerment, (New York: Perception Development Techniques, 2004), 42.

[4] Robert A. Duke, Intelligent Music Teaching: Essays on the Core Principles of Effective Instruction, (Austin, Texas: Learning and Behavior Resources, 2005), 85.

[5] Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code, (New York: Bantam, 2009), 18.