Frustrated baboon

When Piano Practice Doesn’t Go Well

It happens to all of us at some point; We may have the best of intentions, but there are some things that are just out of our control. Perhaps we or a loved one get sick, or we get super busy at work. Often our piano practice will suffer.

It’s also possible to get overly ambitious, thinking we can learn those notes or reach that tempo by a certain day, and it simply isn’t so.

I’m here to tell you that that’s okay! We are human, and one of the most important things we can learn in this life is how to be kind to ourselves and accept ourselves no matter what happens.

Optimism, Pessimism, and Realism

When it comes to playing music, I recommend being an optimist when planning, a pessimist when preparing to perform, and a realist when practicing in between.

What I mean by that is aim high with your goals at first. You’ll rarely exceed your own expectations so you might as well expect a lot. You may surprise yourself and others with how much you can accomplish!

I talk more about how to identify these goals and plans in this post: How to Practice Efficiently.

When it’s almost time to perform, that’s when I expect the least from myself. Perhaps this is different for others, but in my experience musical performance often follows Murphy’s law: If it can go wrong, it will.

If you’re expecting bumps and challenges in your performance, you’ll be much better prepared to handle them. Identifying places to restart throughout your piece, especially when playing from memory, is an example of the type of preparations you can make.

This article is primarily about the third category I mentioned: Realism. When you’re in the trenches of your practice, day in and day out, this is when you need to look clearly at how you’re doing and constantly assess what needs to happen.

Changing Your Plans

Plan A and Plan B are crossed out, Plan C remains
Image by yogesh more from Pixabay

When making your practice plans, I always recommend that you use a pencil and have a good eraser on hand. This is because if you make a plan and it doesn’t seem to be working out, you might just need to erase it and make a new plan that’s more achievable.

It’s important to recognize, even when you’re making the plan, that things might change and that’s okay. Frustration in such moments will just slow you down. Better to recognize that what’s done is done, and figure out what you can do differently moving forward.

I’m not saying to just give up at the slightest sign of difficulty, but it’s important to learn how to recognize when it’s time to reassess. It can take some time to figure out exactly what you are and aren’t capable of. 

Make Practice Time Easier By Planning Ahead!

Hands playing piano keys with a metronome and pencil nearby

Learn how to plan exactly what you need to do each day to accomplish your goals. Then all you have to do at practice time is sit down and play!

The Piecewise Practice Planner will help you make meaningful progress every time you practice, even with as little as 5 minutes per practice session.

Best of all, it’s completely FREE–to opt in, click the button below!

Know Yourself

It’s important to constantly assess how you’re doing with each daily assignment. Be honest with yourself. Did you remember all the notes from yesterday? Were you able to play comfortably at that new tempo?

These are questions you need to ask yourself every day. If the answer is no, that’s ok. In fact, it’s better to recognize earlier on if you’re not actually achieving your daily goals.

Some people, instead of recognizing when things aren’t working out, simply move on to the next day’s assignment without really mastering the day they’re on. This is a huge mistake as they usually end up wasting a lot of time and not making a lot of progress.

If you realize you aren’t keeping up with your practice plan, you have two choices on how to deal with it:

1. Playing Catch-up

One choice is to double up your assignments. This can work for times when you just missed a few practice days so have fallen behind on the schedule. Instead of learning 2 measures each day, learn 4. Instead of going up 3 clicks of the metronome, go up 6. 

Because those are still pretty small changes, quite often you won’t even notice that much of a difference. Perhaps you will need to add another few minutes to your practice time, but otherwise it’s not a very big deal.

2. Reconstructing Your Plan

If you’re doing every assignment and it’s just not sticking, that’s when a serious reassessment needs to take place.

If you can’t seem to learn your daily 2 measures, maybe it needs to go to 1 measure per day, or even half a measure. This means you might have to change your final goal date.

If the final goal date is a recital or performance of some sort, perhaps you need to choose an easier performance piece this time around so you can learn it in time and save the current one for a future performance when you’ll have more time to prepare.

If you’re not sure where to look for an easier piece, check out my article on sight-reading materials for some good ideas.

Be Kind To Yourself

hands making a heart around the setting sun
Photo by Mayur Gala on Unsplash

Remember: An important part of playing music is enjoying it. If you’re stressing out and exhausting yourself trying to keep up with unreasonable practice goals, you need to chill out!

There is a lot of music out there to be enjoyed. You don’t have to always learn pieces at the difficult edge of your abilities. It can be very rewarding to learn a set of pieces that are on the easy side for you. In fact, playing easy music is the best way to perfect your abilities in interpretation, technique, and sound, which are arguably some of the most important aspects of making good music!

The bottom line is if it’s not fun, or at least in some way rewarding, then you’re not doing it right. Step back and make your goals more attainable. 

Know That You Are Good Enough

A painting of an abundance of fruit
Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

I know it seems like this article is kind of a downer, but to me, this concept is not a downer at all.

What it really comes down to is this: You are enough. You are doing enough. You are good enough. All you can do is your best, and that is enough!!

Just like learning each piece in small sections, you’ll also improve your musicianship little by little, often without noticing. Then before you know it you’ll realize that you can easily accomplish daily assignments that were previously way too hard!

Just keep practicing, and remember to be kind to yourself!

Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

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