What you can do to eliminate discouragement about your playing

A friend recently suggested a topic for a video. He wrote, “How much progress should you see or perhaps if you don’t see before you get discouraged in your regular practice?”

Here’s a transcription of the video I placed on my YouTube channel.

A friend recently suggested this topic. He asked, how much progress should a player see, and what can you do in order to prevent getting discouraged if you don’t see enough progress.

What’s the rate of progress you should be hearing in your playing? I think the answer is entirely personal. It depends on natural aptitude, their musical and performance goals, their desire, the amount of time they’re willing to dedicate to it, and so on. But I think continuous improvement is possible for everyone. The RATE of improvement depends on how skillfully the musician works on their craft. When you don’t KNOW how to improve important aspects of your playing, you WON’T improve and that’s when it gets discouraging.

Skill improvement doesn’t seem like a straight diagonal line. It’s more like steps. Long steps. There isn’t an immediate short term one-to-one relationship between work and result. It’s not “If I practice hard today, I’ll get permanently better today.” Maybe that works for some people but it has never been that way for me nor for the people I’ve talked to about this.

So if you think you’re doing all the right things right, you’ve just got to preserver until you hit the next step of improvement. Have faith that it will come and know that progress takes time and effort.

But the whole hope and perseverance thing may not work for you, especially if you’re already feeling stuck or discouraged, so let’s try something else: The best and quickest way to end feeling discouraged is to hear quicker progress in your playing. Frustration or discouragement will disappear once you start to hear improvement.

Even if you feel like there’s nothing you can do to improve your playing, there probably is.

So maybe you have a choice. Resign yourself to discouragement, or become open to new ways of thinking about and improving your playing. Suspend your disbelieve that you can become a better musician–the one you want to be, because I believe you can.

What do they call doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? I’m not sure it’s insanity but I do think it’s unproductive. We tend to convince ourselves that the things we habitually do are the best possible choices, or we wouldn’t do them. And therefore sometimes we’re blind to alternatives that are more effective. Perhaps the ways for improving our playing are out of our periphery at the moment and we don’t see them. They’re a blind spot. Maybe we do see them but they’re out of our comfort zone and we fear going there (public improvisation), or they’re not as fun in the short-term and we opt for that short term dopamine squirt (practicing the easier well-worn etudes or repertoire.

Here’s another great quote, and this one hangs on the wall over my studio: The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. Let’s replace the word eyes with ears and I think you have something worth considering.

Discouragement comes from being stuck. I think one reason people get stuck is because they’re not hearing well enough how t‘ hey currently sound–the good and the bad. And that results in them not knowing how to improve. You might be discouraged by the sound you get on your horn, but you probably don’t hear how to fix it. So you endure with a sound you dislike until one day your  discouragement gets the best of you and you quit.

I think it’s about listening. About hearing yourself really well. Too many people focus almost exclusively on the machine (the instrument) and don’t think about developing their personal musical gifts like hearing deeper and more precisely.

Here’s an example: Do you practice with a metronome? How’s your time? How’s your groove? And yes, Bach and Beethoven have a groove. This is NOT just about jazz playing. Is your sense of time creating a solid pulse throughout the metronome clicks? Do you not even need the metronome to sound really locked-in with the time? Almost as if the metronome is along just for the ride?

Or does your metronome practicing sound like you are being dragged by the metronome? Individual notes chasing clicks? Or are your notes just approximately with the mechanical clicks? Can you hear it?

You may not know the answer of how to improve–at least not with clarity and objectivity, so what can you do? Well, you can record yourself and listen back–and put it away for a short while, then come back to it and listen again. The recording never lies, and recording allows us to be clear on how we sound. Often we become more critical of a recording of our playing as time goes on. So put it away for a day or two or longer. Then listen again. Say out loud what you hear, good and bad. You can learn to hear that!

Play your recording for someone else. You may find that you hear deeper into your playing when you listen with other people to a recording of yourself. I definitely find this to be true. I hear all sorts of new things when I’m in the room playing for others something I recorded.

Post your recording online somewhere where people will comment, and hopefully not be mean. Enjoy the praise but for evaluating yourself and for the moment, pay less attention to the people who love you and tell you you’re fantastic, and be open to the comments of the more objective or direct people. My friend I mentioned at the beginning who recommended this topic, always gives me the most honest feedback of anyone–by far. Everyone else’s comments feel good, but his help me improve.

I hear you saying, “I don’t need a recording to tell me I’m a bad player. I already know that.” But just saying “bad player” or “I suck” hurts you. It imprints a negative image in your mind and creates your identity of yourself as someone who cannot improve. That’s discouraging.

So are you paying attention? That’s really the key word. Attention. I could make a case that the better players tend to hear more– of themselves and others and that’s a big reason in itself they play really well.

Say out loud and write down specifically one area you feel is lacking that you want to improve. It doesn’t matter what it is. Range, speed, tone, sight reading, intonation, time, articulation, your ear… Resist the temptation to say, “All of it.” Because that’s too broad to be of any help. Pick just one for the moment.

Again, “Doing the same things over and over expecting different results is unproductive. So with an idea in mind of what you want to improve, what can you do differently to work on that one attribute? And if you’re frustrated with your lack of improvement in this area and have become discouraged you have nothing to lose, so why not try this!

Using the subject of time and metronomes mentioned earlier, you could:

  • Record your metronome playing and listen back to it.
  • Set the metronome to a much slower tempo than normal and see if you can hear and play within the lengthier subdivisions.
  • Practice something other than straight quarter, eighths, or sixteenths with the metronome. Maybe threes or fives. Just to mix it up and make it less boring.
  • Practice somewhere other than your normal space. Go outside or sneak into an auditorium or some other interesting place. Hear yourself differently.
  • Don’t play your instrument. Instead, set the metronome and tap your fingers on a table and see how well you keep the time. Maybe your time is really good, but it’s your instrument mechanics that are preventing you from playing with good time.
  • Record yourself playing something simple in steady time without a metronome. Then listen back, tap your metronome app in order to find the starting tempo and see how and when you drifted from that tempo.
  • Play with my maniacal metronome, where I provide a steady pulse but provide odd and unpredictable clicks within that pulse. Go to my blog for that sound file. Or better yet, get my book, Rhythm Savvy. I put it together for you to have fun playing with time and rhythm in ways you’ve probably never tried. And in the process, your time will improve.

Or come up with your own ideas. No need to do everything on the list. Explore just one or two for the moment. Make your practicing fun or at least not boring by doing some new things. That will keep your brain engaged and your focus sharp to help you clearly and objectively hear yourself better.

Remember the old Apple ad campaign, “Think different”? That’s what I’m encouraging you to do. For the person I mentioned earlier who was discouraged by his tone, pause this video and think what would you recommend for him that is probably different and effective for improving trombone tone?

I might suggest:

  • Trying out a new mouthpiece
  • Borrowing a horn to see if it’s partly your instrument
  • Definitely playing outside, and listening for the difference in tone production
  • Getting your body in better shape. Start with easy walking, then up and down hills or stairs, join a fitness club. Trombone is a physical instrument so good tone requires strength.
  • Find a good local teacher
  • Read the book Also Sprach Arnold Jacobs by the great tuba player Arnold Jacobs who had significantly impaired lung capacity

If you’re discouraged by your lack of improvement on your instrument, is it because you don’t know what to do about it? Are you are playing the same things over and over every time you practice? Are you exclusively focused on the machine (the instrument) and not on your listening skills? Do you carry around an ingrained mental image of yourself as a poor player (“I suck”).  Man, if so, that can be discouraging.

Just having an open mind to these questions and some possible honest answers may in itself put you in a better space of optimism, enthusiasm, pride, satisfaction or other emotion that can replace discouragement. Now you just need to get to work doing some new things that will help you improve your playing.

And along the way, you’ll be able to give discouragement the finger!

1 Comment

  1. Rodney Brim on March 19, 2019 at 7:42 pm

    Fantastic blog. So glad you are writing about this stuff. Everyone experiences it and you give great suggestions for moving through it, and not letting it be the end of the road. Feeling discouraged inevitably is the opposite of feeling like you reached your goal, and most people won’t necessarily be satisfied with reducing their goal, so your suggestions to think and practice differently hits the bulls-eye. That might include the following:

    1. Do some practicing every day in which you enjoy the output or results. Record and listen to that and practice being affirming, we all spend too much time being critical of ourselves… which doesn’t help. So part of not being discouraged is moving away from criticism, still grounded in reality and recording, and changing our approach.
    2. Use space, specifically if you are working on or targeting goals that push your limits in terms of chops, where for instance you play to fatigue,… practice good body building skills, don’t work out the same muscle groups every day. Every other day, and if your are older, its every 3rd day works best. Your body needs time to recover and rebuild to improve, otherwise you discouragingly stay at the same level.
    3. If working on sound, at the beginning, middle or end of the tone, try practicing slowly and with enough sustain that you can give your aperture and the inside of your mouth and breath freedom and opportunity to adjust to help you silently make the needed corrections (and that can be as simply feeling your upper lip unfurl a bit to allow more vibration, or maybe its feeling a certain note ping against that certain spot in the roof of your mouth over your upper teeth. You and your brain and your body need time and attention to get all that dialed in).
    4. Actively expend effort to creatively make whatever you are practicing fun and more enjoyable. Even if its simply scales. How”
    a. Instead of a metronome, practice to a fun rhythm track
    b. Do your exercises over fun backing tracks you buy or makeup
    c. Do your exercises using phrases or tune you know and are fun to play

    5. Really liked your challenge, that regardless of what you are doing, if you’re feeling discouraged, that’s not the sign to give up, but instead change your approach, and often that means getting some help if the changes you can see to make aren’t yielding what we hoped.

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