Are You Getting Worse on Your Instrument?

You’re committed to learning your instrument. You make it a priority to practice every day. You’re surrounded by great learning resources and practice tools. But somehow when you sit down to play it feels like you have only been getting worse!

You’re not alone. Feeling like you’re putting a lot of effort in and only moving backward is frustrating and disorienting, to say the least. It’s also a totally normal experience during any learning process, especially something as complex as learning an instrument. The good news is, even though it may feel like it sometimes, you’re not actually getting worse!

When I first began my musical journey, I had a teacher explain to me that learning an instrument was like pushing a heavy cart up a hill; every day that you practice, you push the cart a little bit further, but every day that you don’t practice, it rolls back down the hill a little bit, like this:

 

 

This is a great visual when you’re trying to motivate a 10-year-old to pick up their instrument daily, but it creates an unrealistic expectation of the rugged terrain that we as musicians navigate through on our journey to mastery. Learning an instrument isn’t an easy and steady uphill climb; in reality, years of daily practice can feel a lot more like this:

 

 

We don’t make progress on our instruments in steady increments; we have long and arduous periods of rigorous practicing rewarded only by baby steps towards our musical goals. Then suddenly, we wake up one day and our practice session feels like the scene in the Matrix when Neo can see everything and is able to control the program. These are the “ah-ha” moments; they are rewarding and motivating, but they’re also few and far between. It’s right before these “ah-ha” moments that we find ourselves disillusioned and stuck feeling like we’re getting worse.

Getting through these slumps just before you have a big breakthrough is one of the most important yet difficult aspects of learning an instrument. To begin to combat this stagnation, let’s talk about why we feel like we’re getting worse in the first place.

When you’re practicing playing music, your mind and body are both learning completely different processes at different rates. Our bodies handle the mechanics of our playing. Have you ever played a scale or even a song and realized you barely remember you were playing it because your mind was wandering? That’s because your muscle memory took over without you even having to consciously think about it. Conscious application of the mind is what makes us a musician instead of a mechanic; it handles dynamics, phrasing, and most importantly, visualization of what you want your playing to sound like.

When you feel like you’re getting worse, what is happening is that your awareness of how you can improve your playing has expanded, but you haven’t yet developed the muscle memory to execute the technique. Your mind is capable of visualizing the musical nuances that will take your playing to the next level, but you still need some practice implementing those techniques. In other words, you know what you need to do, now you just need some extra practice to make it happen.

So the next time you find yourself feeling like you ought to throw in the towel, just take a deep breath and keep your commitment to come back to the practice room every day. When your next “ah-ha” moment hits you, you’ll be happy that you did!

Have there been times where you felt like you got worse no matter how much you practiced? What did you do to overcome it? Share your story in the comments below!

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