I think every pianist has experienced this. You sit down to play piano. You’re working along on your practice and that familiar feeling of frustration starts to shadow your every move. You may feel a hot suffocating feeling in your chest or back. Maybe that nagging voice in the back of you head starts to say rude things to you like: “You’re not getting any better.” Maybe you suddenly think: “This isn’t fun any more!” Even though these feelings and thoughts are hampering your practice, you want to play the piano. You love the way that this instrument sounds, you enjoy the feeling of your fingers pressing the smooth cool keys. You like making music, and you’ll fight for it.
Frustration is common with pianists, but it is solvable. You don’t need to be handicapped by these feelings. You can play the piano with joy and satisfaction. All you need to know is how.
What is Frustration?
First, let’s talk about exactly what frustration is. Frustration is the feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of inability to change or achieve something. Think about what you want to achieve in piano. Why did you want to learn the piano in the first place? Is this goal achievable?
Some goals are very achievable. You want to sit down and play anything just to hear the sound of this instrument. Oh, to be able to play Fur Elise! You want to be able to sight read with both hands at the same time.
Other goals are not achievable for everyone. For example, not every piano player can be a professional concert pianist.
Finally, some goals are tricky because they are based on emotions. For example, the goal of being proud of your piano skill. Anyone can achieve this goal, but you need to nurture the emotions along with the piano skills. Every pianist must believe that their skill is worth being proud of.
When you feel frustrated, think about why you may be annoyed that you are seemingly unable to achieve your goal. Make sure that your goal is achievable.
The Inner Critic
Most pianists want to feel a certain way when they are playing. They want to improve, but most of all, they want to have fun and feel satisfaction. This feeling of satisfaction should be based on reality. Real skills that are expertly executed. The problem is that in any skill or art, there can always be more improvement. This is where the inner critic comes in. The more we know about the piano, the more we see where we come short. This movable goalpost causes an immense amount of frustration and anger in any field of study.
The most helpful advice for any piano student is to teach the inner critic to be fair-minded. Think about your inner dialog. Do you say things to yourself that you would never say to someone else? If so, shame on your inner critic! Your inner dialog should be based on fact, not mean-spirited accusations. There will always be ways you could have played that passage better. Take those pieces of advice from your inner critic and work to improve. At the same time, tell yourself what you did right. This one piece of advice will revolutionize your practice experience.
Everyone loves to win. When you get something right in your practice, that is a win. Celebrate! Congratulate yourself! Feel that achievement. This is how you build that feeling you wanted to have when you play the piano. Honest, confident truth about improvement.
The Fun Factor
Let’s go back to that reason why you wanted to learn piano. The reason you started lessons is a good indication of what makes piano fun for you. For example, if you just love the sound of piano, then playing a piece that you love and just hearing it will make you smile. On the other hand, if you wanted to read music for yourself, then having a book or two of easy music in your favorite style to sight read and enjoy will make you feel excited about life. If you’re the problem solving type you might love the totally consuming concentration of learning a crazy passage blocking out everything else for a little bit. Then playing it with accuracy and confidence. You feel proud that you figured it out, and this makes you feel like you could figure out other parts of your life.
Knowing what makes piano fun for you is an indication of what can relieve frustration. When you feel frustrated, kick back and do something fun!
When you sit down to practice, what exactly do you do? How long should you practice. What should be included? You piano teacher will always have some guidelines of what you need to work on during the week, but how each practice goes is up to you. Here are a few tips that will help your practices to be invigorating rather than frustrating.
The first 15 minutes are the most valuable. Use them wisely!
You are the most fresh and capable of the fastest improvement in the first 15 minutes of your practice. Choose to start your practice with the song or the portion of the song that you want the greatest improvement on that day.
Be Your Own Piano Teacher
Remember a time you practiced with your piano teacher. Most likely, she stopped you and gave you pointers on how to improve. When you had trouble getting something, she explained or demonstrated the passage. She praised you when you got it right. Do the same thing for yourself. Give yourself exact easy to follow assignments. For example “Play this right hand run concentrating on legato touch.” Evaluate how you completed the assignment and tell yourself the truth about it. “There is this crazy pause at the finger change. I should practice that so that I can do better with legato.” Don’t forget to praise the good. “I finally played at the speed I want for the song!” By being your own teacher in practice, you take control of your own progress achieving better and better results in piano. This brings a huge amount of satisfaction.
Don’t Over Practice
Pay attention to your physical comfort. You should feel fresh and excited during practice, not exhausted. Stop while you’re still having fun. You hear this advice a lot in animal training. Stop the training session while your pet is still having fun. I know we’re not dogs, but stopping practice while we’re still having fun will help us to be more excited to practice the next time.
Technique and Skill Development
There’s no doubt about it, piano is a complex set of skills. Some are basic, others much more nuanced. Poor technique or a gap in your piano knowledge can cause an incredible amount of frustration. Remember that definition of Frustration? The feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of inability to change or achieve something. Sometimes we are unable to achieve something because we don’t know something, or we don’t have the skill yet.
The more specific you can be about what you’re missing, the easier it is to solve that problem. For example, I had a student who got really frustrated about a song because it contained dotted quarter notes. This was so defeating to him, that he didn’t want to practice. As soon as I realized what the problem was, we talked about what dotted quarter notes were, and practiced the counting. Immediately, the song was doable and fun for him. When something is causing frustration, don’t be afraid to ask what and why!
Frustration happens in piano as it does with every skill. But if we know why it is there, and deal with those reasons with fair-mindedness, truth and fun we can achieve our goals and feel satisfied with how we play piano!