Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What to do when everything goes wrong in the practice room...

It happens from time to time....NOTHING works.

    In the movie 'The Replacements', Keanu Reeves talks about metaphorical 'quicksand'. One thing goes wrong, then another, and another....the more you fight the more mired down you get....it's like being in quicksand. (Not a direct quote)
    Two thoughts from this. First, 'The Replacements' is a funny movie and you should find it and watch it. Second, this happens a lot in the practice room, doesn't it? We musicians are a stubborn sort and want to fight to make things work. Unfortunately, though, we fight and fight and ultimately make it worse. We are 'mired in the quicksand'.
    This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart because I want to....no, I'm DESPERATE to be great at my instrument. This has led to many discoveries in my journey (which is the point of this blog) but also many moments of figuratively....and, well, literally...banging my head against the practice room wall. I developed what I called 'practice room Tourette's'; lot's of grunting and colorful language in my practice sessions.
     I thought this was the path of the tortured artist. Fortunately I have a professor who is as much psycho-therapist as saxophone teacher (thank you, Dr. Owens), and he repeatedly counseled me on what a self destructive path I was on. As I'm teaching myself and can now explain to you, there are more positive ways to handle things.

     It sounds overly simplistic but the first thing we should look at is avoiding those things we do in the practice room which utterly lead to things going wrong. This isn't foolproof as we all have bad days but should minimize the struggle. It's pretty simple- SLOW DOWN!
     If things aren't going well, slow it down. If things ARE going well, slow it down. In my opinion, the majority of time spent learning a passage or piece of music should be spent at half tempo or even slower.
      Now, there are days when that doesn't even work.....when NOTHING seems to work. What to do then? Let's look at some options there!

  • Long tones with a tuner. Even if you have to turn in a daily practice log with a teacher I imagine they would accept the occasional "Absolutely nothing was working so I spent time working long tones.". It's pretty simple, short of having pneumonia, you can do long tones pretty much regardless of what is or isn't working. Long tones are always going to help your playing and it's a much more effective use of time than crying and cursing over things not working.
  • Listening to examples of the piece you're working and making notes in your score. It isn't the absolute best use of time but again; better than just making yourself frustrated.
  • Walk around for a few minutes. Get some water. Talk to friends for a minute. Simply get out of the practice room for a few minutes. Sometimes our brain simply needs to re boot. 

Try some of these ideas out. Leave comments. Thanks for reading my ramblings!



  1. Sometimes, the best way to get past it is to put the horn down, leave and do anything that is NOT musically related, and start tomorrow with a renewed mindset. Remember real music happens in the rests. It is entirely possible to practice too long.

    1. Well said! Sometimes our brain's 'reset' button just needs to be pushed.

  2. When I get frustrated I'll often start "auditioning" reeds... funny you get a really good playing one and you have instant enthusiasm!

  3. Frustration is counterproductive. If literally nothing is going right in practice that day, no matter how Zen you're trying to keep it, how slow you're shedding, how many reeds you've tried... it's not your day. Better to take a day off than practice wrong!

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