What To Do When You Have A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Practice Session

True story: When I was 10, I was reduced to tears during a practice session spent trying to master “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” I am an impatient person and get easily frustrated when things don’t come quickly to me, so I had a complete meltdown when I couldn’t play this song immediately. I’m happy to share that I can now play a mean “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, but this practice meltdown still sticks out clearly in my head.

We’ve all been there before. No matter how many times you repeat that one passage, no matter how many different ways you try to phrase that one section, or no matter how many different reeds you try, things are just not going your way.

These sessions go from bad to worse with each mistake and each negative thought. Whatever the reason for your slump – you didn’t get enough sleep, you’re worried about a growing to-do list, or you’ve reached a plateau – these days are undeniably frustrating and usually counterproductive, so you should put away your instrument for a while. Here are my suggestions to regroup in the meantime:

  • Go for a walk. Physically distance yourself from your practice room. A change in scenery can be therapeutic and spark creativity.
  • Take a nap. Poor sleep = poor practicing (and ask yourself if your late-night social media habit is really worth suffering through another practice meltdown)
  • Eat a snack or cook an elaborate meal. Distract yourself from negative thoughts about your practice routine by focusing on a new recipe.
  • Explore. Visit a new cafe, go to a local bookstore, stroll through a park, or take a mini-vacation.
  • Hit the gym. Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t have terrible practice sessions. They just don’t. (Shout-out to anyone who got this reference!)
  • Watch Netflix, TV, cat videos, or whatever helps you forget about music for a while.
  • Read a book. Escape your reality and enter someone else’s.
  • Write it down. Record your thoughts in your practice journal, diary, blog, Facebook, or wherever you like to vent.
  • Call your family/friends/significant other. It’s always good to be reminded that there are people out there who like us despite our self-perceived shortcomings as a musician.
  • Organize your surroundings. When I’m stressed or feeling overwhelmed, I like to clean so I feel in control of my physical environment.
  • Tackle your to-do list. Even knocking a few items off the list can significantly lower your stress levels.
  • Play with animals. If you don’t have any pets, visit an animal shelter or friend’s pet to instantly lower stress levels.
  • If you feel like you can face the music (sorry for the pun – I had to do it!) without getting frustrated, here are my suggestions to practice without opening your case.

The bottom line is to be kind to yourself. Being a musician is just as much mental health as it is physical fundamentals, so you should periodically assess your overall well-being. Don’t be afraid to take breaks to recharge, and don’t feel guilty if those breaks don’t include music. Everyone has bad days, and you have to remember that music is a journey – this one practice session will soon be just a memory. A terrible practice session doesn’t mean you are any less of a musician, so do whatever it takes to recharge and try again later with a newfound invigoration!

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