Practice = Good, Lesson = Bad

March 4, 2011 at 08:38 PM ·

I really don't know why this is... My teacher is actually a good friend of mine, and we have a good working relationship as well. But for some reason, my playing during lessons is, well, pretty crappy.

When I practice at home, I take a long time to warm up; I do scales, some simple Kreutzer to get the blood flowing, maybe some simple Schradieck, shifting execrises, etc. After a while of that, I'm ready to work on pieces. I'm usually able to draw a nice tone, and work on dynamics. For the most part, in my practice room, it sounds OK (that's debatable, of course).

But come lesson time, it's different; intonation is way off, tone is mousy, dynamics are non-existent. It's not that I'm nervous playing in front of my teacher, but there's a lack of confidence at work, I think partly because it's in a studio with other people who can hear me, and partly because I have no time to warm up before a lesson. I leave work, get to the studio, pull out the fiddle, and have a half-hour or so lesson. There's no warm-up time, but I need to warm up to build confidence in my tone and intonation.

So, does anyone else find that they do well at home, but bomb out during a lesson?

Replies (31)

March 4, 2011 at 09:04 PM ·

"So, does anyone else find that they do well at home, but bomb out during a lesson?"

Yes, you're not alone.

March 4, 2011 at 09:24 PM ·

 Same  :/

March 4, 2011 at 09:36 PM ·

Oh GOD yes...I struggled with that too! (although I was terrified of most of my teachers)

I finally learned to overcome that by "practicing" getting into the zone without the luxury of a long warm-up. I did this by approaching my violin, COLD, in the practice room.....and I would sit quietly and imagine myself going through the usual routine of warming up, sounding crappy, fixing it, until everything was sounding pretty good. THEN, I would pick up my violin, pretending that I had already warmed up, and I sounded pretty good. (the better I got at visualization, the better I sounded)

I also apply this technique to passages that I usually screw up on the first attempt, but nail it on the second attempt.....I HAD to learn to nail it COLD on the FIRST I would stand and look at that passage, fully understanding what usually went wrong with it, and I'd let it run through my mind once with the mistake, then I'd pick up the violin and play it as if it were my second time through. I realize that what I'm saying is that I visualized the MISTAKE, which is BAD ADVICE....but I think it triggered my defenses to AVOID that mistake, and it worked for me.

There's alot of power in mental visualization...but it takes practice just like anything else.


March 4, 2011 at 10:17 PM ·

The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey

March 4, 2011 at 11:11 PM ·

David, yes!!!  I'm the same...

And I'll tell you why I mess up (but reasons are as different as people are)

I know my teacher since many years and don't feel stressed at all. (so it's not a nerve issue)

-  My lesson are in my teacher's basements and I don't know why, I freeze terribly there (it's not her fault.  Any normal human being would be find in her basement)  It's me that freezes if a room isn't very warm.  (I dress warm, wear shoes and eat well before lessons but it doesn't help) 

- I have tiny hands and possibly Raynard's syndrome (chronic freezing hand problems) so I need to play much to play well.  At a lesson, you play  -  you stop   -  you play  - you stop  etc  That kills me because my hands become cold when I stop playing when my teacher tells advice on what I'm doing. 


So, for me the solution would be to have lessons in a warm room and to have been able to play much that day.  I have these conditions when I have my lessons at the conservatory and I play better.  But it's not always possible for me to go there. 

I'm anxious to see the other's replies.

Good luck!


PS: Laura has very good advice and I often do this.  But in my case, I've realized over the years that I'm never going to have the sound I want out of tiny iced hands and fingers on first try.  My teacher tells a good player should play well at any time, in any state.  Ideally yes I agree, but not everyone is physiologically made that way!  Just a few lucky ones imho

March 4, 2011 at 11:58 PM ·

i had the same problem for some time, was very intimidated by my instructor - though he found this weird.  there was a thread on here recently suggesting that the teacher wear a teddy bear suit.  i thought that was a good idea.  the only thing that has helped me is time, playing with him.....why not start lesson by playing a duet?  the brain can focus on just so many things, and another person takes up some of the neurons, even when firing at breakneck speed (that's my 10 cents worth of neuroscience) but seriously, this will work itself out, i think, in time.

March 5, 2011 at 12:33 AM ·

I didn't have this problem; but one thing that should help you -- I insisted on it as a student -- is at least one warm-up and playing session on lesson day -- apart from and prior to lesson time.

I don't presently take lessons, but I keep up regular violin-playing -- afternoon session and evening one, about 90 minutes each, with a few hours between them.  For evening, I'm ready to go, provided that I have the right conditions -- i.e., adequate heat and humidity.  I do warm up a little, of course, but I'm much nearer to full playing fitness at the start, thanks to afternoon playing.

Although you didn't mention room temperature, I'd like to list two [EDIT: make that three] other things that help me -- especially in winter:

  • Take a 20-minute walk before practicing -- about 3.5 mph/5.63 kph.  This works better than calisthenics -- it pumps the blood fast over a long period, raising the core temperature and keeping it up for a long time.  I learned this self-help device during the Michigan winters I lived through.
  • After the walk, jump-start practice sessions by running very warm water over both hands.  This gives the hands immediate traction.
  • EDIT: Avoid running a sleep deficit, because lack of sleep constricts blood vessels and slows circulation -- not to mention reaction time.  The chill sets in faster. 

March 5, 2011 at 12:44 AM ·

Di you're right...

And that's to look serious unfront of pupil's parents

That beeing said, one can visualise lessons as a non stressing event if that's the problem... 

March 5, 2011 at 07:44 AM ·

Same here - I've even told my teacher that she has actually never heard me play.

I've thought about it a lot.  For me its the dynamic of the practice room versus that of the teaching studio (and it obviously does not bode well for performance).  What I've come down to is 'who am I playing for'?  In my practise room I'm playing for my ear and, curiously, for my violin.  Its a very intimate relationsihp.  However, when I play for my teacher its about her - the change in dynamic makes me think about the sound she will hear and not about the sound my violin is making.  This is critical. 

Where this is verified for me is when my teacher plays a piece with me. The dynamic changes yet again because I feel her playing to the sound of her violin - and that gives me the freedom to do the same.  You might try this with your teacher - play a passage together and see if you can now relax.  It will take a couple of tries but I found it invaluable.

I think you have to get to the point where you loose the audience (teacher or anyone) entirely and play to the sound of your violin, immerse yourself in it.  Sure, easier said than done but at least it gets you a goal...

March 5, 2011 at 08:33 AM ·

Yes, it happens. It's nerves. When I start a lesson and I do scales, it's like I'm doing them for the first time. My bow bounces. My fingers stretch too much or not enough. Shifts get messed up.  As I relax and we work into pieces and studies, intonation and bow control improves.

What helped me was to admit to myself - and tell my teacher - that I was "uptight". Also the realisation that this is part of the learning process. OK - you can play fine to yourself, your dog and your walls. There's a part of your mind that knows that your teacher will pick up on mistakes that your dog (because s/he loves you) will let pass without comment.

March 5, 2011 at 12:22 PM ·

 You definitely wouldn't be the only one out there too. I just started with a new teacher and I should think from her perspective, I never practice! Intonation, bow distribution and even basic note reading (accidentals!) go out the door...

March 5, 2011 at 01:59 PM ·

A lesson with an adult student wouldn't be complete without the old "It sounded better at home" sputtering out at some point.

FWIW, It can be very hard to play for a friend. 

March 5, 2011 at 02:12 PM ·

Best thing is to have quite a few drinks before the lesson and then you are in a careless frame of mind and the alcolhol warms you up and makes you reckless!! (wink)

I also find a few choice swearwords (the more obscene the better) breaks the ice and gets things off to a good start!! (wink)

I do find that my quartet members (in about 3  different quartets) either look slightly surprised when I get going with a few explitives, or don't notice. .. I try to be careful when there are ladies present but it doesn't always work... In orchestras they got used to it ...

March 5, 2011 at 03:33 PM ·

Oh yes, that's totally recognizable. I never played worse than the day after we had our teacher and her fiancé over for dinner. But she was happy about it, because she had been able to give good advice. And that in turn helped me to feel better. After all, the way I play in a lesson has a lot to do with how I play anywhere, and if mistakes and shortcomings are somewhat amplified they must have been there in the first place.


March 5, 2011 at 04:48 PM ·

I wonder if there is an element in this phenomenon of not listening to your (in the sense of "one's") own playing closely enough in practice  – perhaps "hearing" what you want to hear and not what is actually there. When the lesson gets under way the teacher's comments home in on what happens in the lesson and which the student should have been able to notice and act on when practicing at home.  And, of course, when this happens nerves take over the next time because the student is expecting it to happen all over again (and it does).

There is no doubt in my mind that the biggest hurdle in learning a musical instrument is learning to listen to yourself objectively. Slow practice, a few notes at a time, is one of the main keys to success, and today we have recording devices which can help the student to learn to listen objectively to his own playing. 

March 5, 2011 at 07:22 PM ·


I wonder if there is an element in this phenomenon of not listening to your (in the sense of "one's") own playing closely enough in practice  – perhaps "hearing" what you want to hear and not what is actually there. When the lesson gets under way the teacher's comments home in on what happens in the lesson and which the student should have been able to notice and act on when practicing at home.  And, of course, when this happens nerves take over the next time because the student is expecting it to happen all over again (and it does).

There is no doubt in my mind that the biggest hurdle in learning a musical instrument is learning to listen to yourself objectively. Slow practice, a few notes at a time, is one of the main keys to success, and today we have recording devices which can help the student to learn to listen objectively to his own playing. "


I think you have said it all here. We all listen with Rose Tinted ears!! (To our own playing).

March 5, 2011 at 07:29 PM ·

Yes - hearing onself through RTE (Rose Tinted Ears) sums it up nicely!  Gonna borrow that one.

March 5, 2011 at 08:07 PM ·

Better at home, oh yes - no pressure, RTE, and time to approach it all.

We lose a certain percentage between practice and performance (and playing for one's teacher is a very focused performance. Maybe even more pointed than playing for an audience of a few hundred.)


March 5, 2011 at 09:22 PM ·

Peter, you crack me up! Perhaps a drink beforehand would work for both student and teacher. I've thought of a nice bottle of vodka or Lvivske to break the ice (he's Ukrainian).We'd be having such a good time that we'd forget about the lesson completely ;)

I certainly don't have RTE, I'm my own worst critic when it comes to my sound. I think it's mostly a mental issue. It's like I'm expecting the bad note, "here it comes...," and then sheepishly let it rip just as imagined. I know it's going to come out wrong, so it does. I need to try Lora's suggestion.

March 5, 2011 at 11:29 PM ·

Well, I set out to test the rose-tinted ears hypothesis.  I taped myself (I have an excellent stereo digital tape) at home and then proceded to my lesson to play the same piece for my teacher.  My plan was to play there and, as usual, make a total mess of it and then with protestations aplenty bring out the tape to show her how it sounds when I'm alone.

The best laid plans of mice and men...

I played the piece better than ever so the recording never saw the light of day.  In frustration I thought, oh screw it...  But I'm not quite sure what I proved: perhaps the act of taping it and knowing I had the tape as my fall back, removed pressure letting me actually play the piece as well as I can.  And so the second guessing continues...

March 6, 2011 at 07:40 AM ·


Graham,  I was very interested in this:

`We lose a certain percentage between practice and performance (and playing for one's teacher is a very focused performance. Maybe even more pointed than playing for an audience of a few hundred.)`

So it`s a shame I don@t have much to say about it....

It is ,  I suppose,  the same as Galamian`s comment that went something like `one loses x percent in a performance, therefore our piece must be 120 percent practiced,` or something like that.

But,  I find myself wondering if we really do have to live with the idea that performance, by default,  reduces the quality of what one is doing?  Why should it not be the case that one plays better in performance?

It may be that I am just a dreamer but I would like to think that performance was defined by being the polished work of the practice room `enhanced` by a desire to share and enjoy music together with the people who have come to listen to us.   Of course,  there is firts the question of nerves,  but I think these have been largely misrepresented over so many generations that one tends ot forget how important they are. There are the nerves that cause deterioration in playing which I regard as a technical fault in the same way holding the violin incorrectly is,  and there is the nervous tension energy without which one is not an artist.  What I mean by the former is that if a violinist believes `nerves are bad,`   is afraid they are going to be nervous and or wants to `get rid of their nerves`   these are actually concrete errors of understanding in the same way that someone makes a mistake in approaching the instrument.   It is the responsibility of the teacher to teach not only `how to shift correctly,`  but `how to think about performing,`   correctly.   I think we are on the whole failing in this department.

Can one attribute any responsibiilty for this misunderstanding to the student?  Possibly.  I guess that any student over a certain age has acquired some kind of set of assumptions about the role of the teacher in a given sphere.  What do school teachers do?  There job is widely assumed to be correcting our failings in two diifferent ways:  firstly they tell us we are wrong most of the time (apparently this is learning) and second they indirectly tell us we are a `failed` creation because we do not have the knowledge to do something but `don`t worry,  I`ll fix that blank of yours.`  So the violin students perhaps goes into the violin studio expecting and wanting the same procedure that life has taught them is normal,  and of course,  the teacher naturally assumes the corresponding role.

What has this got do to with performing?  Performing is to me one simple and very profound thing.  I don`t perform very often but when I do I =know- exactly what my purpose in being there is.  I have come to give the people a present.  I also know that the listener is not there under any circumstances to find and correct errors.  They want to be entertained,  given joy,  hope,  an escape form the humdrum cares of a pruneless world.  

Ultimately of course, one is never going to escape from the reality that the violin has to be both `taught` and `learned,`  but how much more pleasurable and interesting life would be for both teacher and student if this mentality of `share your music with me,  and then I will share a little knowledge with you`  approach was the guiding force behind what we are all doing together.

Performance might even begin to be fun for more people.....

Idle thoughts,


March 6, 2011 at 08:19 AM ·

Wonderful attitude and insight Buri - but its hard to get away from the reality that the teacher is going to catch errors and is going to be critical of the playing.  I think you describe it well though - when I go to a lesson I anticipate playing badly, and lo, so I do.  Perhaps if the teacher routinely first pointed out and focused on my achievements duing my practise first it would be less threatening and I would perform to them better. 

Maybe that is the key to finding the 'mentor' as apart form teacher - someone who primarily seeks out your strenghts while fixing your weaknesss along the way.



March 6, 2011 at 09:19 AM ·


>but its hard to get away from the reality that the teacher is going to catch errors and is going to be critical of the playing.

Thanks for your kind remarks.  I do think there is to be found within the realm of `catch errors ...going to be critical,` there is a great deal more room for manouver.  One might begin by praising acknowledging everything that was good.  Nor does criticism need to be voiced as `overt criticism.` As the Inner game approach advises removing the judgement and simply asking someone to pay attention/notice what one is doing at a given moment can lead to self correction automatically as well as developing the habit of paying atention in private practice,  which frankly speaking most people don`t.  Or rather,  everyone,  please pay attention to your paying attention when you practice ...;)

I recall a very good description by someone of the way Perlman worked in a lesson.  For this person `Perlamn would point out parts that worked well,  individula notes that were beautifully played or well thought out.  From this it dawned on me that I should/could do the same with everywhere else.` (very ad lib quote)  It is this kind of apperoach that encourages self recognition of mistakes that is central to teaching.  If the teachers role is to point out mistakes then how is the studnet going to improve when no teacher is present.  That isof course an exaggerate dpostion but it does suggest quite a lot of retinking might be done about the nature of teaching .



March 6, 2011 at 09:32 AM ·

Buri is absolutely correct in his last two posts. A good teacher teaches how the student can become self sufficient and be able to think for themselves.

Regarding performance, one has I think, to move into what I call "performance mode," where you play differently to the way you practised at home. This involves exageration, risk taking, being much more extrovert, and generally using nerves and adrenaline to the music's advantage. When this does NOT happen then the performance is flat, and often technically poor too. (Flat in this case = boring).

March 6, 2011 at 06:47 PM ·

These latest excellent posts by Buri and Peter raise an interesting discrepancy between my limited experience thus far with the violin (other than playing for my teacher I have not played “publicly”) and something noted repeatedly when performing theater in my high school and college days.  My stage performances, energized by the presence of an audience, were without fail exponentially better than my rehearsal efforts.  The audience played a hugely important role in propelling me to rise to the occasion and perform my heart out, so to speak.  This of course was preceded by a solid foundation of practice and rehearsal, but the audience was somehow necessary for me to take the risks and leaps of faith (in one’s ability to “nail” it?) that made all the difference in the performances.  But with the violin, I have little faith in my technical ability and it is this lack of confidence that seems to prevent me from reaching higher when playing for others.  It may simply be a matter of practicing (correctly) until that point of certainty is reached, which is rarely the case before a lesson, and may be the reason why I won’t yet play for others.  Would love to hear thoughts on this.

March 6, 2011 at 06:58 PM ·

Yes, we need to get a good and reliable technique to have the confidence to play well. Having a good technique and being well prepared then gives one the confidence to do well.

March 6, 2011 at 07:21 PM ·

Last year, my teacher asked me to prepare a page-long piece from Suzuki 5 up to performance standard, and the performance was to be at a specified lesson in four weeks time with herself as the audience, complete with digital recorder.

So I put in the time and thought, and turned up at the lesson ready to play. To make it more realistic she suggested I spent a few minutes warming up, both generally and on any  parts of the piece I wished, as if I were in the green room before going on stage.  After the warm-up the performance "on stage" started.  I actually played it better than I had ever done at home or in previous lessons (and from memory, although that wasn't the intention), and remembered to bow to the audience at the end (very important!).

After a quick cup of tea we spent the rest of the lesson in discussing the performance in detail, high-lighting important areas where polishing was needed before it was anywhere near recording studio standard. A handful of small errors were deemed relatively unimportant at this stage because they could happen to anyone, and, critically, I hadn't allowed them to affect the flow of the music. At the following lesson I was presented with a CD of my performance.

I found the whole exercise extremely useful, and it did force me to think for myself.

[Edit] After re-reading the above it occurred to me that the exercise harked back to a feature of Auer's teaching method in which, on a regular basis, his pupils had to perform prepared pieces in front of an audience of Auer, fellow pupils and other musicians.  


March 6, 2011 at 08:02 PM ·

Trevor, that's so true.  Teachers should always do student recitals with parents and co-students to prepare them for the student recitals or events at the music school.  (even if it's in their house or so, the "performance" effect will still be there)

It's normal that when one performs 1 to 3 times a year (as per example in my conservatory), one will not be that good (unless they practice very much for their families and friends at home)

One will only become comfortable onstage if one has a lot of stage experiences each year.  (Hilary Hahn and numerous artists told this...)  One has to get use to adrenaline and, I think that should be a teacher's job too : ) 

Unfourtunately, for many amateurs, that's not possible because of our busy schedules + lack of opportunities from teachers and music school etc.   Trying to gain experience as an amateur is not easy and one needs to create performance opportunities because they just won't run at you...   When I'll finish school, I will have to be my own "amateur violinist' career manager + sponsor if I want to evolve and make progress.  I would never have though that this was our job as amateurs...  I though that was the music school job.  But most music schools (even very good ones) just won't provide a wonderful context to make you a well round-up amateur musician!

March 6, 2011 at 09:54 PM ·

Yes, the more one performs in public, the better one becomes at it. I said only the other day that if I could do quartet reheasals and performances - say about three a week - I would become better at it. As it is I only do about one rehearsal or performance on average a week. (I nearly said good at it - but one can only really say "better.")

I was offered a recording of a quartet performance of a recent concert, but really thought that I did not want to hear it. I know how bad it was - and it was not just me!

March 7, 2011 at 03:35 PM ·

Elise- that's a whole other can of worms you brought up. Do you really play as well when you're recording vs. when it's only the walls as your witness?

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