Getting frustrated while playing the violin

July 30, 2016 at 07:11 PM · Lately, I started spending more time practicing the violin. I started practicing slower, and just overall concentrating more. This has made me recognize all of the mistakes that I routinely make, and helped me see a lot of flaws that I did not notice before.

Sometimes, I get very frustrated with the lack of progress, or just not being able to progress fast enough. Often times, I would go through a passage/scale, record it, listen to all of the out of tune notes, then mark them and fix them.

A week later, it suddenly appears like I have made a lot of progress, and that that I've fixed my intonation problems. Thus, I would work on other things(phrasing,dynamics ...etc).

However, if I'm not careful enough while practicing, problems with intonation would creep up again, and I would have to go back to slow just seems like a never ending cycle. Every time I make a mistake, I seem to take two steps back.

I've found that it only really takes 5-6 well placed slightly out of tune notes to really ruin a piece, or to ruin my interpretation. I know that it's important to be patient, but does anyone have any mental hacks to just deal with frustration? Today, in particular, I feel like my confidence is shot, and I feel like I'm a horrible violinist. It sucks that I have some off days where I sounded much better a week ago than I do today. It almost seems like the more you practice, the worse you get! I know this is not true, and it's just a mental illusion, but there are some days where I truly believe these things.

I also know I'm not perfect. There are some weeks where life gets in the way, and I end up not practicing scales for 4 days straight. I love playing the violin, but there are some days when I feel like I hate playing. How do you keep yourself motivated? How can I teach myself discipline? Especially when it comes to playing scales. I also feel that I'm too negative, and keep on beating myself up, but how can you be confident in your playing when you see so many flaws? Sorry for the rant...

Replies (33)

July 30, 2016 at 07:42 PM · I have off days sometimes too and just go with it. And then all the sudden things just turn out really great the next day.

July 30, 2016 at 07:57 PM · Carl Flesch talks about an exercise where passage in 16ths is played incredibly slowly to really hear the intervals, and that students often are dismayed by all the out of tune playing they hear after practicing this exercise for a bit, but their intonation is no worse than it was. He goes on to say that the student usually goes on to improve their intonation because of this.

Don't get demoralized. Before, you couldn't fix these things, because you couldn't hear them. Now you have an opportunity to improve your intonation and by practicing smart, keeping your newfound sensitivity. It's annoying, but otherwise, you might have never improved.

July 30, 2016 at 09:35 PM · I used to feel that way but now I often feel worse.

The violin never becomes easy but you hear things you do not like. That is a good start to recognize your problems.

However, you sound like you would benefit greatly from a teacher.

( It ain't easy being green! )

July 30, 2016 at 09:56 PM · I often find that fundamental technique is better practiced with exercises than repertoire.

If fundamental technique is sound but a certain passage is always out of tune, you're committing some kind of mental rather than physical error, in all likelihood. Pure drill of the passage won't fix it; you have to figure out why it's going out of tune. Are you mishearing the note? Are you anticipating? Is your hand physically not approaching the passage correctly?

I cycle between a lot of different things when I practice. If I plateau on improvement on something, or I simply become frustrated, it's easy to move onto something different. In fact, that's good for you -- switching tasks frequently during practice sessions keeps your brain awake and learning.

July 30, 2016 at 10:46 PM · Do you have a teacher? If not, you should consider getting one. While generally string players plateau and have breakthroughs, you may feel more comfortable with someone competent guiding your practice routine so you get the most out of it and do not develop bad habits. Good luck!

July 30, 2016 at 11:15 PM · Welcome to the club. Some of us have been playing decades and guess what, there are days when we feel the exact same way!

Tom's advice is right on the mark here. While I certainly listen and record and do individual reflection on my playing, I never hesitate to ask my wife to listen for a few minutes and tell me what she thinks. Having someone who is absolutely not afraid to tell you what you need to hear to improve is really quite valuable. :)

July 31, 2016 at 02:27 AM · Stop counting your mistakes. It's music, not golf.

Meanwhile, build your fundamentals relentlessly, with scales and studies. Make sure your teacher hears those and not just your main repertoire piece. This is what I'm doing and, very gradually, it is paying off. If your teacher is good you can have a whale of a violin lesson on just one Kreutzer.

July 31, 2016 at 03:48 PM · How much time do you actually spend practicing? Personally, I feel my "magic number" is about two hours a day just to maintain. i would need 3 or more hours to improve significantly.

I doubt few conservatory students move the needle on less. And that's assuming a refined, efficient practice technique where every problem is attacked in just the right way. With a day off here and there to avoid injury.

So be honest with yourself: are your expectations for an extremely difficult task aligned with your time spent and practice techniques? I guarantee violin is insanely difficult for every one of us.

July 31, 2016 at 09:39 PM · Great suggestions! I think I was just having a bad day, and expected too much for how little I was putting into my practice. I will try to get a teacher soon. It's just hard since my first job right out of college is in a "cowtown" in the middle of no where, but I gotta make things work somehow. I'll try to get a job somewhere else.

July 31, 2016 at 10:04 PM · Shawn,

So here's my suggestion for improving, especially with limited time: take one tiny task and just try to perfect that one thing ONLY. Remember that music is a bunch of tiny tasks, look at each task like a yoga move or a zen koan. We all just want to play--don't give in to the temptation.

July 31, 2016 at 10:19 PM · Thanks Scott!!! Yes there have definitely been times when I would let my mind wander(especially with Kreutzer) and just play mindlessly because it seems like the easy thing to do.

August 1, 2016 at 12:04 AM · When I seem to start slipping in my viola playing, I know that my ear has out-paced my ability. After a month or so, my ability catches up to my ear, and then I start the process all over again.

Don't worry about it overly much. It is a natural cycle that afflicts even the pro's.

August 1, 2016 at 08:47 AM · I think we all have "off" days. I had to take a break for a week recently because I simply needed it. I really worked very hard and just burnt out a bit. But when I came back it felt like I came back stronger than when I stopped.

When I feel like I'm battling, I usually go back to the basics and work on fundamental technique. Sometimes a little new perspective helps a lot and this can be gained by a new book or masterclass on YouTube. Alternatively, sometimes I just take a break from whatever I was working on and work on something brand new. It may be a new piece or a new etude or a new etude from a different etude book. Changing the angle at which you attack the problem can be very enlightening.

Always have a few pieces prepared that is well within your current abilities and that you really enjoy so that when you need a reminder of why you are doing this, you can whip them out and just enjoy making some beautiful music. Preserve enthusiasm.

August 1, 2016 at 07:20 PM · I'd say that these mistakes are why people practice daily. All the world class soloists practice often. Problems will continuously arise when playing an instrument. That's why people warm up before playing or practicing. You practice getting rid of problems by playing certain passages or studies/scales over and over again. Eventually you just correctly do it.

August 1, 2016 at 09:52 PM · Actually, trial-and-error repetition is one of the worst possible ways to practice. You're just reinforcing doing it wrong. If you manage to luck into doing it correctly, you may not be able to replicate what you did, and you have zero intellectual foundation for understanding what you're doing. And to improve, you need to do it correctly significantly more times than you do it wrong, so if you keep doing it over and over again and getting it wrong, that's N many more times that you have to do it correctly once you get it right.

The correct way is to stop and ask yourself, "Why was that wrong?" You drill down to a root cause and fix it. If you're not sure why it was wrong, you theorize about the error, and repeat it while trying to explicitly not make the error, and/or observing closely what you are doing. You thus progress methodically towards the correct approach, in the minimum number of errors, and then you cement the correct way once you firmly know what you're intending to do.

August 2, 2016 at 05:10 AM · The way you are reacting is the way I was for about two years before I quit for many years (before returning to violin). I have not had a teacher in the past thirty years, so take what I say from that perspective.

Teachers are great, but in the end, the best people I know who have turned pro have ultimately become their own teacher.

I am absolutely not saying you don't need a teacher. I am saying that is the long term end goal - patient heal thyself.

First, if it is your teacher who is super negative and bringing you down, even if they are absolutely correct in defining all the problems you have - this is not the right teacher for you in your current state of mind. You need to be inspired by either the music you are working on or the teacher you are working with before you smash your violin against a wall.

Second, if you are feeling discouraged and therefore practice less and find when you pick it back up it is worse and you are more discouraged and then therefore practice less, you are entering a vicious cycle that must be broken. Step back and try to teach yourself. I don't mean have no teacher, I mean, really try to examine what is going wrong. Are you perhaps working on a piece that is reinforcing problems rather than improving your playing? Switch the repertoire you are working on to something that is helping you improve by either challenging you or reinforcing good habits not bad.

If it is refined intonation that is the problem, I have personally found that I simply am not practicing enough, especially enough in the past week, when I am way out of tune. Also, you need plenty of sleep and a good warm up to play in tune, IMO. Until my fingers are warm they do not stretch as far and therefore will not quite hit the pitch I am mentally aiming for. If it is basic intonation then you need to drill down and work hard. Double-stop intonation - drill down and work harder. This is easier for me to say than do since much of the doublestop work is yet to come for me.

I am an amateur so just my two cents.

If anyone is a naysayer regarding your playing (not your practice/study habits - listen to those naysayers) then do not let them feed your frustration.

If your own goals are lofty and you aren't reaching them, take smaller bites then later go for bigger things. If you master something you couldn't do before it is often amazing how you can apply it to the next thing, the piece or section you could not previously attempt is then within your grasp. Take tiny steps and you will be surprised that you are capable of more than you thought.

Good luck. State of mind is terribly important regarding violin, so you are right not to ignore it.

August 2, 2016 at 05:48 AM · Be inspired by yourself, by music you love, by your teacher, by your friends, by current repertoire ambitions.

If you are feeling frustrated this is terribly important.

Also, Scott Cole and Jason Sumner gave you very good advice.

If you are not practicing enough because your current repertoire or studies do not inspire you, then find pieces that force you to put the time in. I strongly believe that amount of practice is important and that Dr. Suzuki (and I was not a Suzuki student) got it right when he formed his program around music and not studies. If this is a problem for you, (and hopefully it is not), let the music inspire you to put in the practice time.

If you are feeling frustrated and the advice you receive is not given with a positive attitude, then this is not someone you should listen to, IMO.

August 2, 2016 at 10:09 AM · I love April's comments.

Shawn, intonation needs continual maintenance, throughout one's entire life!

August 2, 2016 at 02:53 PM · Intonation is a big problem, esp. for beginners. Try to find easy and slow pieces for practice. The more familiar you are with the piece, the better, because you already have a pretty good idea how it should sound. Suzuki book 1 has some good material. If you go to church, try favorite hymns.

August 2, 2016 at 03:05 PM · My teacher suggests that it's useful to "center" one's ears at the start of a practice session, since so much of intonation is how you mentally hear the pitch you're aiming for. He advocates Oistrakh's approach -- play the exposition of a Mozart concerto slowly, without vibrato.

I find it to be a really useful exercise. Doesn't have to be the whole exposition. A few lines of Mozart No. 5 (after the slow intro) works fairly well for me as a quick way of centering my sense of pitch at the beginning of an orchestral rehearsal and whatnot.

August 2, 2016 at 03:36 PM · “Often times, I would go through a passage/scale, record it, listen to all of the out of tune notes, then mark them and fix them.”

From the way you wrote this, it sounds more like a listening problem than an intonation problem. If you detect notes out of tune on playback, you should be able to detect them when playing live. So practicing slower and concentrating more, which you mentioned, can help a lot. To pick up on what a previous poster wrote, you must mentally hear the next pitches before you actually sound them.

In getting a piece up to tempo, increase the speed incrementally from one run-through to the next -- e.g., 5 bpm per try. If you can’t play a passage cleanly at a given speed after two attempts, don’t try it again at this speed during the practice session. Drop back to the speed where you can play it presentably; then put it away till next session. Otherwise, you’re reinforcing your flaws.

August 2, 2016 at 06:44 PM · Great perspectives guys! April, thanks for reminding me about the bigger picture of things.

Lately, I have actually mainly played etudes and a Caprice by Pierre Rode. I think my lack of patience undermines my progress a lot! I always think subconsciously, hmm, I only have to learn a few bars today, shouldn't be too bad!

Often times, I would try to push the tempo too much or too quickly before I am actually prepared(Usually, I think I am ready as soon as I can play in tune a lot times in a row at a slow tempo, and get overconfident and turn the metronome to 120, then find myself having to go back to slow practice for the next 2-3 days).

However, I would also do the opposite at times. Sometimes I would practice slowly for too long, and then end up wasting a lot of time, because I should have been pushing the tempo gradually.

I also tend to add phrasing/musicality in a risky, hit or miss/impractical manner - sometimes delivering unnecessary attacks, or conjuring up awkward string crosses. While playing a piece in tempo, when I miss a note, I have a tendency to correct it with a sloppy, not subtle at all glissando.

Then, unless I start practicing at a Snail's pace again, I keep on doing that correcting instead of just hitting the note, and eventually, I need to relearn whole passages. I hear some great violinists like Heifetz do this type of correcting occasionally too, but they usually do it much more subtly/cleanly, and maybe even deliberately instead of accidentally like me. By the time I realize these mishaps, it takes me a very long time to fix them...eventually, I do seem to make some progress, but old habits also have a tendency to reappear.

Sometimes, I feel like I need to just start over for a couple of weeks, and only play on open strings during that time, maybe just take a look at the first two pages of Schradieck, and then go to scales, etudes, pieces..etc. Would you guys recommend just dropping a piece/etude for a while if you seem to get mentally stuck on it?

August 2, 2016 at 07:48 PM · Pick a skill you want to improve. Then tackle it from many angles -- exercises, etudes, repertoire. I tend to prefer the purity of exercises to doing etudes; my current teacher feels that the musical context of an etude is important to cementing a skill, though. You'll probably have a preference of your own.

It sounds like you think that you need to focus on playing cleanly. If you're going to do that, you can't ever let yourself get sloppy; you have to break the habit.

August 2, 2016 at 08:57 PM · Shawn:

Wow. You have gotten some great advice here. As an amateur, there is no way I could improve on it. But as a psychologist.......

There is a story I once read about Jascha Heifetz, who took an old standard response and added an element. Supposedly, he was asked if he had to practice every day. He replied: "Yes. If I don't practice for one day, I can hear the difference. If I don't practice for 2 days, the orchestra can hear the difference. If I don't practice for 3 days, the audience can hear the difference. And if I don't practice for 4 days, the critics can hear the difference."

I do so hope that's a true story.

But, as I said, as a psychologist, my suggestion is that you might try at least a couple of practice sessions by playing (with full concentration and attention to every little thing) for minutes at a time - rather than hours.

Try playing for maybe 5 minutes with full concentration, then 5 minutes doing something else. Then repeat again and again.

Maybe 5 minutes is not long enough; or maybe it's too long (I wouldn't make it less than 3 minutes at a time).

But if you have that burden of having to slog through every little thing for hours on end, it inevitably becomes demotivating. That's called human nature.

Short bursts of attention, on the other hand, may just revive your motivation.

Anyway, I hope that helps.



August 2, 2016 at 09:06 PM · Sandy, is there a book you can recommend on concentration that would help those of us* who might have weak concentration skills to improve?

*I am asking for myself, not for the OP.

August 3, 2016 at 12:54 PM · Paul:

Thank you for your question. There are certainly hundreds of books and articles on motivation and getting motivated. And motivational speaking has become an industry with motivational speakers around every corner. So you might have to slog through such material, looking for those little gems here and there that work for you.

But, if this is any help, I believe that in this world, playing the violin is one of the most difficult things for any human being to learn. It requires endless mentoring, practice, attention to detail, coordination of muscles and nerves and reactions you never know you had, education, physical strength and dexterity, love of music, a desire to share with an audience, a 100% focus on every moment, the nerves of a tightrope walker, and (above all) heart.

The ability to deal with frustration comes with the territory. How does one maintain 100% motivation and attention on such picky details hour after hour, day after day?

On top of that, there is no such thing as a standard human being. The answer for each of us is ultimately going to be different. And that is the challenge. I don't know who or where you can find the answer.

My advice would be look everywhere you can. Try EVERYTHING. Probably 98% of what you read and hear will be useless to you. You are looking for that magic 2% - those (often) little things that make the big difference.

Hope that helps.



August 3, 2016 at 01:49 PM · Lots of great advice from a diverse group of people! That's what I like about this particular forum - it's filled people from different backgrounds who love playing the Violin.

August 3, 2016 at 02:25 PM · This thread, yet again, highlights the lack of focus on practicing skills as a part of regular violin curriculum. One is somehow supposed to know how to practice. Nobody told you how to prepare for chemistry exam, just sit down and "warm up the char".... why should the violin be different?

Luckily, there have been some recent and noble attempts to address the issue. One of books worth reading is Burton Kaplan's "Practice for Artistic Success".

Frustration is not bad if channeled properly. However, being a violinist or aspiring to become one, means increasing our frustration threshold along the way. Violinist not tending to his intonation is like a gardener not weeding or watering his plants. Can't stand being out of tune? Correct it... or try piano or fretted instruments.

August 3, 2016 at 03:41 PM · Kaplan's book is good. So is everything on the Bulletproof Musician blog, which has tons of scientific studies that should appeal. :-)

August 4, 2016 at 04:40 PM · I have found that some(not all) aspects of my technique are actually much more fundamentally sound prior to warming up. I think it's because I build up a lot of physical and mental tension if I play a prolonged period of time. I think I will try to take a lot of stretch breaks from now on, and see if anything improves over time.

August 4, 2016 at 05:32 PM · Shawn, it sounds like your warm-up might not be doing what it should - Relaxing and focusing you. Perhaps you should build more breaks into your practice. Being mindful of creeping tension is its own practice, because when you are playing a 30-minute long piece, you need to be able to stay loose throughout, so you need to be able to string similar lengths of time together in your practice without getting tense.

August 4, 2016 at 06:30 PM · Everyone that plays any instrument will have off days and experience frustration. I've been playing for 10 years and touring with bands for the last 5 years and still find myself getting aggravated and frustrated when I rehearse sometimes. For me what helps is taking a break. I think playing to much can actually hurt you in the learning process. You have to "want to play" in order to play well. Actually wanting to play instead of forcing yourself to play makes a world of difference. If I'm in between concerts and have some time off I'll not play for 2 or 3 days. After a few days of not playing I'll find myself really wanting to play. And when that happens I play my best. I won't practice the day before or the day of a concert just so I find myself really wanting to play. Come show time I'm ready to go.

August 7, 2016 at 04:13 AM · Yes, indeed, for me personally, the tension makes playing in tune very hard! The short breaks method seems to be working so far.

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