Being Stuck in a Piece

Edited: August 2, 2017, 7:43 AM · I'm currently on my fourth (ugh) month of working on the Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor 3rd Movement, and was searching here on Violinist to see if others have encountered the same "maxed out" feeling that I have about this piece. So, I'm reviving Laurie's blog post: to say that I'm thrilled that she puts the "typical performance level" prep work in the 2-6 month arena. I can play most of the piece by memory, but I am on the brink of hating it. I look at the sheet music and am filled with dread, so have decided to put it down for a rest, and see what happens in a few days when I return to it. (I practice every day for an hour, so this piece has already been played a lot! And my recordings of it from one month into the piece to now do show a marked improvement.)

As some background: I am a restarter after a 10+ year break, and have been playing again for a little over 8 months. I am frustrated over the memories of playing advanced (beginner-advanced, i.e. Bruch concerto first 2 movements) with relative ease and not being "at that level" now that I'm playing again. I had played the 1st movement as a kid, so my teacher and I have decided to not work on that for now.

All this said: My fabulous teacher is correcting things that should have been corrected when I was a kid, so there is that, and she has impressively high standards and doesn't let things pass that shouldn't. And, I was never able to play much from memory in the past, simply because I did not have to. In other words, this piece really has been part of a huge learning curve for me.

What are people's advice for getting past this stage (frustration, brink of hatred, maxed out) of the development/work?

Replies (47)

August 2, 2017, 8:06 AM · My teacher is a believer in allowing a piece that is to be prepared for performance to be dropped for a while, allowed to decay, and then worked on again. Each time it gets rebuilt stronger. I find this works well for me.

Having been an adult returnee twice over now, my feeling is that the initial pieces that you work on when you're fumbling your way back to the instrument are practically a loss, and it's easier to just dump them and move on to something else that you start right so you don't have to "un-practice" screwed-up stuff.

Hopefully you have a lot of other stuff to rotate through. I find that if I put something aside for a week or two, it's easier to come back to it with a fresh mindset and make progress.

August 2, 2017, 8:06 AM · Just an idea from a non expert...
Would it help to vary the playing of the tempo, breaking the piece down into smaller fragments? Like playing small part s of it really slow focusing on being in tune, clean string crossing and then speeding up before going to the required tempo?
I guess trying to deconstruct it into a set of etudes...which might shift your focus from the identity of the piece as you got used to it?
August 2, 2017, 9:41 AM · Thank you Tim and Lydia. Good to know that my instinct to shelve the piece for the time being (I have a lesson next week) was on point.

Also good to know that these initial works are essentially a loss and I should not get too attached to them.

Tammuz - oh I've done all of that and have now stitched it together into the full piece. Thank you though.

Next question, especially for Lydia (and other returnees): at which point did you start playing for people other than your teacher after returning? I have a lot of friends and family asking me to play for them, but my confidence in my ability/sound is not so great at the moment, and I refuse to play around anyone except my husband. My teacher tells me I am playing more than well enough to play in front of people.

August 2, 2017, 9:47 AM · I experienced the same thing with Bach Corrente from partita 2--I listened to multiple interpretations, marked everything I wanted to do, and practiced in different ways (starting from the end and working backwards, slower tempos, rhythms, breaking the music into phrases, etc.) but I felt like I hit a cement wall. When I told my teacher, she laughed and gave me a different Bach piece to work on and told me she had a student just like me who played the instrument well but couldn't understand the Corrente at all. The Adagio Prelude from Sonata No. 1 made a lot more sense to me and now I'm steadily progressing through Bach.

If you feel truly stuck in the sense that while you understand what is to be done but not what to do, I would also suggest dropping the piece and moving onto something else of the similar difficult that makes sense and maybe return to it if at all you feel like it and still need pieces of similar difficulty. If you have progressed beyond it, I wouldn't bother.

Edited: August 3, 2017, 1:53 AM · How about playing with rather than through it?

- Every single note can sing like a coloratura soprano;
- the opening notes, and the upper notes of the succeeding bariolage, can ring like a trumpet;
- the first solo can warble like bird;
- the repeated arpeggios can shimmer, with slight crescendos and decrescendos to suggest the sound circulating in a cathedral
(unless we are using Suzuki's Nachez version, in which case they must be seized by the collar!).

Take the piece apart like a bike engine, cleaning and greasing every single component before putting it back. And enjoy doind so!

Just my 2 centimes d'Euro.

August 3, 2017, 2:22 AM · The ideal of practicing is to accomplish as much as possible in your alotted time Without Frustration.

Tell your teacher about your frustration and see what she says.

August 3, 2017, 4:44 AM · I agree with Timothy: "My advice- Lay off of it for awhile. Do something you enjoy and come back to it later.
I think there gets to be a point of diminishing return and we need a break.
Maybe practice something easier for a while or more enjoyable."

I went through that as a student sometimes and now as a teacher, it's always a shifting judgement call for me whether and when to cross off a short exercise or an etude - or to set aside an entire piece. Sometimes the best thing is to lay a piece aside and let it lie fallow. Return to it at a much later future time and it will seem like a different piece!

August 3, 2017, 5:31 AM · One to two weeks off to "reset" your work on a piece is about right. In my case the piece was the Mozart "Haffner" Rondo (Kreisler). It really helped.

One thing you wrote caught my eye: "I practice every day for an hour, so this piece has already been played a lot!"

I practice about an hour a day too -- sometimes a little more or less -- but I can't imagine spending the whole time on one thing. You can break up your work by having one fast piece (Vivaldi 3rd mvt qualifies!), one slower piece to develop lyricism, vibrato, etc., and then a study and/or scales.

I also find that as an adult returner there is a truly burning temptation to "play through" pieces for enjoyment rather than opening them right to the part that's hard and working just on that. My solution to that is to set aside a specific time interval to play for enjoyment, which I do not count in my practice time. My enjoyment pieces are things like Bach Cello Suite movements. Sometimes I do that to warm up. Sort of like eating your dessert first!

August 3, 2017, 7:59 AM · Paul - Indeed, I do set aside time to play for enjoyment vs solely focusing on the work portion. And no, I do not spend my entire practice time on the one piece, it's divided up between scales, etudes/exercises/technique and rep work (slow and fast pieces, refinement of current works and workshopping the more recent piece). I usually warm up with something I enjoy, and close with something I enjoy, and if the mood strikes and time permits I continue to play for enjoyment. This said, I quite enjoy working on etudes and technical stuff, so it's not all about enjoyment for me. (But I suppose, based on the previous experience of youth, that I did not have to work on/in a piece as much because of... youth and it is marring my current expectations for progression within a particular piece of music? Or, I had less exacting teachers!)

To boot, I simply don't like this piece of music to listen to, so playing it is not something that pulls at my heartstrings. Every so often I get a glimmer of what this piece could be for me (I am playing the Suzuki version - those arpeggios were/are a beast), but mostly I feel "meh" about the piece. I suppose I'm in that group of players/listeners who does not appreciate Vivaldi as much as I should/could.

All things to discuss with my teacher, I know.

Thanks for reinforcing the fact that I can set something aside for a week or two then return to it. I'm working on the Bach duo in the Suzuki book as well and am enjoying all of the work/play aspects of it.

August 3, 2017, 8:25 AM · @Timothy I guess it also matters why they hate the piece. Many times, in my case, I can't get past the technical difficulties. But after going through those, I learn to love it. Maybe in needs a little more TLC before someone completely hates the piece. Maybe there's something we're overlooking.

To that point, what exactly makes one hate a piece?

I get OP's case though. It needs a breather. Then when she gets back to it in a few months, it will seem like as if the piece just straightened itself out.

August 3, 2017, 8:44 AM · Pamela, each time I took time off, I didn't play for about a decade, but the effects were different.

The first time was just disastrous; when I picked up the violin again, I couldn't even play a scale. It took weeks of practicing two hours a day, with most of that time going to exercises, before I was able to audition for a community orchestra and not sound horrible. I think I played in my teacher's student recital sometime around that time. About a year after I came back, I was able to enter and win a concerto competition, and I performed the work with the orchestra a couple of months later. But other than that, I only performed in my teacher's student recitals, in orchestra, and in chamber music.

The second time, for whatever reason, wasn't as bad. A week after I picked up the violin again, I played a community-orchestra audition, and less than a year later, I performed a concerto with that orchestra. I played in my teacher's student recital a couple months before that. About two years after I started playing again, I started doing regular solo recital performances in the community, in addition to performing in my teacher's student recitals, in orchestra, and in chamber music.

I think one of the best things my current teacher has taught me is to think about what the typical audience listens for, which is not technical perfection, but rather more a sense of direction and musical line. He also expects things to go wrong in performance, and he stresses recovery tactics, which has helped me quite a lot, since on an amateur's practice time, things are simply less reliable than they would be for a pro.

Venue matters. If you're playing for friends and family privately, they are probably happy simply to support you. If you're playing in church, there's probably a fair amount of forgiveness for the quality of your playing. If you're playing in a student recital, everyone expects you to be on your learning journey and is going to be supportive. If you're playing at a retirement home, choose repertoire appropriate to your skill level and the interests of the residents. If you're playing in a concert for the community, even if it's free, quality level needs to be enjoyably high -- i.e., in tune, pleasant sound, etc.

August 3, 2017, 1:16 PM · Great discussion. Many good and interesting points raised. If I may add one idea from a life-long amateur, it is this: It seems to me that every great composer (and many, many less-than-great ones) has a unique, transcendent "voice." We recognize many composers not just because we know the piece, but there is a unique approach to melody, rhythm, technique, organization of the piece, and emotional "voice." Maybe if one is bored with practicing a piece for the thousandth time, re-visit the composer's "voice." Put yourself in the place of someone who has never heard this piece before. What do you want them to hear, to experience?
Hope that helps rejuvenate interest and enthusiasm.
Edited: August 3, 2017, 1:59 PM · Pamela,

I have returned to the violin for exactly one year. I like to work on (at least) two pieces simultaneously: one at a comfortable technical level; another pushes the limit a bit. I have been working on the Bach solo d minor partita (without the last movement) and Bruch g minor concerto. When I get frustrated with Bruch, I go back to solo Bach. It appears to work for me in that I enjoy my practice sessions every day :=)

Most teachers have annual and/or semiannual recitals where students can perform. Your teacher should be able to tell you if you are ready.

Edited: August 3, 2017, 2:49 PM · Many great advices above. I too often struggle with a piece that I really love to begin with and really want to do justice to it, but after months of intensive working on it almost exclusively, I do get tired of it. Even Bach solos! Yes, I can watch and listen to other great performances of this piece to gain inspiration and insight, but the dimple fact is that, we may make a huge progress with a lot of practice, but at each stage of our learning, we cannot be more/further than where we are as a player . Of course, with a lot of focused practice, we can make a piece sound more polished as well as our ears more sharpened, but it won’t make fundamental change to the way/level we are playing at each stage. It takes years to make such change and this is largely where frustration comes from, IMHO.

So it is a big question: when should we put down a piece that we have been working on for a while? When we are frustrated or before that?

In the absence of a clear answer, what I’m doing these days is by joining a chamber music group or two and an amateur recital group so that I am forced to juggle a number pieces within certain timeframe. Often I move on when a piece has been performed a couple of times. I am learning to accept that the most of the things I’m playing/performing are work-in-progress and will be revisited and further polished in future.

August 7, 2017, 11:06 AM · This hits the nail on the head: "but at each stage of our learning, we cannot be more/further than where we are as a player" and it "takes years to make such change and this is largely where frustration comes from". Most definitely. Where I am at now is where I am at now, and asking myself to be more than that is indeed frustrating.

I'm not ready to be in a group setting, but I've tossed the idea to join a community orchestra to simmer on the back burner.

I also need to cut myself some slack: I've been playing again for 8+ months, the first four of which were with a teacher that was not up to snuff, and so I've really only been doing more intensive/serious practice and re-learning over the past four plus months. I think my expectations have been misplaced, and I've missed the forest for the trees: that I'm doing this for the love and fun of it.

For me, ideally it would be to put the piece down before the frustration sets in but after there is a semblance of polished/performance-level readiness. I suppose this depends on the piece, whether or not one has practiced correctly, and one's level.

August 7, 2017, 12:49 PM · Vivaldi after only 8 months is a lot. You can cut yourself some slack as there is a limit to how well you can play after that short amount of time.
Edited: August 8, 2017, 3:19 AM · I made the mistake (in my know-it-all relative youth) of proposing the Vivaldi A minor much too soon, in the hope of stimulating the student. Some just gave up, I am embarrassed to say.
Edited: August 8, 2017, 9:26 AM · My interpretation of Yixi's response was that I cannot expect myself at 8-9 months of returned playing to sound the way I did when I played for 8+ years, nor to sound the way my teacher plays who's been playing every day for 35+ years with a top-notch conservatory education, or to think that I can play this piece with the same aplomb as any of the "greats" at this point in time. There's a gap between where I am right now and where I want to go, and crossing that gap is going to take time and hard work. To be frustrated that I'm not across that gap yet is counterproductive; because there's always another gap to bridge.

Indeed there is a real balance within selecting music that is just challenging enough to promote growth without being so challenging that it is stifling and discouraging.

(Thank you Jason!!! We'll see how my lesson goes tonight and what my teacher says :) )

Edited: August 8, 2017, 10:59 AM · Timonthy, thanks for your comment and I understand your concern. If you read my post carefully, you'd notice that I was talking about acknowledging where we are at each stage of our development, and I said nothing about future potential at all. You may call such acknowledgement "limit", but to me it's more of awareness of one's current situation with a historical perspective: what we've accomplished, where are the challenges and what potential we can explore. Such acknowledgement doesn't imply anything about what we can be in future at all. It is consistent with being determined and keep pushing our limits, as you need to know your current limits in order to overcome them.

Edit: Just saw Pamela's comment above. It was better said than I could.

August 8, 2017, 10:37 AM · Pamela, where exactly do you "want to go" with your playing? You talk about crossing a gap, and I think that's perhaps part of the issue. It's not a gap that needs a bridge as much as it is a staircase that requires strong legs to climb. But it's an endless staircase, and the question is: how far up do you have to climb before you imagine you would be satisfied?

With that said, you may have been introduced to the Vivaldi a bit too soon and as a result are spending lots of time doing what is essentially "prerequisite work," rather than JUST learning the piece itself. If that's the case, it's not the end of the world, but just keep in mind that it's not taking you months and months to learn the Vivaldi; it's taking you months and months to learn all the CONCEPTS that allow you to play the Vivaldi effectively. And once you open up those avenues, all other songs like the Vivaldi will be learned in a much shorter period of time in the future.

August 8, 2017, 11:05 AM · I was just re-reading this thread from the beginning and I finally belated realized that the OP (Pamela) was an advanced player when she quit -- someone whose foundation presumably used to be good. This makes me wonder why, 8 months later, the Vivaldi A minor is still a major challenge.

Pamela, how solid was your technique when you quit? Were you playing a solid, comfortable Bruch -- in tune, in time, up to tempo, stylistic -- or was that pretty shaky, where your fundamentals were less solid than the repertoire might otherwise suggest? (i.e., having serious intonation issues even on "polished" pieces, unreliable / unclean / inaccurate shifting, weak bow control, etc.)

And how much are you practicing a day now, and how are you spending that practice time? Does your teacher routinely teach students playing at your old level (i.e., kids who are playing Bruch and beyond), or are their students mostly at this kind of Vivaldi level?

Edited: August 8, 2017, 3:08 PM · No worries, Timothy.

Lydia made a few really good points. I returned to violin after more than 20 yrs of hiatus and I had to relearn all the basics, which I didn't build at a younger age. It took years to undo the bad habits, which were built in techniques, the way I practiced and the most of all, the way I was thinking and expecting of myself. I did a lot of unrealistic comparisons, for instance. Not only I compared within my own history, but mostly with other players, ridiculously, including the greats.

One day, I made a deal with myself: it might take at least 10 years to sound mature enough, so why not enjoy the journey instead of being anxious about the immediate results. I kept it, on and off, for the past 10 years. I'm now a different player. Still full of issues. But I'm more patient now.

Also, Pamela, you might notice that having a different teacher after the hiatus matters a lot. My old teachers weren't nearly as strict as my current one, with whom I thought I couldn't do anything right for a long time. Now I know I need such teacher who keeps giving rather than someone keeps making me feel good.

August 8, 2017, 5:23 PM · Pamela you said you don't exactly relish the 3rd movement of the Vivaldi A minor. I agree with Sander about finding Vivaldi's voice. But I have to say that there is a very special moment in that particular piece, something that really grabs me. It's the suspended arpeggio toward the end of the "difficult" section on the second page (C-G-D-G-D-C-D-C etc.). When I heard the first movement of the Mozart G Major Violin Concerto played by Joshua Bell -- he's got a suspended arpeggio in his cadenza, and it's incredible. I swear he's channeling that Vivaldi passage.
Edited: August 9, 2017, 11:16 AM · Pamela, i had the same question as Lydia, but didn't know how to ask politely. It seems eight months is a long time to spend on the Vivaldi a minor.

I was at best an intermediate player when I stopped at 17 which was 26 years ago. It took me 12 months to get back to where I was: playing rather shaky Bruch ( it is getting better though). Perhaps there is some underlying reason ( having to do with your technique) that is holding you back? May be you are not practicing enough?

August 9, 2017, 12:34 AM · David, everyone is different. To state that it "shouldn't be different" for her is clearly coming from a place of inexperience.
Edited: August 9, 2017, 7:41 AM · From talking to a lot of adult returnees over the years, if you were playing at the Bruch level, getting back into reasonable playing shape usually just takes a couple of weeks, and maybe somewhere from a few months to a year at most to get fully back to where you were, even if you are not taking lessons and aren't doing a whole lot of practicing. That suggests that there may be some reason that the OP is having what seems to be unusual difficulty recovering.

My experience, where even after years I've never gotten back to my childhood level (or currently, back to my last adult level), is, as far as I can tell, actually an outlier. I've been able to build new skills, but retrieving some old ones seems impossible, or at least would require more practice time than I'm willing to commit

Edited: August 9, 2017, 11:10 AM · Lydia, what do you mean "level" exactly? To me, it's not so much just what repertoire I am able to play, but how clean, in tune, in time, beautiful tone and phrasing that I can make, and what overall understanding as a musician I am,etc. What we perceive of our own playing is very much depending on our growth as a violinist too. Without good recodings to compare, I think it can be quite hard to judge one's "level" as a child and as a returner 10-20 years later.
August 9, 2017, 10:39 AM · I think most adult returnees I've talked to haven't taken lessons again, or at least not taken lessons immediately upon return. So they go back to playing more or less like they had been.

The ones who do take lessons and had previously been playing repertoire that they weren't ready for, seem highly likely to be put into working on the stuff that they should have been working on.

I would normally consider a player's level to be determined by their core technique (which would include the ability to reflexively execute some basic elements of musicianship, such as respecting printed dynamics, respecting stylistic conventions, and so forth), which would in turn drive appropriate repertoire choices.

August 9, 2017, 11:08 AM · Yes, that's clear. Thanks for further explanation, Lydia!
August 9, 2017, 11:25 AM ·
My approach has been to revisit repertoire I learned as a teenager, which may not work for everyone.

Based on my own experience and discussion with my teacher, my problem WAS that as a teenager I was not willing to do the work that is needed to get to 90% to 95%. The mechanics of my playing doesn't have major issues. Need to practice.

Edited: August 9, 2017, 2:47 PM · David, I'm curious. How do you quantify the preparedness of your work? Note perfect? Performance-ready? Performed? Performed a few times? My sense is that, each player, especially at an advanced level, may have different sense when the work is done. Each person will have their own standard and the standard might change over time too. I wouldn't be surprised that Pamela and/or her teacher might have set a very high standard and try to solve a whole bunch of issues all in one piece. Also, if one falls into perfectionism, then working on one piece for extended period might be expected.
Edited: August 9, 2017, 2:34 PM · I have been working on the Vivaldi A minor since April (approximately 3-4 months in "active working time").

I returned to playing again 8 months ago.

Yixi - my childhood teacher was not strict, nor was the teacher with whom I worked for the first four/five months of my return. My new teacher is very strict, which is great - it's what I need and want, and why I changed teachers.

Things are being corrected (technique-wise) that my previous teachers would let slide, and I'm grateful for that. I started taking lessons right away because I wanted to fix whatever needed fixing from the get-go (ie improved bow grip, bowing technique, intonation, vibrato, shifting, etc...) I've discussed all of this with my teacher, and we are on the same page/in agreement with my goals and what her vision/direction is with regards to my lessons.

I'm practicing enough in that my teacher has no qualms with the amount of time that I put into the violin. And they have no problem with me putting down the Vivaldi for a spell. In fact, I was told that I need to relax and enjoy this process more.

August 9, 2017, 2:34 PM · Yixi - yes, that is pretty much how that went. Solve a bunch of issues in one piece mixed with perfectionism.
Edited: August 9, 2017, 2:46 PM · Pamela, that makes perfect sense. I was in the similar situation as yours about 10 years ago when I finally had a teacher who keeps giving rather than providing affirmation and emotional support. I think we are both very lucky to have found such teachers. And thank you for starting this discussion!
August 9, 2017, 2:49 PM · Indeed Yixi! Very lucky!

We're working on the Bach duo in the 4th Suzuki book now, and that's going along rather well. Go figure.

August 9, 2017, 2:53 PM · I'm so glad to hear things worked out! (: I hear Suzuki 4 is where people start to really feel like putting the instrument down. I remember Suzuki 5 and 6 being such a treat! Best of luck to you!!
August 9, 2017, 2:55 PM · @Yixi:

"One day, I made a deal with myself: it might take at least 10 years to sound mature enough, so why not enjoy the journey instead of being anxious about the immediate results. I kept it, on and off, for the past 10 years. I'm now a different player. Still full of issues. But I'm more patient now."

Great advice. I used to be frustrated as well with my lack of progress. I ended up emailing one of the members one day and that person gave me similar advice: techniques are built layer by layer, brick by brick. It's interesting how that basic idea helped me be more patient with the process.

Like what Yixi said, imagine how you'd be like in 10 years through this bricklaying... The improvement will be pretty significant.

Relating to the other thread regarding adult students, this is probably why adult students can be difficult to teach --- we can be easily frustrated with unnoticeable progress.

Thanks for the inspiring read!

August 9, 2017, 4:09 PM · Ah, that makes more sense, Pamela. Because you're having to reconstruct the foundation, it can be harder to feel a sense of progress, especially when a piece seems easy compared to previous repertoire.

Edited: August 9, 2017, 7:53 PM · Yixi, I would move on from a piece once it becomes clear I have hit a wall and can not improve in any meaningful way.

I do not have the opportunity to perform all the pieces I have worked on. Within the context of studio recitals, I have performed Spring from the Four Seasons last November, the first movement of Mozart 3rd this past May.

We have regular recitals in our home so my 5 year old daughter and her friends (all of whom are taking piano lessons) can perform for each other and parents. I usually open and close these family recitals with a movement of solo Bach.

This type of performance is not very stressful, but does bring some closure to a piece that was worked on for months.

August 9, 2017, 8:55 PM · David, your approach to stop working on a piece sounded wise. I might try it. The way you perform with during your daughter and her friends' recitals sound like a lot of fun.
August 10, 2017, 7:15 AM · Exactly Lydia.

I'm happy to be working on these things now, it's similar to the importance of getting the little weeds out of the garden vs waiting until the garden is overgrown with them and then weeding ;)

For those who are beginners: do not compromise a good teacher for convenience's sake (in money and time), and vice versa! It is worth the extra time to go to a better teacher, and the extra expense - even if it means that you will be taking lessons every other week vs every week.

Something clicked in the Bach duo and my various etudes this week, especially in practice yesterday. Might have made it past that "not making any remarkable-to-me progress" wall, or the deal to let my progress be what it is in the interest of the long-haul (thanks Yixi!), either way I'm grateful that "something" feels different.

Good approach David.

I performed the Mozart 3rd at a school concert way back when!!!

August 10, 2017, 10:01 AM · I am a 40 year professional violinist, not world class, but a good solo and orchestral violinist and teacher... I relate much to your frustrations re: burnout on an opus you have yet to master to the degree one wants. My advice is to leave this opus for a while... work on another piece for a time. You probably have made much progress, but we often get fixated on the challenging aspects of any particular opus... for example, I just after 3-4 months of working on the Bottesini Grand Duo Concertante, performed it and other solo rep in Italy last weel... while I still wanted it better, and will be next time, I had found that by taking breaks from it during that period helped me not burn out on the opus. Make sure you practice the challenging sections SLOWLY... often times students work against themselves by just practicing mistakes over and over at tempos too fast... anyway, that's my 2 cents...

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