A couple of posts ago I took a look at the differences between playing and practising.

Just to recap, practising is the process of working on something that you currently can't do until you are able to do it. It is the hard work of music-making, the bit that non-musicians don't get to see, the countless hours spent slowly developing your abilities.

By contrast, playing is the fun bit! Playing refers to doing things that you can do and this is where all the pleasure of music-making lies; it's playing that people love listening to and it stirs up that feeling that brought you to music in the first place.

Despite what you might imagine, too much time spent practising can actually be really bad for your development as it tends to be frustrating and difficult and a generally unpleasant experience. We are only prepared to suffer it as we know we will get better and reap the rewards of being able to play what we are working on.

For example, you start working on a difficult passage in a piece of music. It's tough to start with and not much fun but as you slowly get to grips with it, you can start to imagine what it's going to sound like. This is your first little 'playing' buzz. As you continue to work, the balance slowly shifts until you can play the passage perfectly and it sounds great. You've moved from practising to playing.

This is how we improve. However, balance is very important here: obviously you must practise to get better but too much practising can be disheartening. If you're always struggling with practising music and not getting any joy from playing you won't be enjoying it much.

Here are some tips to help you find the right balance between the two:

Understand the difference between playing and practising and schedule time for both

Musicians often tell themselves they are practising when they actually spend more time playing. Have you ever started working on something you can't do for a couple of minutes and then allow yourself to get sucked into spending twice as long on something totally different...that you can play?

This happens because playing is fun, practice isn't and it's only natural to lean towards the more pleasurable of the two. By being aware of this and allowing yourself time to do both makes it less likely that you will allow yourself to be distracted.

For example, if you have half and hour to spend with your instrument, determine to practise for twenty minutes and leave ten minutes for playing. This way you remain focused on the hard stuff but also experience the sheer joy of playing in every session.

Don't work on things that are too hard

Playing music that is too hard for you is disheartening. When you spend time and effort on practising something that's too hard, by the time you can actually play it you've usually lost all enthusiasm for it.

I personally believe that this is why so many people give up at the intermediate stage and something that teachers have to be very aware of. If the difficulty level of music is continually ramped up then it starts to take longer and longer to master each thing and becomes less and less fun.

I know you're in a hurry to get better, but playing material that is too hard for you is not going to make you get better. In fact, it will probably slow your progress as the difficulty and lack of fun will make you want to practise less.

I try never to have my students (particularly beginners and intermediates) working on a piece/concept/technique for more than a few lessons. However, I've sometimes inherited students from other teachers who have been studying a just a couple of pieces (often exam pieces) for six months or longer. This is insane!

If you're taking forever to get stuff together then the material you're working on is too hard. If you've chosen it yourself, tackle some less advanced stuff for now - you can always come back to what you're doing now later when you're better equipped to handle it.

If the material has been set by your teacher, don't feel that it's a failure on your part if you ask them to lower the bar a little. Even the best teachers sometimes get it wrong as they don't sit in the practice room with you all the time and only see a snapshot of your playing in a lesson. Don't be afraid to say if you're not enjoying what you're doing and ask for a different approach - remember that you're paying the teacher, not the other way around!

A good teacher will be grateful that you are feeding back and taking some responsibility for your own development and will happily rework your course of study until you find it more rewarding.

Think Small

Sometimes, even if the material is the right level for them, people overstretch themselves by trying to do too much. For example, I'm sure many jazz students have set a goal of trying to play something in all 12 keys but never made it past the first few. This is disheartening and when someone is struggling in the third key and there are still nine more to go, it's not hard to see why the attempt gets abandoned.

It would be much better in this case to set a small goal that is easily achievable - maybe just to do it in one other key. Now you can concentrate on really nailing it in that key instead of feeling under pressure to get through them all and moving on before you're ready. Furthermore, you can always come back tomorrow and do another key, buoyed by a sense of achievement and enthusiasm that hitting your goals brings.

Sometimes people worry about setting goals that are too small - after all, we're always told to Think Big and Aim For The Stars and we worry that a goal that actually seems doable is not worth attempting. However, if it's too hard, you're going to lose patience and pack it in - what use is a lofty goal if you're never going to achieve it?

And yet all musicians have the same lofty goal, we all want to be able to play well. Nevertheless, by thinking small in terms of what our goals are for today, we can actually start taking small steps towards the bigger goal.

It's much better to set goals that are too easy and actually achieve them than to bite off more than you can chew and have to give up when it all proves too much. Don't forget, if you easily achieve a goal, you can always set another one!

Until next time...