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Harnessing Difficulties to Your Advantage

Tell me if this sounds familiar, you’re playing a piece (or song etc.) and you know a very difficult section is looming closer with each note you play. It’s inescapable and the whole time you’re dreading that one lick and telling yourself, “You should’ve worked on that more.” Inevitably, this passage goes okay and no one calls you on your lack of preparation but you know you wish you could’ve nailed it. 

Every musician has passages, licks, styles, or techniques that haunt them. Instead of avoiding them or putting them off I have gained confidence, motivation, and shortened learning time by embracing the difficulties in my everyday practice. In sharing this part of my process I hope you can see the benefits of tackling difficulties first, head on, and without apprehension.


Clear the largest hurdle first

When I’m able to resist the carnal urge of tearing into the first measure of a new piece (as is the fault of nearly all musicians) I prefer to scan the piece for the most technically demanding section and attack it first. Starting this way is enlightening for a number of reasons. First, it tells me if I’m going to be physically able to play the piece. While I may not have the notes, phrasing, musicality, or larger picture yet I can get a sense of the demands required in the piece. If I cannot play a specific technique or tempo I will incorporate that into my learning process from the first day. Developing technique is a lifelong process and takes considerable time. If I have to improve my technique or develop a new one I want to know this as soon as possible. Starting in the deep end of the work also builds motivation. If I can clear the most difficult section of a piece first I know I have the piece within my grasp. This has undoubtedly shortened the learning curve on a number of projects in the past. Lastly, this keeps my process fresh and intriguing. The most difficult spot may occur anywhere within the work and I am finding new ways to approach the piece and find its intricacies from the beginning.

Challenges and conquering boredom

My process of learning to play congas was similar to many others. Learning and perfecting making the sounds on the drums is the first and only goal for what seems like an eternity. However, this process is incredibly boring, unsatisfying, and deflating. I set out to circumvent this problem by not doing it. Instead of sitting down and attempting a slap for 15 minutes I chose to work on difficult independence exercises and practiced to tunes all while focusing on improving my sounds. After working this way for a few months I realized I enjoyed the challenge in the difficulty which kept my motivation high. Since then, I’ve applied this method to a number of projects with similar levels of success. This process can be used for any number of mundane skills musicians work on continuously. Think about challenging the ways you approach learning scales, chords, tunes, excerpts, or sight reading. Forcing yourself to rise to a challenge isn’t always the easiest task but can be exciting and fruitful.


Improvising, warming up, and pushing the limits

Part of my daily warm-up and practice includes improvisation. In this case, I mean free improvisation, not within any specific idiom. When improvising I’m allowing myself to play without any parameters. Part of this process allows me to challenge my technique to the point of ridiculousness. Pushing the limits of my technique forces me to conceive of new ideas and methods. Not only am I able to enjoy the process of warming up/practicing, but I am also warming up my creativity. For example, while warming up on marimba I have attempted to play two different scales in each hand and change the octave for each note not repeating an octave until I need to. While I necessarily need this exact lick someday? Probably not. However, if in the heat of improvisation I want to jump octaves in a similar manner I have already given myself some introduction to that skill. I may not be ready for it but I will be more ready than if I hadn’t pushed myself into that extreme situation. This process also forces my mind to be active during my warm-up. I am, in a sense warming up my creativity as well. This removes any inhibitions I may be holding when I begin to improvise for performance.


Difficulty is subjective. Technical challenges are effortless for some and impossible for others. It takes an understanding of your own playing or the playing of your students to know when you can truly push responsibly. My hope is to show how the difficulty of a piece or technique can be harnessed for growth rather than an obstacle.

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