Is there such a thing as negative or destructive practice?

By this I mean, is there such a thing as practice that, instead of improving an aspect of your playing or your ability to play a piece, it has the negative effects of decreasing your confidence, increasing frustration and the perceived effect of reversing improvement. I am sure we have all experienced this, on days where nothing seems to go right and we just can’t seem to do it, leaving us wondering whether we can actually play our instruments at all.

I had a day just like this a few days ago, and the frustration it caused was almost unbearable. I tried everything to dispell it – taking breaks, moving into a different room, listening to the piece instead, playing despite the feeling, but nothing worked. I got the feeling that I was actually harming my perception of my playing, so I stopped and decided to leave it for that day.

How much of a feeling like this is mental and how much is real? It’s hard to say for sure, as so much of playing music is a mental attitude and not in our physical playing. We had a seminar, given by Havilland Willshire, about differing attitudes to failure and motivation, and it turned out that those who viewed failure as just another learning experience were much more successful at overcoming obstacles than those who questioned their innate abilities as a result of failure. As musicians we are trained to judge other musicians’ performances quickly and sometimes harshly, but in order to survive in the professional world we need to be able to rely on ourselves for motivation, not what others think of us.

So I think that next time I experience frustration and feel I can’t play the viola, I’ll try and remember that failure is as important as success at building up the skills needed to be a musician (this may not help that much at the time, but in the long term it will hopefully make me better able to cope with the downs as well as the ups).

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