How to Deal with Frustration about Practice

by | Feb 21, 2021 | Musical instruments | 4 comments

There you are, practicing your musical instrument of choice. If you’re like many people, you may do the same things over and over without improving. And that’s very frustrating! But help is on the way. There are ways of practicing that are effective. By effective, I mean that you are able to improve at whatever it is you are practicing. There are also mental ‘hacks’ that can help you feel less frustration with practice. In this article, you’ll learn seven tools for dealing with frustration about practicing.

Ready to learn some great practice tips and hacks? Let’s get started.

1. Set more realistic goals

Frustration happens when reality doesn’t meet our expectations. If you alter your expectations to a more likely outcome, your frustration will go away.

You have to accept that you may not get the results you want when you want them. Learning takes however long it takes. You definitely want to be as efficient as possible, but it’s still going to take a lot of time. If you can learn to enjoy practicing, the time will be a pleasure. And who doesn’t want that?

Choose music you can realistically master

A main area where students cause themselves problems is with the music they choose to work on. Most beginners and inexperienced teachers also choose music that is much too difficult. This only breeds frustration for most students. Be sure your repertoire is realistic.

Don’t be fooled by the word ‘beginner’ or ‘easy’ in the title. Beginning books always sell more copies than more advanced books, so publishers use these words to sell more books. It’s better to progress quickly through music you think is on the easy side. This approach will build skills that you can then apply to more difficult music. You wouldn’t give a 4th grader reading material at a college level and expect them to use practice to master it.

Once an early intermediate adult piano student heard me working on the Chopin “Etude Opus 10 No. 1,” considered one of the more difficult of Chopin’s many difficult piano studies. He said, “Can I work on that?” I said “No, not until you’re much further along.” This is like a weekend tennis player thinking s/he could take on Serena Williams.

He said, “Why not? I can sight read it at home.” I was familiar with this student’s sight-reading level. By sight reading, he meant that he could play the piece through very slowly. He would also be starting and stopping when convenient.

So, when you pick songs to work on, you want to choose something that you can play at the right speed. And, without starting and stopping. Just because you can play through a piece slowly with many pauses does not mean that you could master it.

Be sure the skills you are trying to learn are realistic

I had someone come once for a special lesson on piano technique. He wanted to learn how to raise his ring finger as high as all his other fingers. I told him this was physically impossible. Test it yourself – put all your fingertips on a tabletop and try lifting each one individually. The fourth finger does not lift as high because it has tendons running over the top of the knuckle.

(Classical composer Robert Schumann injured his hand and was not able to play piano anymore. It’s rumored that he was trying to strengthen his 4th finger with a special machine.)

I showed the student a way to get evenness and power in the fourth finger by moving the finger, hand and arm together. He was very disappointed. He felt I had not answered his question and left unhappy.

The moral of the story is that there are some things that are impossible to do no matter how you practice. You could never learn to run a marathon in cement shoes, no matter how you practice.

If you are feeling frustrated about not meeting a practice goal, do some research. See if other people are able to do what you are trying to learn. If so, then you can learn to do it too. If not, maybe there’s some other way to get the results you want. Keep researching until you find an approach that works for you.

2. Learn how to practice effectively

Practice is different than playing your song(s) from beginning to end. That’s playing music, not practicing music. Think about sports. Baseball practice is completely different than a baseball game. Practice means analyzing the problem you’re having, and working to overcome it.

Work in shorter sections

Most students choose sections that are too long and/or too difficult which creates frustration with practice. Let me introduce my friend George Miller, a psychologist. He discovered that most people could remember at least 5-6 “units of information”, and no more than 8-9 “units”. Seven was most typical number of bits of information that people could handle.

How does this apply to music practice?

When practicing, you are putting new musical information into your short-term memory. Once you have done this enough times, it becomes permanent, i.e., learned. This means that practice sections should have no more than 7 bits of information.

Some examples

If you are learning to read melody tab, it might mean that you only play 5-7 notes at a time. You could repeat your chosen notes 3-7 times, and then move on to the next set of notes.

Here’s another example. Let’s say you are having trouble making a chord change quickly. Isolate what individual movements are required and practice them one at a time. Then combine them – but no more than 7 movements at once. Soon you may start thinking of two or three individual movements as one thing.

That’s great! That’s effective practice! Now you can add in some more elements to your group of seven.

Combining strumming with singing

And here’s a final example: learning to combine strumming with singing. I’ve gone into a lot of detail on this one for two reasons. First, to give you a feeling for how to break things down and learn them in small chunks. And 2nd, because many ukulele beginners have trouble combining strumming and singing.

Here’s how to learn this crucial skill.

Make sure you can do each skill separately

The first thing to do is make sure that you can do each of the skills separately. Can you strum your chosen song all the way through without stopping? Can you sing the whole song through without stopping? If not, practice each skill until it is are easy.

First check that you can strum the chords for your song in time to a video, backing track or metronome. Then learn to sing the song without playing. Listen and hum along with a recording or video to learn the melody. Then try singing along with a recording. You can refer to a book or sheet to help you remember the words. If that is too hard at first, try chanting the words in the rhythm of the song. Then add singing the words to the melody you have learned.

When you can sing the song, try clapping along as you sing the song, using the rhythm of the strum you will use. This will prime your brain to coordinate rhythmic hand movements with singing.

Integrate singing with playing

Now we’re going to integrate singing with playing. Try humming the tune along with your recording while holding an easy chord with your left hand. Next, try humming and strumming an easy chord. You can always start with an easier strum, say all downs, and then switch to a harder strum later. Finally, change from humming the tune to singing the words while you strum the chords for the song. Now you’ve got it!

If things still fall apart, there are several things to try.

Go back and repeat each step until it is easy, not possible.

Next, focus in on one line of the song at a time. For example, sing and strum the first line of your song as many times as you need to until it feels easy. (Or at least improved). Then move on to the next line. Continue until you can perform each line of the song easily.

Then try singing and strumming the first two lines of the song in a row. You will probably make errors that did not occur when you did each of the lines alone; this is normal. Go back and review each of the lines a few times, and then try repeating the two lines in sequence. After several tries, you should be able to play and sing the two lines together. Go slowly enough that you can play with reasonable accuracy.

Next, review the third line to remind yourself how it goes. Now try performing all three lines in the correct sequence. Again, new mistakes or confusion will most likely surface. Go back and review any trouble spots, and then try combining all three lines again. Repeat as needed.

Do a small number of repetitions

Again, the number 7 comes up. You should only repeat a section for as long you can maintain your concentration. For most people that’s 3-7 times. You want to be sure that you are playing as correctly as possible. If you do 20, 30 or 100 repetitions, your mind will glaze over, and you will be practicing playing in a mindless way. This is not the way to achieve good results – and it’s boring and frustrating.

3. Avoid frustration with deliberate practice.

James Clear has written a lot about an idea he calls deliberate practice.  He says “deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.”

Our strategy for combining singing and strumming is an example of deliberate practice.

Here’s another deliberate practice strategy:

Slow down until you can play your chosen section perfectly. Then gradually speed up, while continuing to play your song with 100% accuracy. If you start making mistakes, slow the section down again.

If you have a teacher, ask him or her to show you some practice strategies. If you are part of a ukulele club or group, ask the more advanced players for some tips on how to practice. There are lots of friendly ukulele groups on Facebook. The book or method you are using may have some tips on how to practice. And please feel free to reach out to us with your questions about practicing. We’re happy to help.

4. Build your ability to concentrate.

You need concentration for deliberate practice. Concentration has to be developed. Heeding George Miller’s 7 items rule will make it much easier for you to concentrate and progress. You can also ask your teacher or musician friends for tips.

Consider setting up a plan for gradually increasing your practice sessions. You can also break your practice into two separate shorter sessions. This will make it easier to maintain your concentration.

Why can’t you concentrate?

It’s also important to figure out why you can’t concentrate. Here are some possible factors.

External distractions: If you’re constantly getting interrupted it is very hard to make progress.

Our brains need a certain amount of energy to switch focus from one task to another. Changing tasks many times is much more difficult than staying focused on one thing. One modern source of distraction is your phone or computer alert. If you can, it’s best to turn your device off or on ‘Do Not Disturb’ when you begin your practice session.

Low tolerance for frustration: It’s important to know that progress is not linear. It’s more like a staircase where you stay at one level for a while and then jump to another level. Knowing this can help you deal with frustration.

No clear order or plan: It’s good to set a specific attainable goal for yourself. “I will spend 15 minutes working in small sections on the guitar solo from ‘Hotel California’”. That way when you accomplish your goal you can feel good about it.

Lack of energy: Practice at a good time of day for you. If you are a morning person, see if you can squeeze in some practice in the early hours. And vice versa for night owls.

No interest: Remind yourself WHY you are practicing. What is your purpose for learning an instrument? What is your goal in practicing ‘Hotel California?’

Commitment: How committed are you to mastering whatever your task is? If you’re not committed, it’s easy to give up. Why are you practicing? What is the long-term reward you are hoping for? Reminding yourself of the why is a way to stay focused on working in the present.

5. Set rewards for meeting practice milestones.

Try to notice the small signs of musical growth. You can set goals that are realistic for you such as:

  • Open my case 7 days a week
  • Spend at least 15 minutes a day working on the B-flat chord
  • Record myself once a month

When you meet your goal, give yourself a reward. This strategy can work well for younger players. But it works for adults too. We all enjoy feeling successful and getting rewards.

Try recording yourself at regular intervals. Then listen to older recordings to hear your progress. Many adults who are new to music are harshly judgmental about their playing. I recommend you reward yourself both for making a recording and for listening to it!

6. Take a break

The average human’s attention span is somewhere around twenty minutes. So, you’ll be more productive and less frustrated if you take some breaks to recharge.

Stop playing for a moment. Put your brain into recharge mode. You could set a timer for 3-5 minutes. Close your eyes, then listen to your breathing and the sounds around you. Maybe do some favorite stretches or grab some water.

If you are stuck, try working on something new i.e., new music or a new skill. Sometimes this will help you master the thing you were stuck on. There’s always time to go back to the old.

7. Find a practice buddy

You can agree to text or call this person each time you practice. Knowing that you are accountable to someone else can help you feel motivated. That motivation can translate into better progress and less frustration.

Well, there you have it. I hope you’ve found something to help you deal with frustration with music practicing. Perhaps you’ll even begin to enjoy your practicing! Once that happens, music will have a more permanent place in your life. To paraphrase a familiar saying, learning music is a journey, not a destination.

Do you want to learn how to practice better?

In our “Practice Makes Permanent Program,” we’ll teach you how to practice. You’ll get an online membership that gives you specific practice guidance on how to improve at your ukulele.

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  1. Mary

    Thank you. This post is great coaching: informative, encouraging and clear. I will use these tips to improve my practice sessions.

    • Jenny Peters


  2. Susan Montgomery

    This area great tips! I’m printing this out and keeping it at my practice areas. Thank you for sharing!

    • Jenny Peters

      I’m so glad these tips are helping you!


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