You Don’t Suck: Setting Practice Boundaries

Every time I’m asked to play Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony, I have intense flashbacks to my first experience learning and performing it. I had just finished my freshman year of high school and was off to Interlochen Arts Camp for my sixth summer of learning in beautiful northern Michigan. I was acting as Principal Second Violin for this particular concert cycle, and our guest conductor was from the Curtis Institute of Music. With college quickly approaching, and Curtis ringing in my ears as one of the most prestigious schools for string players in particular, I was TOTALLY STOKED about this opportunity to work with someone from my “dream school.”


He did not disappoint. It was one of the most inspiring, educational, and motivating weeks of orchestral playing I’d ever experienced. The caliber of music-making and accuracy he achieved between our first rehearsal and the concert blew me away. The night of the concert, I was mustering up courage to speak with him about Curtis. I wanted advice, guidance, words of wisdom, and I wasn’t sure how many chances I’d get to speak from someone ON THE INSIDE. I took a deep breath and walked over once the concert had ended.


“Excuse me, hi! I just wanted to say I really enjoyed working with you. It’s my dream to go to Curtis for college and I was wondering if you had any advice.” I’m sure it didn’t come out quite that composed, and I’m also sure I had the geekiest brace-faced look on my face while I said it.


“You’ll never get in,” he said, and then he turned around and walked away.


My eyes widened. My heart began to fall out of my butt. My impressionable 14-year-old self was absolutely crushed. This is my earliest memory of a teacher-like-figure saying something brutally honest. But I know anyone reading this has a collection of similar phrases uttered to them, and each time it happens, our minds are put to the test. Are you going to carry those sentences around while you’re practicing, onto the stage, into the audition, like a giant weight strapped to your ankles? It’s vital to be aware of how you sound in the practice room. If you are lucky enough to still be working with a private teacher, you only see them a few hours a week at most. The rest of those hours, you are your teacher and must take responsibility for your playing. However, it is important to set boundaries for the types of self-talk allowed in your sessions, because you might be doing more harm than good. If you find trigger words like “never,” “always,” “can’t”, “impossible,” weaseling their way into your thoughts, that’s a one-way ticket to unproductive practicing. It might take an hour to feel comfortable with a page of music. Hell, it might take an hour to feel good about a single measure. Have you watched videos of Hilary Hahn doing the “100 Days of Practice”? Do you see how many times she will start over to get the exact sound she envisions at the beginning of a note? One of the best things I’ve noticed is how calm and almost meditative she looks while she’s working. Yes, practicing can be incredibly frustrating, but only if your mindset goes down the rabbit hole of self-despair.


Practicing, as it turns out, can be an incredibly enjoyable experience. Our mentors, teachers, and colleagues who are demanding and occasionally rude because they believe in your success will constantly test it. We need extra sets of ears listening and providing valuable feedback, but we need only take the words that are most helpful into the practice room. Write down the specific suggestions that really clicked, and practice them until they feel second nature. Let the discouraging comments roll off your back, and remind yourself that the person who said them wants the best for you. When you are in the room by yourself, your playing is your company, and you might as well try to enjoy it.