Destructive Tendencies in Playing and Practicing

I am guilty. I confess. Most days, I hate how I play. It’s been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember. I have realized that it isn’t a healthy attitude and though it does occasionally rear it’s ugly head, I thought I might share how I learned to deal with it. 



We can all recognize that negative self talk is detrimental to progress. The first step to surviving and moving past these thoughts is compartmentalizing them. Take the negative thought when it occurs and put it away – you are going to revisit it later. Continue through your practice/rehearsal/gig as normal. You don’t want to be that person on a live gig who screws up and then draws attention to yourself further with a look on your face or a gesture of frustration. 
When you are done, examine these thoughts. Your initial reaction might have been negative but what can you learn from your mistake(s)?  I can now make mistakes and move on pretty unscathed on live gigs but I’m still working on this while practicing. 


I go through periods of playing where I don’t challenge myself. When you don’t try to push yourself, you don’t grow and you definitely don’t get better. Are you trying to avoid The Suck: not sounding good, not feeling good about how you are playing? Don’t put yourself on the sidelines of your musical journey because you are afraid to sound bad and DEFINITELY don’t punch a stand/wall/instrument.
If you know this is your pattern, have a game plan. Before you throw you horn out a window, go for a walk or use something fun to distract you just long enough to reset. Sometimes just getting up and getting a glass of water is enough.


If your friend told you they were having a hard time with something, what would you say? You wouldn’t insult them. You would listen to them and try to help them find a solution. If you are having a hard time learning something, acknowledge your feelings and then get into solution mode. Even if it feels odd, try to imagine that the negative thoughts in your head are coming from your best friend. Tell yourself what you would tell your BFF.


Someone who is hard on themselves probably can’t acknowledge how far they have come. Writing down what you’re working on and how you’re working on it helps you in the short term – for lessons and staying on task. It also helps when you need a little reminder that you’re doing an awesome job. And bonus! When you are teaching, you can refer back and see what worked and didn’t work for you. Which brings me to…


No teacher. No player. Nobody. Is. Perfect.

Please keep this in mind when you are studying your instrument. You are studying with a teacher to learn how they approach a problem. If you aren’t “getting” one way, maybe a different approach is needed. Learn what you can from every teacher. Good teachers will have a tried and true way to teach something. Great teachers will have multiple ways. Even if you don’t dig how they approach something, you are putting another “tool” in your trombone toolbox and it WILL come in handy down the road.

One additional word on this and I say this from experience: Just because someone is a great player DOES NOT mean they are a great teacher and vice versa. Be careful who you put your musical trust in. 


Ok, this is just one of my dogs.
I was introduced to this phrase by a student who got it from George Curran. As soon as you begin the destructive self-speak, you are feeding your Negative Nancy and she’s a raging b!tch. Recognize that initial reaction and choose. Do you want to feed that beast so it can grow stronger and be even more destructive or do you want to be supportive of what you are trying to do? Only you can choose how this is going to play out. You can choose differently. 

In Conclusion…

Playing music is a lifelong journey and I hope some of this might help your journey be more enjoyable. When I get down, I always think of my teacher at NEC, Douglas Yeo. He was such a cheerleader when I would get upset at myself. He would always say, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.” Well, Doug, my turkeys are still gobbling but I’ve tamed them a bit. 😬 🦃 
Keep honking!

2 thoughts on “Destructive Tendencies in Playing and Practicing

  1. I talk to my students about balancing PATIENCE and URGENCY. The more ambitious and advanced ones. The younger ones mostly need urgency “LOL”

    …. You’ve gotta stay on that razor’s edge between working hard to improve and expecting too much of yourself. It just might not happen for you today. Okay, so what? Keep chipping away. Michelangelo’s David was just a hunk of marble when he started, and he didn’t finish it in one day.

    Good thoughts, Jen – I look forward to our next Adult Beverage together.

  2. Wonderful blog post, Jennifer! You’ve offered some very simple, but highly essential strategies to avoid the downward spiral far too many fine musicians get trapped into. Treating ourselves with kindness (Treating Yourself Like a Friend!) is perhaps the most effective tool to not only avoid the potentially destructive feelings that lead to frustration and dissatisfaction, but also, helps us to build our sense of self-efficacy, so that we can approach challenges with confidence in our ability to adapt and learn. (There is a growing body of scientific evidence emerging to support this notion.)

    And I would say, too, that is important to understand the difference between “discernment” (e.g., “That Bb I just played was a bit sharp”; i.e., an objective, measurable phenomenon) on the one hand, and judgement (e.g., “That Bb I just played sounded awful”; i.e., a purely subjective assessment), on the other hand. Both discernment and judgement are necessary for an artist, but in my experience (and in the experience of the many musicians I teach the Alexander Technique too), giving discernment priority over judgment helps us to be kinder too ourselves, as well as to be available to the objective truths of what it is we really need to practice and work on. Again, thanks for such a lovely and generous post!

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