Frustration: A "Good Thing"

Sometimes we think its some sort of problem when we get frustrated with our playing.

If all we ever get is frustrated, I agree, that’s a problem. (And not an uncommon problem for serious classical muscians.) But being frustrated a good deal of the time is, as Marha Stewart might say, “a good thing.”

I was talking about this the other day with one of my adult cello students, who by profession is a top piano tuner and technician (he tunes for major symphony orchestras and touring artists). He told me that every so often he’ll find he’s upset with himself. All of a sudden, it seems like every piano he tunes is a little off. “What’s happening to me?” he asks himself.

But he’s come to realize that it’s not that his tuning skills are declining. It’s his ears that are getting (even) better. He’s discerning increasingly finer gradations of pitch. Now he knows that when he feels as if he can’t tune a piano, what’s actually happening is that he’s having a breakthrough.

Whenever we raise our standards, our playing no longer reaches our standards. It can feel as if we are getting worse.

This happens a lot when students come to study music in college. All of a sudden, they encounter a new set of expectations. New dimensions of technique and musicianship are introduced to them, aspects of music they simply were unaware of before. It’s overwhelming, and as their own expectations forthemselves rise, it can seem as if their playing has suddenly gotten dramatically worse.

I had to remind myself of this today. I’ve been doing a lot of practicing against drones, listening as carefully as possible to the pitches are (or aren’t) lining up. It felt for a while as if I had lost some of my ability to play. And then I realized that I was listening more carefully,and being more demanding of myself. (Really careful intonation practice of any kind can drive anyone, even the best professional musicians, nuts.)

And once I realized that the frustration I was experiencing, the difference between what I was expecting of myself and what I was hearing, was a sign not of decreasing but increasing skill, I was able to stop being angry with and a little worried about myself, and rather happily embrace the frustration as, well, “a good thing.”

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Frustration: A "Good Thing"

  1. Anonymous

    Thanks for this article. I think we all suffer from these frustrations at times and keeping the idea that is can be “a good thing” in mind can encourage us to continue.

  2. Eric Edberg

    Thanks for your comment. And the nice thing is that when we embrace the frustration, it gets less frustrating.

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