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What are the most common barriers to becoming proficient at playing an instrument, and how does one overcome them?

Multiple answers welcome :)

This question does not apply to a particular instrument but it's okay if your answer applies to one instrument or class of instruments.

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In my opinion, this question is not a good fit for this site. Please see the FAQ entry on close reasons, specifically the "not constructive" one: "We expect answers to be supported by facts, references, or specific expertise, but this question will likely solicit debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion." –  jadarnel27 Nov 13 '12 at 15:57
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This question should possibly be made specific to one instrument or group of instruments. As it is now, it is to broad. –  American Luke Nov 13 '12 at 17:47

3 Answers 3

Well, as there are many students learning many different instruments each with their own individual challenges, I feel that I may not be to fully answer this question. However, I will give my best shot. These are not in order.

  1. Bad technique habits. Especially for self thought players, bad habits formed earlier may hinder or impede technical proficiency later on. Usually overcome with the help of a teacher or through studying ones own technique to identify bad habits.

  2. Too much tension. I think this can apply to most instruments. Tension in the body makes it much more difficult to play smoothly and with a high amount of dexterity, and may also cause long term physical damage. Even worse, a player may get used to it and will perceive the tension to be normal. Awareness of ones own body is important to identify muscles that are tense and to find ways to release the tension.

  3. Bad practice techniques. This includes, but not limited to: trying pieces that are to hard, trying to speed up when you're not ready for it, not playing slowly to avoid mistakes and ingraining mistakes into the mind, etc. A good teacher can help, but there are also many books and even online articles on how to maximize practice. Remember, perfect practice makes perfect.

  4. Untrained ear, unable to use the ear well. A problem for all musicians, especially string instruments and singers, and for anyone wanting to play in a style that involves improvising (jazz, blues, etc.) A good ear can tell if a note is in tune, what a note is in relation to other notes, identify chords, etc. Needs to be developed through ear training, either with a teacher or with an online trainer. You can search the internet for ear training exercises.

  5. Lack of motivation/discipline. If you don't deliberately practice regularly, then achieving any level of proficiency is a distant dream. Remember, a little everyday adds up to a lot over time.

  6. No sense of pulse/rhythm. If a player cannot feel the pulse of the piece, no matter how much you tap your foot, you will get lost. Working with a metronome is your best bet (or a drum machine for some variety).

I think these are some of the common barriers to musical proficiency. I chose not include factors that are out of the learners control such as physical limitations, no time, etc. Others are free add anything that I may have left out.

Daryl L

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+1, though I'd object to a couple of details. "trying to speed up when you're not ready for it" while it's definitely bad to just force up the speed disregarding technical problems, it is good to go over the limit occasionally (if only to tell where it is, by watching yourself closely). — A metronome can IMO not teach the "sense of pulse/rythm", only ensemble practise can do that. A metronome is a great practise helper, it makes sure you notice when your playing flow is interrupted by technical problems; but musically, the mechanically fixed tempo doesn't make much sense at all. –  leftaroundabout Nov 15 '12 at 18:26
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No problem. When I said trying to speed up is bad, I meant speeding up regardless of technical problems. Repeating a mistake several times due to forcing the speed only causes the mistake to be ingrained into muscle memory, making it harder to correct later on. Speeding up once in a while to tell where can be a great practice technique as long as you go back to repeating it slowly. As to learning pulse/rhythm, I am only speaking from experience. I am not a teacher, so I may not be qualified to give solutions to these problems. I'm sure that all the ensemble playing I did before helped me. –  Daryl L Nov 16 '12 at 10:19

Quickly at the top of my mind

  • thinking (some aspect of) it's too hard (suggestion: break it down and commit segments to (muscle) memory)
  • not using your practise time effectively (suggestion: do something in order to progress, don't get stuck in a 'meta' state where you just think about doing it, while you do what you 'always' do)
  • not applying what you have learnt straight away (suggestion: learn techniques via learning pieces that make use of them. Developing technique for it's own sake is fine, but sometimes it can become the focal point, rather than the music (your own or others) that you are supposed to incorporate it into.)
  • Not having or keeping an overview (suggestion: as illustrators often do, work from coarse to fine. Don't get ahead of yourself and don't focus on the details of your performance until the end.)
  • being afraid to go out of your comfort zone (suggestion: fool around and improvise)
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Look on all the piano sites and you'll see that BY FAR the problems are

  • not realizing how much TIME it takes to learn piano (and to a lesser extent money which is really equivalent to time)
  • refusing to pay for a teacher.

I tried on my own (off and on) for 15 years and could play 8 songs tops. Post teacher, I can play TONS and I'm not scared of looong difficult songs any more.

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Agreed, especially the time thing. I think the biggest barrier in learning almost anything is time/patients. People tend to get discouraged if they don't seem immediate results or they think they're not made for it. While I do agree that some people are more inclined to pick up music playing faster, anyone who's ever been good at anything got that way by spending a lot of time doing it. –  Tony Nov 15 '12 at 17:51

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