The Fork in the Road: When Not to Quit (and When You Should)

There is a fork in the road ahead. You can see the sign ahead and you’re coming up on it fast. The problem is that you aren’t sure which fork is the correct one. Taking the wrong fork could mean a costly detour. How do you choose?

Thanks to GPS systems drivers are no longer without an answer to a “fork in the road” question. My Google maps lady tells me which road to follow and I have learned to trust her advice, at least, usually.

When it comes to learning a piece of music, though, there is one “fork in the road” question that has no simple guidance system. Here’s the scenario: You’re working on a piece of music and making some progress. Then you begin to notice that the piece isn’t improving any more. Gradually the piece slips into a hole where you still can’t play it, but you’re beginning to think that practicing it more won’t help either.

So you ask yourself this question: Should I keep going on this piece or should I give up?

No harpist likes to feel defeated by a piece of music. My friend Mary Jane says that as a group, harpists are over-achievers and I have to agree. But if a piece of music seems to be getting worse instead of better, is it wiser to persevere or to preserve your sanity and put the piece in the drawer?

There is no one right answer that covers every situation, but there are some guidelines that may help you make the right call. You actually have three options. 

Your first option is to keep practicing the piece. If you choose this option, you will need to change your practice strategy. The theory is that the problem isn’t in the amount of practice that you’re doing; it’s more likely the practice techniques that you are using. For example, if you’ve been trying to play the piece faster by bumping the metronome up in small increments, try practicing smaller sections at a tempo close to your goal tempo. Yes, it will be messy, but if you can look at this as a growth spurt, you will soon find yourself emerging on the other side and playing the piece at your desired tempo.

Please note that this option requires you to try a different practice method, or perhaps even several different methods. When what you are doing isn’t working, don’t keep doing it. Do something else - almost anything else - instead.

The second option is to put the piece away. This can be the right choice if continuing to practice the piece means that you will dread sitting down at the harp to practice. Our practice is our daily connection to our instrument and it should be a pleasure not a chore. You cannot allow one piece of music to come between you and your harp. There is so much music in the world that no harpist could ever play all of it. Put this piece away and try something else. It’s that simple and it can be a wise choice. After all, you don’t have to give up on the piece forever. Therein lies the third option.

This is the option for those who like to have their cake and eat it too. It allows you to take a break from your usual practice on the piece, but not put it away entirely. You will still be playing the piece but you will let the frustration and tension to subside before you start practicing it again. This third option works beautifully if you’re close to finishing the piece but you can’t seem to transform it from a collection of notes into expressive and polished music. 

For this option, I recommend that you have a three day plan that you repeat for two to three weeks. On the first day, you don’t play the piece at all. Do all your other practice, but don’t even look at the problem piece. On the second day, listen to a recording of the piece. You can listen with your eyes closed, imagining yourself playing the piece, or you can read the music while you listen. You don’t need to listen to the piece more than once on this day.

On the third day, you allow yourself to play the piece, beginning to end, one time only. Don’t practice any spots and refrain from making any judgments. Simply play it once and put it away. 

Repeat this rotation for two to three weeks. After that, you can resume practicing the piece but with an important difference. Make certain that at least 50% of the time you allot to practicing this piece is actually playing it, not practicing it. The object is to learn to let go of some of the details and develop a broader perspective of the piece. That should put you back on the right road quickly.

Are you at a fork in the road with one of your pieces right now? Which option are you going to choose? Tell us in the comments below.


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