One of the most common things I hear from students when they walk into my studio is, “I'm so frustrated with [fill in the blank]!” Something has arisen in their practicing or performing that is hard for them to solve on their own, either because they've tried to fix it and their attempts aren't working or because they have no idea how to begin tackling the issue.
Sometimes I can give them a different way to look at the problem or offer some technical tweaks to assist in solving their concern, and we sail past it and move on. But sometimes – if the problem continues to persist and frustration continues to build – what I have found during my years of teaching and my own practice is that the best way to tackle a problem can be... STOP tackling it.
Take a break. If you've been fixating on something (ex: tonguing in the high range, a particular scale, a difficult solo passage) and it's not improving, taking a break from it can sometimes be the key. Try focusing on the opposite of whatever your “problem” is for a while. For example, if I'm struggling with tonguing a tricky and fast passage I instead turn my focus to my air and tone quality by doing slurred exercises and slowing down. If I struggle with a high, slow passage, I practice quick-tongued low work.
I believe this works because when we are overly focused on one thing we tend to forget our basics – air movement, tone quality, embouchure strength, breathing well. We also tend to forget about the things we already do well – the current frustration may color everything else and we can begin to lose confidence in other areas of our playing. Revisiting our basics and acknowledging what we can do well draws our attention back to the strengths we have in our arsenal to tackle the existing problem. After leaving it alone for a while, when revisiting the “problem” you might find that it has solved itself.