Play It Casual

What do you do when you realize you’re struggling? Do you keep pounding away at that challenging thing? Or do you change your approach? In this post, I suggest a practice called “Play it casual” which will help you to let go of mental obstacles so you can focus on the task at hand: learning and playing music.

Oftentimes people build up a concept of where they should be as a musician, what they should sound like. Sometimes this inspires them to practice. But most of the time it defeats people in the present moment of actually practicing music. The idea with “play it casual” is that you just downplay the importance of what you’re doing so that you can let go of judgment. Instead of obsessing about how it should sound, you just play it.

A simple practice to help you let go of a struggling mindset

  • If you’re struggling with something, set down your fiddle, pause for a moment and take a few breaths. Then pick up your bow and fiddle and take a few more breaths.
  • Next, play a few throw-away bows. At first, make it dramatic. This releases tension. Then, practice something super-simple, like quarter notes on an open string. Adopt a casual attitude.
  • Lighten your touch. Use less bow. Try to make your playing sound like everyday conversation. Say to yourself, “This is no big deal. I’m just hanging out, playing a little music, enjoying my day.” Or say, “This is not that important in the grand scheme. It’s just a part of my daily life, like making breakfast.”
  • Then try to keep that casual attitude as you play something a little more challenging, like a scale.
  • Then try to keep that attitude as you return to practicing the original thing you were struggling with. If at some point you find you’re falling apart and frustrated, try to repeat the simple process. 

There may be other times when you will naturally take an attitude of strong effort. You’ll be engaged with something challenging. You’ll be naturally interested and motivated to practice that challenging thing.

But other times, it will almost feel like you’re fighting yourself. You don’t have to give up, just change your approach. It might be counter-productive to keep grinding away at the same problem.

Over and over again, I see students defeat themselves in the following ways:

  • They try too hard.
  • They are unkind to themselves for not being better at their instrument. 

Part of the play it casual practice involves being kinder to yourself. You are what you are. You are where you are. That’s ok! Try to enjoy this time. Get excited about being in such a huge learning phase. I’ve been playing for forty years and I’m still learning and enjoying music. But I’m not learning at the rate you are learning. To do that, I have to learn something totally different (like how to build a website).

To sum up, this practice of casualness is a way to let go of thoughts and attitudes that may be holding you back. You reconnect with your body, breath and to the simple basic sound of bowing an open string. You enjoy that sound. You adopt a casual attitude and imagine your playing to be like a simple conversation. And then you carry this attitude over to progressively more challenging things like scales, bowings, and tunes.

Please give this a try, and then leave a comment, letting me know how it went. 

Related posts

Remember to Sound Good


What to do when you’re stuck

The Four Elements of Good Sound

How To Improve Your Sound

Leave a Reply

15 responses to “Play It Casual

  1. Really good ideas, Jason. I find that I get especially frustrated and down on myself when I go away from the fiddle tunes and try to jam with others on folk/rock/Americana type tunes. It seems like all of the years of practice kind of go out the window when I try to improvise or do fills and I end up with chopping a simple melody at best, with a poor sound. Your suggestions – and those of others – should be helpful for being more casual and positive about my playing.

  2. All good ideas…. I do a couple of things; 1. Deciding if the tune is ‘over my head’ at the moment, and putting it aside for awhile.

    2. Noting if the problem lies in just a small part of the tune, maybe only a measure or two. If so, then practice that portion until the ‘cows come home’. That can help, but if not a ‘cure all, then on to ….

    3. Look around on the ‘net to see if there are other versions, videos, tutorials, simpler sheet versions, etc. Try those…I’m in the process of doing that with Sandy River Belle, and just found a tutorial for the theme for Outlander which looks doable.

  3. Yes I needed this today. Sometimes I get really tense when my housemate tells me my bowing wasn’t that good that day or I played the wrong notes so I get tense trying not to make mistakes and of course play quietly. Thank you!

  4. How ’bout creating a Practice Challenge Category on your website, Jason? I’m loving this and not getting lost like I often do on the site. Each day you have a topic and the links throughout it are more related somehow and it’s all making alot more sense. Maybe I don’t have as many choices to make and it feels like I’m grounded on a path within each day of the challenge. I really appreciate that every day doesn’t get harder – like today having “Casual Friday” as another player called it. There isn’t the dread I sometimes feel following the “Lessons” on the site because every day I DON’T always get better so can’t advance or end up skipping around for something easier and fell lost in the maize. The Challenges are like workshops…smaller bites and tasty too. Of course it’s awesome to do the FPC with everyone involved and messaged from you, but there is so much good thought and process in this challenge, I recommend a Category that this thoughtfully curated content should live in. It could have another name than Challenge, it’s more like your theory of learning in intervals, only expanded over a period of days. Thanks!

  5. Yep, it’s casual Friday. I was trying to be kind even though I thought I sounded more scratchy and hit more off notes than usual tonight. So I reverted to Oh When the Saints, which is the first tune I learned on the piano from my mom 47 years ago. Just the memory of her sweet words telling me to curl my fingers like little shrimp helped get the tone going better (sooo Louisiana, but good for fiddle too those curled yummy shrimp fingers). It helped me soften my left hand, which then sounded better. So Yep, this lesson is right on for me tonight too. Also, the pizza’s here. So Yay, I did it (over an hour), and I’m done for the night. Looking forward to a mute-free practice tomorrow somewhere nice. Maybe take a ferry to get there.

  6. Day 5 of 2019 Fall Practice Challenge and today I felt that the more I practiced the worse my sound was. Feeling disgruntled I went to check in and found this bit of wisdom on the day 5 page. Talk about appropriate! I am having a tea break and then I’m going to go back to my practice and be casual!

  7. I learned a long time ago that when something doesn’t seem to be fitting well, there’s no sense in hammering away at it. I just put it down, do something else for a while, then come back to it when I have renewed spirit and energy. Just like you Jason said!

    Sometimes, while I’m mowing the lawn or doing something unrelated to my fiddle, a tune will jump into my head. I do as Jason suggests to just hum along with it (humming is practice too!) and often I can imagine the fingering with the left hand that apparently is embedded in my brain. When that task is done and I return to my instrument, I often find that my practice has taken a big leap forward.

    Jason may be a scruffy dude, but he’s smart!

  8. Hi Ya Jason, Thanks for all the good tips. I have been trying to learn a complicated (to me) section of music called “Jig” from St. Paul’s Suite,
    that has lots of accidentals in it. I have really been struggling with it, and fighting it along the way. I took your advice from “What to do when you’re stuck” and “Play it casual” Casually I took that piece of sheet music over to the piano and played it on the piano, hummed along with it, and then back to my fiddle to work out the fingering as I plucked each note. Those accidentals didn’t seem so bad after all. Yay, I’m conquering the hard part….:)

    Thank you so much,