In this lesson, I’ll show you how to overcome the emotional challenges of learning the fiddle. It’s a long article so I’ll give you the take-home message up front:

You are not alone in the struggle. Fiddling is hard for EVERYONE at first. But if you practice consistently (every day) and well (micro-practice) you’ll get better every day. That improvement will be a source of joy.

By the way, this is something you have to realize and accept, over and over again throughout your fiddle journey. In fact, after of 40+ years of fiddling I still have moments when I doubt my abilities. And then I re-learn how to overcome doubt and continue the fiddle journey.

So far we’ve seen that you overcome the Practice Challenge by removing resistance so that you can easily establish a daily practice habit.

You overcome the Physical Challenge with micro-practice; breaking complex things down into small, manageable pieces.

The third major challenge is the Emotional Challenge: dealing with the difficult feelings that arise when you get to the edge of your ability. Spoiler alert: the tools you learned for the Practice and Physical Challenges will help you to overcome the Emotional Challenge.

When students learn in a quick and haphazard manner, they don’t sound good, because they haven’t taken the time to build a strong foundation with bowing and fingering. This leads to frustration, impatience and resistance, followed by feelings of doubt and unkindness to the self.

High expectations lead to disappointment. Thinking too much about where you want to be instead of enjoying where you are. If you constantly compare yourself to a famous fiddler like Mark O’Connor, it’s no surprise that you’ll wind up feeling inadequate about your own performance.

Some mistaken beliefs start to form:

  • “I’m too old to learn fiddling.”
  • “I wasn’t born with the necessary talent.”
  • “I’m not musical.”
  • “I’m just not a creative person.”

How can we overcome The Emotional Challenge?

I’ll go into more detail below, giving you an action step for each strategy.

1. Celebrate small wins

Learn to learn in small steps that can be easily accomplished. As you successfully take each step, allow yourself to feel good about what you’ve done. This will build your confidence and keep you motivated. You realize that what’s a struggle today will be a little better tomorrow, and a lot better in a month.

This is the emotional side of using micro-practice. Now that you know how to break things down into smaller pieces, I’m asking you to actively celebrate each little step you take.

Celebrate every day that you play. Celebrate each new tune or technique you learn. Even if you only learn the first quarter of a tune; that’s a big step (actually the biggest step of learning a tune). Celebrate every time something sounds even just 10% better.

Action step:
  • Tracking your practice will make you aware of your progress. You’ll see that you’re actually getting better. If you don’t track your progress, then when you struggle you’ll think, “This is always such a struggle.” You’ll forget that you actually got better at something.
  • There are three main ways to track your practice: journaling, audio recording and habit tracking. In addition to helping you realize you’ve made progress, these tools will help you become aware of how you practice. This will make your sessions more productive.

  • Write down what you practice in a music journal. Then, instead of floundering around each time you play, you’ll pick up where you left off yesterday and go farther today. When you review what you’ve done, you’ll gain a sense of accomplishment. You’ll say, “Just last week, I couldn’t play a D Major Scale. But now I can. Yay!”

  • Audio recording will give you instant feedback which will help you improve. As you continue your fiddle journey, there might come a time when you fall into a rut and feel like you’re not progressing. Listening to the first recordings you made will help you realize how far you’ve come.
  • Finally, tracking the days you practice will give you a sense of satisfaction. You can use an old-school paper wall calendar. Or use a habit-tracking app on your device (see below). Whatever tool you pick, remember this: Don’t break the chain!!!

2. Slow down

Make slow and steady progress, like a bucket being filled by a leaky faucet.

Slow down when you practice. It’s a music teacher cliche, but almost every student makes the mistake of playing too fast. If you always play too fast, then you don’t give your hands, arms, ears, and mind the time they need to properly learn the FUNdamentals.

Don’t consume new tunes and techniques too quickly. Avoid the urge of jumping to the next shiny object. Stay the course. Make one simple thing sound good. If it doesn’t, sound good, no worries. Just use your super-power of micro-practice to break it into more manageable pieces.

And when something sounds better, see if you can deepen your awareness of the piece. What still needs improvement? Doing this will lessen your frustration.

Action step: Take a practice journey
  • See how far you can go with one tune or technique. Add practice variations to make it interesting and fun: plucking, transposing, looping different sections, playing at different volumes, closing your eyes, and alternating between playing and singing.
  • It’s like looking at a sculpture from many different angles. You’ll learn everything more deeply, meaning you’ll perform better but also remember what you learned.
  • I want you and other fiddlers to learn how to make practice fun and interesting, how to turn an ordinary practice session into an epic journey. If you’re interested in learning more, then read this: A Travel Guide For Your Practice Journey.

3. Embrace mistakes

Instead of beating yourself up for mistakes, celebrate the fact that you’re learning and growing. If you’re feeling a bit of pain then it means you’re getting better.

This became apparent to me when I learned how to ski. I felt so much resistance to falling. That resistance created tension, which affected my performance. But once I fell a few times, I had less fear of falling and was actually able to ski better.

View each mistake as a vital and necessary step towards learning the fiddle. Embracing mistakes in this way will remove much of the stress and fear that arise. Realizing this truth will keep you practicing, even as you struggle with new challenges.

4. Balance effort with acceptance

After making a strong effort to do something difficult, balance it with accepting your current skill level as it is.

There is a Goldilocks point between effort and acceptance. This balance point will shift, depending on what you’re working on. Another way to put this: Work at your edge.

If you’re practicing something hard, use micro-practice to break it down into simpler pieces. On the other hand, if you’re playing a tune that’s easy for you, make it more challenging by adding double stops or using the pinky finger instead of the open string.

More generally, don’t think about what level you should be at. Focus more on the process instead of the outcome. So instead of dreaming that you’re ripping a solo at a bluegrass festival, your goal is to make daily practice consistent, fun and productive.

Action step: Play an easy tune
  • Let’s say you’re struggling with Wagon Wheel. Instead of grinding away at it, switch gears for a minute. Play an easy tune. This allows you to return to a good sound and reconnect with the joy of playing.
  • Playing an easy tune is a way to be kind to yourself as you take the fiddle journey. And there’s an added benefit. Easy, recognizable tunes are a great way to work on your tone, tuning, timing, and flow.
  • I learned this from my student (pictured above). She says that playing easy tunes makes her “sound like a fiddler.” She actually does this at the beginning of her practice sessions. But it also works as a break from more challenging tunes.

5. Attitude of gratitude

Every time you practice, say some version of, “I’m grateful that I get to play music today.”

Say this at some point in your session, even if you don’t feel like saying it. By doing this, you nurture an attitude of appreciation for the simple fact that you’re alive and able to make music at this moment.

This will give you perspective and help you rise above the frustrations of learning.

Action step: What are you grateful for?
  • Write down three things you’re most grateful for in your life.
  • Think of things like family, friends, your health, your dog, your favorite food, book or movie.
  • Then add fiddling to the list. Do this every day.

Let’s sum up…

With each small step, allow yourself to feel good about your fiddle journey. Realize that you’re exactly where you should be. If you can find joy right in the midst of your practice and struggle (no matter who or where you are), then you’ll naturally want to do it again tomorrow.

Are you ready to begin your fiddle journey? I’ll send you some free lessons tailored to your current skill level.

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5 responses to “The Emotional Challenge of Fiddling

  1. Wow!! I wish I had read your blog a year ago. I was paying for lessons and seeing very little improvement. I was frustrated, loosing interest, disappointed and no confidence at all. Thank you so much for all you share! Love your content and how you teach!