What Makes Learning and Performing on an Instrument so Challenging and Frustrating?

Have you ever wondered why first- and second-year musicians struggle with learning to perform on an instrument so often?


It isn’t creating the tone.

It isn’t reading the music.

It isn’t understanding the math of the rhythms.

It isn’t identifying the pitch or note name.

It’s the level of and amount of decision making that must occur for a successful performance.

It’s what is required to do all of this at once, within a group, at the same time.


To perform a single rhythm correctly a musician has to

1.       identify the note name (line or space the symbol is on)

2.       identify the pitch of the note in the music (vertical location of the symbol)

3.       identify the rhythmic value of the note (shape and horizontal placement of the symbol)

4.       use the fingering which allows that pitch to be created (vertical location)

5.       use the proper amount of air (or downward force for percussion)

6.       form the facial muscles to the correct shape or hold the sticks properly (embouchure or grip)

all at the same time. To make things even more challenging, there is a single moment in time when all 6 items must occur. A musician cannot go backwards in time to delete & replace a wrong note after performing it (turning it in to the audience) during a performance. This creates a lot of stress from decision making (and preparation) to be accurate and everyone is counting on each other to be prepared and ready to make all these decisions at the same time.

When an ensemble of 22 members performs the first note, there are 132 (6 items from earlier x 22 members) decisions made to perform that first note of music correctly. In a 32-measure piece of music, where each measure has 4 beats in it (32 x 4 = 128 beats total), there will be 16,896 (128 x 132) decisions made from start to finish. All of these decisions will be completed and presented to the audience within 90 seconds when the tempo (speed) of the music is 80 beats per minute.

I spend a lot of time using the phrase “Everybody counts because everybody counts” in my classroom. This is incredibly true. Every individual is a vital part of a successful ensemble and successful culture. We must support each other and push each other to work to improve, never accepting the idea that someone “isn’t good enough” or that “we’re not good enough.” Every musician does have the time to be successful in music, and everything else. When we’re struggling in one area, we should not be leaving the places we are successful to spend more time focusing on the areas we are not successful. The approach to the areas we are struggling in needs to change and we need to maintain and keep doing the things we are successful in.

Acknowledge when your child performs accurately, and do so often! Provide them the support they need to be successful early because you’re building a stronger support system for later when they encounter those truly challenging obstacles which cannot be avoided.

Performing as part of an ensemble creates an extended family of support and fun for its members. As a member, you are part of a family with diverse backgrounds, all coming together for a unified purpose. You are working independently, while working with each other. You are creating something larger than yourself. The satisfaction of completing a performance you have worked towards is amazing. Hours of work put in for a few minutes of glory, under the spotlights, with friends and family!

I look back at all the ensembles I’m a part of and I can still count on those members to be there for me if needed. The relationships developed in a performing organization transcend beyond that group for the decades that follow. Many of my closest relationships would have never occurred had it not been for performing in a group together. Some date back to elementary school while others began in college. Keep encouraging your musician to play because what happens in music goes beyond music into lifelong friendships, creating extended families you’d never imagine!


Everybody counts because everybody counts.



Pat Zaur



Director of Bands at O'Connor Elementary





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