I frequently implore my students to practice confidence. This means practice being confident, practice with confidence, practice staying confident.

I’ve been thinking about the root causes of a confident mindset, and have come to the conclusion that it is largely unrelated to competence. Here, let me explain.

Most of my students are really hard working. They follow the curriculum, practice regularly, do all the right things while slowly inching their way up Everest. The point at which many falter is when it’s time to let go of the “practice” mindset and move into playing. This involves turning off the questioning, the reminders, the academics, the active thoughts about specific techniques and venturing to see how far their practice has taken them. It’s like that trust fall exercise they make you do at retreats. Will your practice catch you? Only one way to find out.

It’s a rare student that willingly does this under observation (at least initially). When they do get the guts to try it, the result can be surprisingly ragged. They say things like, “This went so much better at home!” or “My brain must be misfiring!”.

What I see is that the pressure applied by being under observation provides a fairly accurate reflection of how the student has practiced. I can tell if something has been repeated:


and I can see how it has been repeated.

This is where I want to talk about what confidence means. In terms of our practice, it means playing deliberately with no jittery feeling. It means being able to hear every single note enunciated- beginning, middle and end. It means moving your fingers and arms as statements, not investigations.

It does not mean getting it right every time. It means allowing your mistakes to teach you by making them clear and quantifiable. When you miss with confidence, you can correct with it, too. When your every move is a hedged bet against yourself, you never get the full impact of nailing or missing a note.

As I was considering what makes people confident, it occurred to me that it was not at all counterbalanced by ability. I know plenty of people who don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground who proceed boldly forth with aplomb. I know musicians, artists, academics and athletes who, even at the professional level, manage to be riddled with doubt when it’s go time. Hell, depending on the day, I’m one of them. It’s a byproduct of being introspective and motivated for most. The problem is that the relationship of confidence to competence is out of whack and creates a cycle wherein you never have the right to be confident because the learning process has no terminus. Once you’ve reached where you thought the goal was, you see that it’s like Zeno’s dichotomy, where the distance to the finish keeps being cut in half an infinite number of times, so there’s no way you can be done.

And who wants to be done? Done is for quitters.

What I want you to know is the wave of calm that comes from a confident practice. It asks you to be absolutely honest with yourself, which is the basis of true competence. Practice being secure in your movements and the goals you set for yourself. If there is any lingering unsteadiness, it only means you’re going too quickly or have not set a clear enough goal.

One more analogy: I think of every note you play during practice as an investment. Not just in quantity, but in quality. The kind of practice you do has just as much to do with your success as the amount played. This investment is in an account labeled “This is how I play my instrument”.

So when you’re under pressure, you go to the bank where you’ve made this investment and you cash out. Don’t ever expect your returns to be anything more than what you’ve actually invested. Don’t tell me it’s better at home. It’s just like this at home, but your attention is elsewhere or it’s going by too quickly to even notice all of the crap that I’ll point out, iota by iota when your shaking hands get tied into knots and the easy parts turn to cacophony.

I have much experience with this, having been the reigning World’s Worst Student™ for much of my tuition. I say this because I love you, and want you to reap the rewards of the hours you spend working with your instrument. Practice the quality of your movement just as much as the distances and directions and academics. How you practice is just as important as what you practice.

Go boldly forth. With aplomb.



Need help figuring out what clear-cut goals might be? Send me an email and I’ll do some video responses with suggestions.







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7 Responses

  1. So good to read this – and so true. After a year, I can certainly see progress, but sometimes the process DOES become wuite academic and I wish I could just play some MUSIC – not just “practice pieces”. And, whne I sort of change my minde set a bit the playing becomes more fun and I loosen up a bit – often making my movement better. Thank you

  2. I stumbled across your site, bleary-eyed after a long late night performance. I am an adult learner and I play cello with a world/folk fusion band. We had a 3 to 4 hour set list (a special occasion) and at the last minute I asked to switch out one of the pieces that I play a solo bass line on. It didn’t feel steady, we were playing for a lot of people, and, I panicked! Your post hits the nail right on the head and has given me a lot to think about and work on. Thank you!

  3. Emily, this post is amazing. I even remember you saying all of this in lesson!

    Here are two personal observations:
    1) I found that what I wanted out of practice was to make beautiful music, not work so damn hard! That is a really dangerous way to think: one that made me give up the lessons once I didn’t have you around;
    2) I couldn’t figure out what I was practicing FOR – is the hope of one day being good enough to make beautiful music for myself a goal? If it is, it isn’t a goal that wakes me up in the morning and keeps me working through a piece to conquer the really hard measures.

    So I’m feeling like I need more than confidence (which I admit I need badly): I also need motivation and convincing and perhaps a kick in the ass. I picked up the cello two days ago for the first time since January, and I didn’t sound as bad as I thought I would! BUT I played an easy piece, and only the easy parts of the piece, and then threw the cello back on its stand…as least it’s out of the case now!

    Do you want to move to South Bend?

    1. Marge: you would not believe the things I’m considering these days. 🙂 South Bend might not be as far off as you imagine.

  4. I am printing this and will leave it on my music stand. I need to stop confusing quantity and quality and actually start LISTENING to myself play.

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