I had a pupil come in to a lesson recently saying that she had done loads of practise, but she wasn’t getting any better. In fact, she was getting worse!

I love it when people come in saying things like this; it’s like a “red rag to a bull”. I love the challenge to disprove them!

In a nut shell, this idea is untrue, but it can certainly feel true. I have heard this comment quite a few times over the years from pupils.

Why is this a common idea then?

The answer can be simply given with the words, perception and expectation.

When someone first starts to play the saxophone they know nothing about it; every step is an achievement therefore. I often find that, with adults especially, each step achieved is a cause of pride.

People often try playing the saxophone with the expectation that they won’t be able to do it. Every small achievement then is almost a surprise to them, and certainly a cause of happiness - and rightly so!

However, it is common then to expect to be able to do the same things again, instantly, every time they play.

Any musician knows that you can’t move forwards without practise. When you learn new things they have to be reinforced - over and over again…and again…

The problem is that when we achieve something, we expect to be able to recreate it instantly, every time. This creates an expectation of oneself that isn’t actually fair.

If you are in this mind set then you are creating an environment in which you will fail. This creates the perception that you are getting worse - you can’t now do things that you could in the last practise session.

A good teacher will enforce a disciplined approach to practising in a lesson (or video course!) that creates an environment for success. New, or difficult techniques and pieces need to be approached slowly, methodically and to be built up gradually.

It is important to take these ideas into your own practise time.


Another aspect of this can be summed up with the old saying that, “familiarity breeds contempt”.

It is very easy to focus on all the things we cannot do and to forget what we can do - i.e. what we can do now that used to be a struggle.

Even just knowing where your fingers go, how to hold the instrument, how to form your embouchure. At some point that was alien to you and you had to learn it.

So, I guess I’m saying that you should be proud of wherever you are with your playing; wherever you have got to has taken practise, concentration and dedication and is an achievement.

Keep striving to get better, but try to practise in a way that encourages success, rather than failure: try to replicate the discipline learnt in your lessons. Be kind to yourself and enjoy the process.


I should finish off by telling you that in the lesson I referenced at the start of this, the lady in question went home realising that she had, in fact, improved considerably! Things that she had found difficult only a few weeks before were just happening naturally.

In pretty much every area she was moving forwards, it was just a case of having a realistic expectation and a kinder self perception.