13 Tips to Conquering Challenging Music

13 Tips to Conquering Scary Music

by Eve Carrby

Has this ever happened to you? Your playing buddy or music instructor is excited about a new piece of music and wants you to learn it. You look at it and think it’s a Halloween trick—the music has marks all over the page, and it seems as if Beethoven himself dashed it off in a mad fury. Surely it’s something only the German maestro could read, let alone play.

What’s worse, you might play in a group and learn that the others have the piece down already—now the pressure is really on! Or maybe you play on your own and have always wanted to learn a piece. You order or download the score, take a look through, and feel your confidence snap like an old string.


The point of making music is to have fun, but fun can seem a world away if the sheet music is intimidating. Don’t be scared—try these tips, courtesy of music teacher Ioana Weathers of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

1. Be Positive—Just because some music has eighth or sixteenth notes, as well as dotted rhythm or even syncopation, doesn’t mean that it is necessarily difficult. It could be that it just looks that way. Look at it with a positive attitude; one that says you can and will learn it.

2. Get Bigger—When it comes to printed music, size does matter. You can’t play what you can’t see, and some of those marks will seem difficult or irritating just because you have to squint. Enlarge the music on a photocopier or on your computer and it will be easier to play.

3. Get Keyed In—Always first check the key signature to determine what key you are in. See if there are consistent sharps and flats; that way you won’t get into the piece and wonder, “Is that an F or F#?” If you haven’t read musical notation for a while, brush up before you start playing. (Some musicians “cheat” by marking sharps when they are not sure they will remember. That’s OK—do whatever works.)

4. Watch for Accidentals—Accidentals are those little marks that change a note to a sharp or a flat or back again. Know where they are in the score, and if necessary, note their places with a pencil on your working copy.

5.  Time It Right—Before starting to play your instrument, read through the music and tap your foot and become familiar with the various rhythms without worrying whether you are hitting the right note or not. This is especially important if the music is in a rhythm such as 5/4 or 7/4.

6.  Follow the Patterns—As you read the music, understanding the overall structure of the song will help you figure out the details.

7.  Listen Up—If possible, try to listen to a recording of the song or have your buddy play it for you. By doing this, you’ll be more familiar with the music when you actually start to play it with the group.

8.  Read Along—After listening to the music a few times, read along with the score and map out the fingering in your mind. This is also a good time for some positive imaging—try to visualize yourself playing the song well for others and having fun.

9. Count Down—Each time, before you play, count out at least one measure. By doing this, it will be much easier for you to keep up with the timing.

10. Play Slowly—When you practice the music  alone, play slowly at first, making sure you have the notes and phrasing correct. You can always pick up speed later, when you are familiar with the music.

11. Take It Easy—Don’t worry about perfection, especially in the early days. If there’s a long slur, for example, just concentrate on learning the notes individually. Add the ornaments later on. Right now, concentrate on getting the basics right.

12. Pick and Choose—Don’t feel that you have to start at the beginning of the piece and play through to the end. Pick an easy part that you feel comfortable with and start there. Then tackle the more challenging passages.

13.  Always Have Fun—It’s important to relax and enjoy yourself at all times. Mistakes will happen, so try to accept them and focus on them one at a time. Also, don’t practice for long, frustrating spells. You may find you make more progress with shorter practices that take a little of the score at a time.

Freelance writer and photographer Eve Carr plays her violin in Fredericksburg, Virginia.


Instead of being dedicated to one instrument, young musicians, or professionals, MakingMusicMag.com is a lifestyle resource for all music makers, regardless of age, instrument, or ability. We focus on providing educational articles teaching people how to play an instrument, but we also favor travel pieces, music related health articles, interesting news stories, and plenty more.


I think the number one thing that I forget about this process in learning how to play music is to have fun. I get intimidated by sheet music and it doesn’t seem to end. I just gotta stay positive and to keep trying to learn and get better.

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