Make Practicing Less Frustrating With the 5 Whys Technique

It seems that every child goes through a phase in toddlerhood where they respond to everything you say with the question “why?”

I’m not sure if they do this because they genuinely want to know why Target closes at 10pm, or why they can’t skip school on their birthday, or why Daddy does not like eating fermented soybeans. Or if they simply enjoy watching us squirm and get increasingly frustrated.

Annoying as the never-ending whys can be, the question “why” is actually a useful tool in the practice room. Haven’t you ever gotten discouraged about a passage that you just don’t seem to be capable of playing? A note that never speaks right? A shift that is frustratingly inconsistent?

Sometimes the right questions can make all the difference in the world, and “why” is a pretty good place to start.

How so?

Cause and effect

Every cracked note, squeak, crunch, missed shift, and intonation glitch has an underlying cause.

As obvious a statement as that might be, when we struggle with something that is challenging, it’s easy to forget this and just conclude “I suck” or “I can’t do this.”

These statements might feel very true in the moment, but the problem is that they’re something of a dead end when it comes to finding way to improve. I mean, what is the solution for “I suck?” Play it again, but don’t suck this time?

Though critical statements like this naturally and automatically pop into our stream of thoughts, they only leave us feeling discouraged, and more likely to give up and question our abilities.

The 5 whys

Rather than letting the tricky section get you down, try experimenting with a technique from the business world called the “5 Whys” that could spare you some frustration and discouragement.

The 5 Whys technique is based on the premise that underlying the missed notes or other technical glitches you are struggling with, is a root cause. That there is something you are doing (or not doing) that produces the undesirable result you are getting out of your instrument – but which may not be immediately apparent.

And when it comes to creating a recipe for frustration, there’s nothing quite like diving in to fix the problem without first taking a moment to identify the underlying cause.

As one of my advisors in grad school liked to say, “If you misdiagnose the problem, you’re probably going to misdiagnose the solution.”

Often, “diagnosing” the problem is not nearly as difficult as you might think. And once you’ve identified the root cause, you will be able to identify the solution – and once you’ve got the solution, frustration recedes into the background, and you’re back on track, being productive in the practice room.

Here’s a quick video on what the 5 Whys is all about (watch just the first 1:25):

Focus on solutions, not problems

Say you cracked a note, and the voice in your head says “I suck.”

The first step is to shift your focus away from “I suck,” and instead direct your line of questioning to “I cracked the C.”

Beginning with the question “Why did I crack the C?”, keep asking the question “why?” until you arrive at the root technical cause of the cracked note. It may not even take you 5 whys. It might only take 2 or 3. Or it may take 7.

So what did you do that resulted in the cracked note? Did you tighten up? Forget to do something important with your breathing or technique? Maybe you were thinking about one thing, when you should have been focused on something else? Or was it fatigue? Lack of preparation or proper warm-up?

Once you have the answer, it’s just a matter of implementing the solution. The solution may not be an instantaneous fix of course, but at least you are headed in the right direction, focused on solutions, instead of putting yourself in a corner, beating yourself up about the problem.

The one-sentence summary

“Every solution to every problem is simple. It’s the distance between the two where the mystery lies.” ~Derek Landy

Additional reading

An Introduction to 5 Whys

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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14 Responses

  1. I love this concept! Finding the underlying cause by asking “why” is the simplest of solutions to the frustration of performance issues, regardless of the performance arena. It’s time to apply this to my own healing parameters, as well as to my practice parameters. In some ways, I already do this, but not as simply as this procedure. Love this, love this, love this! Thanks, Noa!

  2. please forgive the digression (or feel free to just delete it if you’d rather, Noa – i’ll take no offense), but i have a “why” that’s been nagging at me for a few years now, and that is brought to mind anew by this video: why do people speaking in front of cameras continuously flail their hands about in a manner that’s clearly intended to convince the viewer of something, but that actually just makes the speaker look like they’re trying to convince the viewer of something by flailing their hands about in an entirely artificial manner?

    nobody did this until a few years ago, and now every person with an inclination toward artifice who finds themselves in front of a camera does it (while no one without such an inclination does). it’s bizarre and baffling.

    1. Hi Ian,

      Interesting observation. I know we an get self-conscious about what to do with our hands and arms in front of a camera or audience; some freeze and others move more…maybe this is related to what you’ve observed? I’m afraid to think what I’d do if I ever recorded video if myself. I suspect I’d fall in the freeze category. 🙂

      1. heh – well if it’s what comes naturally to you, Noa, then that’s great! it’s the obvious fake-ness of that continuous gesticulating that irks me. if it ain’t fake, bring it on! 😉

  3. The 5 whys is an excellent technique I suspect many successful musician use consciously or more likely at a felt-sense level not always requiring the specific asking of the questions; the why is felt and sensed within the tactile or body-mind and through a process of repetition the musician ‘feels’ his/her way to the correct or otherwise intended musical result. Perhaps this is a potential goal of the 5 way technique; to intuitively arrive at a state of self correction and learning through the adoption of this worthy technique. No doubt, new and difficult challenges require a conscious application of the 5 ways method, but after such difficulties are firmly established tactile and body-mind awareness ‘take over’ intuitively. I graciously offer this opinion for your consideration. Thank you.

    1. John –

      i’m not *positive* that would apply to the 5-whys technique, but my personal gut suspicion is that it would. eventually, at least. doesn’t pretty much all mastery arise at that intuitive level in the end?



    2. Hi John,

      You’re right – very often we arrive at a solution pretty intuitively. It can be a great way to learn some things, but there are pros and cons. One danger with relying on this too much, for instance, is that without a clear sense of what it takes to execute a particular skill, our confidence and performance of this skill can falter under pressure. Eventually, of course, it’s best when we are able to execute naturally and trust our body to perform the skill without having to think about the little details.

  4. Loved this article. I’m an industrial engineer by trade and beginning piano student.

    I’m very familiar with the 5-why’s technique from my engineering training.

    Used it this weekend during my piano practicing. Who knew these two worlds would eventually collide! 🙂

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