As frustrating as it might be, skill is only attainable through disciplined practice. With thoughtfully organized goals, and plenty of perspective, this doesn't have to be an exercise in failure and self-loathing. Practice Monster lives inside us all, but we choose how he influences our relationship with "putting in the work." Practice can be joyful!
This YouTube excerpt from Bret Primack's excellent episode of "The Hang" brings to mind an important lesson that I learned from Yusef Lateef. He would frequently talk about the importance of being studious, and that practice alone was not enough to create an interesting career in music. The entire episode is worth watching, but this excerpt with Adam Rudolph will give the general idea.
Study is a very important part of the life of a musician, and it can take many forms. Music theory and history are both vital, but we can learn much from studying the lives of composers and performers. Philosophy, world history, visual and performing arts, science, and mathematics are all part of music. Yusef would say that music is just one aspect of culture, and to really grasp it, you should study the whole culture.
Here are some ideas for simple ways to incorporate the practice if being studious into your music life.
STUDY THE SCORE
Young classical musicians tend to immediately delve into their own part without spending any time studying the full score. Whether the piece is for soloist with accompaniment, or some kind of collaborative composition, the score holds answers that are unavailable in the part alone.
Whenever I perform a concerto, I request a photocopy of the full score. I study it carefully, looking for anything that will help my performance, or interpretation. I mark it up with a highlighter. I make notes in the solo part, such as "unison with the trumpet," or "listen for tympani." Just because you have a solo part, you don't always have the melody. I will bracket parts that are accompaniment to the melody, if it is not in my own part.
When meeting with the conductor, or the collaborative musician/s, bring the score along. Talk about your decisions. I like to tell the conductor, "I'd like to slow down here," or "Please give me a strong cue at this spot." This kind of work makes everything go more smoothly, saving time (time = money).
RESEARCH THE REPERTOIRE
Music usually has a story. Was it written for someone in particular? Is it from some larger work? Was it originally written in the form that you are performing, or is it transcribed from a different version? Is it programmatic, or activist in nature? There are many questions that, if answerable, will give you greater depth of understanding.
If the piece was written for a particular soloist, find a recording of that person performing it. Make notes, especially if the performance differs from the score. A good example for saxophonists are the errors in the published version of Tableaux de Provence, by Paule Maurice. An attentive listening to Marcel Mule's famous recording will immediately illuminate some incorrect articulations in the first movement of the score/part, among other issues.
EXPLORE THE TIME PERIOD
Was the piece written during a particular period, and is it in-line with what one might expect, or is it different? The music of Darius Milhaud is a great example of work that was influence by jazz, but not in a heavy-handed way. La Création du Monde is inseparable from 1920s Parisian culture, and the influence of Le Hot. An authentic performance of this work requires a broader understanding of what was happening in Paris, in New York, and in the world.
When you cannot play that note quietly, ask "Why?" When you cannot get that note in-tune, ask "Why?" If a note sounds strange with the accompaniment, ask "Why?" Never simply accept that something is difficult. That is just being lazy, or at least complacent.
Searching for the answers will require lessons with experts. It will require reading books. You will talk to your peers, read articles in journals, listen to recordings, and search the internet for clues. Improvement begins with asking "Why?"
MAKE TIME FOR STUDY
Study is not practice, but it should be a part of your overall routine. Make time to read books, to watch documentaries, and to hang out with experts. Buy someone lunch in exchange for picking their brains on a subject that they have mastered. Schedule your time to study scores, and set aside time to analyze repertoire that you are working on.
Studiousness is a characteristic of master artists. They are often experts on subjects beyond the ones that they are known for. The act of studying tends to leak into other areas of one's life, resulting in painters that are also excellent chefs, musicians that are painters, and painters that are wine experts. Study in your discipline will also influence your hobbies, and that will make you a more unique and interesting individual.