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Working Through Musical Plateaus

The performance plateau is an inevitable part of learning anything physical. A musician will experience them many times throughout their life. They can last for years if unaddressed and can even destroy a musician’s relationship to their instrument. Understanding what makes a musician feel as though they are experiencing a plateau, learning the strategies for overcoming musical stagnation, and adopting a healthy view of the challenges plateaus present are invaluable skills for a musician’s toolkit.

What is a musical plateau? Generally, it is a period of time where a musician doesn’t feel as though they are improving in any measurable way. This may be in technical or creative regard, or both. Practice doesn’t seem to lead anywhere, repertoire feels redundant, solos start to sound the same. These can all make a musician feel as though they are in a rut. This can create a self-reciprocating process where a musician runs up against the same limitation again and again, becoming frustrated and starting to relate their practice to the feeling. Often this results in a downwards spiral where practice gets neglected, and a musician internalizes negative feelings towards themselves over the skipped woodshed sessions and lackluster performance.

It is very hard to work out of a situation that you don’t understand you are in. Besides having a teacher or fellow musician to diagnose your issues, implementing systems that strengthen self-awareness can help your progress move along at high rates. Something as simple as keeping a small practice journal where you mark down your goals for a practice session at the beginning, keeping quick notes on what you worked on during practice, and reflecting in the end on how you did and what should be changed can make all the difference. Using reflection after performances is also a great tool to make sure you understand where your common mistakes occur and the areas of your technique and performance could use more work. I highly suggest regularly recording yourself while practicing and performing to get realistic feedback to reference. This all works as a diagnostic tool that keeps you informed on what level you are performing at and what work is needed.

Once we’ve understood we are in a rut and identified what are issues are it’s time to build a strategy to move forward. We want to use this time to build a gameplan for taking on our identified problems head-on, but also to allow room in our practice plans for expansion in other areas that are novel to us. For instance, a guitar player that is hitting a speed barrier with alternate picking would want to spend some time researching books, the internet, or consulting a teacher on alternate picking technique and best practices. This way they may find that they need to spend time refining their economy of motion with their hand movements, explore different anchoring methods for their picking hands, working on hand independence and synchronization, and any other number of possible remedies for their situation. They can use this information to build a meaningful practice plan and will often feel more committed to the regiment that they’ve created. Keeping detailed practice journals with notes of what speeds they were able to execute different exercises or sections of repertoire will make tracking progress easy. Seeing even a small amount of progress is a great boost to a musician’s confidence and will positively reinforce the practice and effort. At the same time, that a musician is addressing their direct issues they should also make sure they are working on something that is simpler to attain but expands their musical knowledge. For instance, that same guitar player could be integrating a new scale into their speed picking practice. In this way they are both addressing the issue they are having and adding to their harmonic vocabulary. Learning a new scale is not as technique dependent, so this guarantees some success in the practice process even if less progress is being made on the primary issue they are addressing.

I do not want to leave a bad impression of frustration. A favorite past teacher of mine used to say, “frustration is a side effect of improving” and I find this framing of the concept useful. It’s helpful to remind yourself that it is a feeling you will experience, especially as you are pushing at the barriers of your capabilities. You do want to stay positive mentally so it’s important for each person to understand the difference between frustration fatiguing them mentally like a muscle gets fatigued working out, and becoming demoralized from feeling stuck. It’s important to grow some familiarity the with the feeling in the process, give your practice plan ample time to work, but also recognize when you aren’t achieving any progress and go back to the drawing board.

It’s especially important in these times to keep your practice sessions creative. Engaging with the process wholly and keeping control of your musical growth is both effective and empowering. Keeping yourself adequately challenged and feeling motivated to continue practicing is vital. A musician will spend much more time in their life practicing than anything else musically related, it’s important to enjoy the process.

If a certain technique is eluding you, and the anxiety is causing you to miss practice sessions it is fine to stop pursuing it for a while. Set a date, a few weeks to a couple months out, take the time to pursue other musical goals, and at that time re-evaluate where you are at. You can then decide to take another run at that elusive goal or decide if your priorities have shifted you can spend your energy moving in a different direction.

With a healthy attitude and a thoughtful game plan, you can overcome any obstacle and accelerate your musical growth. There is no singular right way to tackle your issues but as you develop and experiment with different strategies you will find what methodologies work best for you.

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