Well, I’ve done it.
The worst point of my Project 365 project is here. I knew this was inevitable, but I still dreaded the moment it would arrive. Getting started and reinforcing a daily practice habit was nothing compared to the stage I’m at now. And it’s probably the most frustrating part of any craft.
I’ve hit a plateau.
A plateau is where your rate of improvement or growth stagnates. And we all hit various plateaus when learning any skill – a new language, writing, composing, an instrument, a sport, etc. – and they can be initiated by any number of causes.
In his article on the 10,000 hour rule, Scott Young, author of “Learn More, Study Less” argues that plateaus occur due to either comfort, practice not being separated from performance, or lack of feedback. Personally, I think mine may be a combination of the first and third, so it’s a matter of stepping out of my comfort zone, really pushing myself (and then, of course, asking for feedback).
So, for example, when you are first learning your instrument, it’s difficult and so you have to work at it to achieve a level where you’re comfortable with your playing. The problem is, that once you hit that comfort zone, you might not be as driven to improve.
At seven months into my Project 365, despite diligently following my practice plan, I’ve arrived at a wall and I’m gathering the tools to climb it. Here are a few things that I’ll be doing to get through my practice plateau.
1. Change things up – I’ve developed a system of practicing that I’m quite comfortable with (Scott’s first reason for plateauing). It initially worked quite well for me, but I think it’s time for me to push out of my comfort zone. I’m going to mix up the types of things that I’ve been practicing. For example, instead of practicing on my alto, I’ll practice on my tenor. Some things that I’ve been doing wrong may stand out to me on a different instrument than I’d normally play.
Other things you could change: if you’re reading music, play by ear; if you play keyboards or guitar, study comping in a different style; do some sight-reading; work on etudes written for another instrument; play in a key that you’re not comfortable with; etc.
2. Take a break – This one isn’t for me at this point, a Project 365 requires me to practice everyday, but I’m sure I’ll take a short break once the year is over. Sometimes you just need to recharge your batteries. And a break can even motivate you to want to practice even more. As they say, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” If you take a long enough break, you may find yourself itching to practice.
3. Push through it – don’t give up! This isn’t my first plateau (and probably isn’t yours either). But one thing is certain, it won’t be my last. Plateaus are a normal part of improvement, so persevere!
4. Play with people that are better than you – you’ll definitely notice a few things you need to work on and the environment will also push you to extend yourself a bit more than you’d normally be comfortable doing.
5. Take a lesson – feedback is critical. Someone else might notice things that you’re doing wrong, or maybe they have suggestions as to things you can do to improve.
6. If there is one thing in particular that has you stumped, work on something else completely different before trying again. This is somewhat similar to #1, but sometimes you don’t hit a plateau in all areas of your playing. If you’re having trouble with a certain technique, scale, or passage, play something else for a day or even a week before going back to the thing that troubles you.
7. Focus on minute aspects of your playing – okay, so you can play all 12 major and minor scales in all keys the full range of your instrument. How clean are all those transitions? Are the notes perfectly in tune?
8. Learn something new – if there is something you haven’t worked on yet, now is the time to do it. Know your major scales but not minor scales? Maybe you can work on a few new patterns, scales in thirds or fourths, or extended technique (for example altissimo on the sax). Take the time to work them out.
9. Keep a practice journal – it helps you remain accountable. If you notice something is causing problems for you, take note of it and focus on working it out. Keeping a practice journal is a great way to track your progress and keep your current goals visible in the future. I use mine to keep track of what I’ve been working on and I write down things I’d like to accomplish in future practice sessions. If I ever feel stuck, I can glance back and see if there’s anything I haven’t done yet.
10. Go see live music – enough said.
11. Read the biography of one of your favorite performers – do something other than playing that keeps you motivated.
12. Break your goals into smaller steps – most skills have smaller steps that can be taken to achieve them. Narrow things down into smaller steps that you have a better sense of accomplishment at the end of your practice session. For example: Your goal is to improvise. You can break that down into understanding chord changes, being able to outline them on your instrument, creating motifs, etc.
13. Set a specific time to practice everyday – practice can be a habit just like brushing your teeth. You brush your teeth (hopefully) every morning when you wake up and every night before you go to bed. If you miss doing that, it can throw you off. If you set aside a specific time to practice, you feel like you’re missing something when you skip it. Shoot for a specific amount of time too (15 minutes, 45 minutes, 1 hour).
14. Play with a metronome – or with a tuner. It keeps you honest. If you already regularly play with one or the other, switch it up and play without it.
15. Make sure that you’re practicing and not just playing – practicing is taking something that you’re bad at and working on it. Playing is doing something you already know how to do. Know the difference and make sure that when you’re “practicing,” you’re actually practicing.
Remember to be patient with the whole process. It’s natural, so don’t be angry at yourself (or anyone else) over it. Just because you’re progress has slowed, doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. Anything worth doing takes time.
So what do you do to push through a plateau?
Want more tips like this? Check out our popular FREE eBook – Advice for Young Musicians: From Established Music Professionals.