I think possibly the biggest problem learning musicians (and even the pros) face is actually what they expect of themselves. No one can really blame anyone, because we always only see the “finished product” when seeing musicians perform live, or hear it when listening to a recording. But what did they do to get there? What was the process like? What are reasonable expectations to give ourselves, the mere mortals?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this, but I think we as a community of musicians trying to get better need to shift our view of what progress looks like. This, I contest, is the key to restraining ourselves from throwing our instruments out of the window into moving traffic, or at least a little less so.
Here’s the problem I think so many people either don’t realize, or consistently forget (and I’m guilty of this as well): Progress is not linear. What I mean is that each day you do not truly get just a tiny bit better and better by a measureable amount until finally you’re at your goal like so many expect. You cannot plan to get better by a certain amount each day and therefore know you’ll have something down by a very specific date.
As frustrating as it is, no matter what practice regiment you apply, or how many hours you work on something, plateaus will become inevitable at one point or another. In fact, for certain techniques or concepts, you may even digress on certain days rather than make that much desired progress. The fact that you’re yearning for this new magical land of flawless musical ability is worthwhile; it’s what pushes us forward rather than becoming complacent, but we have to be realistic.
So what are we supposed to do? I think just being aware of this is the first step. The second, and maybe even more important step is to embrace this grind, and look at our progress from a more zoomed out perspective. Yes, you may be on a plateau right now, but realize everyone gets on plateaus, and more importantly, remember to pat yourself on the back that this plateau is still in a higher place than your last one, even if only slightly.
If we were to somehow plot progress on a graph, it would look a lot more like a set of stairs than it would a perfectly straight line beaming towards that top right corner. Don’t let this frustrate you. Keep this in mind and always put things in perspective.
Sometimes, progress can be so extraordinarily minimal that you may also not even see it. In fact, even if it’s a pretty decent jump in progress, you may not see it. Keep in mind that you’re there for every little micro-fraction of improvement and therefore are experiencing things in such a gradual way it’s hard to see your current Point B in relation to your past Point A. I see this all the time with my students. They’ll come to me frustrated that they hadn’t gotten any better in the last week, but when they play what they’ve been working on for me, it’ll be a distinct night and day difference from when I had seen them play it last. I feel like sometimes they think I’m just being a cheerleader when I tell them this, but it’s honestly just because I only seem play once a week, where again, they’re there for every step along the way. This is the why I so often preach the power of playing to a metronome, since it can actually show a number (the BPM) to you that can slowly increase throughout time. You may not be able to tell the difference between you playing something at 160 BPM vs. 170 BPM without the number there to show it you your jump.
I’m not here to bum anyone out; I just think that sometimes these reminders can actually help us get back to practicing when we feel like we’ve hit an in insurmountable brick wall. So next time you’re on a dreaded plateau, just remember it’s all part of being an artist, embrace the grind, and get ready to reach the next slightly higher one.
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Guitar Instructor, Owner
Falls Music School