Often we hit “plateaus” when we play guitar. We feel that we haven’t been improving.
That’s good! 🙂
To my delight I just started book called “Mastery – The Keys to Success and Long Term Fulfillment” by George Leonard. Mr. Leonard points out the American “war on mastery” – an epidemic of wanting things “quickly and easily”. He then accurately describes the delicious, sweet, long term path to mastery through his story of Aikido.
The path to mastery is not a steady incline; there are growth spurts, and then long plateaus where on the surface “nothing” seems to be happening. At first, the student feels that these plateaus are disheartening and frustrating and wants only the peaks.
It’s only when the student puts his (or her) head back in the work and “slugs it out” or “plods along” and forgets results, that they get back on track. Along comes another “growth spurt” and a plateau and that’s the rhythm of the path. Sooner or later one learns to love the plateaus because one knows the growth is happening whether it’s apparent or not.
On TV and in movies, particularly in America, we are fed images of only the peak experiences, not the work surrounding them. Imagine the ads you see – runners crossing the finish line in victory, a family sitting down at a cozy Holiday dinner, a couple on the beach sipping Pina Coladas, and let’s not forget the lottery and every lure of “making money – fast!”
These are all peaks, no “process”. There is no indication of riding through plateaus, slugging it out and allowing oneself to learn. Why is this? Because it just “doesn’t sell”.
For someone aiming for quick and easy peaks, there will be a depressing “drop off” sooner or later, like a child who has opened the final Christmas present. I can tell you first hand that the truly solid satisfaction comes not from these “peaks”, but from plodding steadily along the path and developing something “real” and “solid” that can’t be taken away from you.
“Peaks” of mine (releasing CDs or DVDs, performing on a huge festival, doing a TV performance, getting a nice magazine spread, or racking up “Youtube Hits”) simply pale in comparison to the joy of the real work.
When I practice, I do it for the love of doing it. I play my scales every day with attention to “form”, relaxation, groove and tone. I run my repertoire for the delicacy and delight of playing with a deep satisfying rhythmic pocket and fingers that perfectly “touch” the strings.
I plod along, day by day – and will do so for my whole life. Day in, day out. That’s what I do. I practice for the love of practicing itself – with no result in mind. This is how I practice guitar.
greg stipkala says
vey well put.
Rudolf Tanaka says
Hi Adam, who play that music on the Detroit add video ??
T Alexander says
Pete Huttlinger has a great DVD on practicing — but yes the motivation to practice can’t always be outcome based — it the trip, not the destination
Tim – that’s absolutely right!!!! – AR
I totally agree with the plateau comparison. Even after playing for 19 years I still find myself going through peaks and valleys. Sometimes it seems like you are really making some progress and other times not so much.
I have found that one way to measure your progress is to look at something you couldn’t play in the past (a few months, year) and try to play it. Chances are, you will be able to do it – and quite well – if you have been practicing or playing regularly.
Two recent examples for me would be my reading chops and technique. A Bach etude that I couldn’t play several months ago is now not so hard. While it is far from perfect, I have still made progress from the very first time I attempted it. Same thing with Coltrane changes. While I can’t play “Countdown” at “Coltrane” speed (and probably never will), the harmonic complexity of the tune is not so daunting to me as it once was and, at a medium to up tempo, I can play some decent lines. Just don’t tell the jazz police.
Davey Schrock says
What a timely reminder! Spot On Adam!Enjoy the process and love the Journey!
Ron Warren says
Adam, I am a huge Victor Wooten fan(and Adam Rafferty fan) and have his dvd that discusses groove. It has opened up my ears in a way that I never imagined. I bought it for my son who plays bass but I find myself watching it again and again for positive reinforcement. I have a good handle on basic theory and I continue to study but I have changed my approach due to Wooten’s dvd. I am going to order Longo’s dvd for the same reason. The guys on the jazz forum give me grief because I tell them I no longer think about theory when I play. Admittedly I am not where I want to be as a jazz musician but I have made more progress since I let what I have learned get to my fingers without all the tension thinking about theory causes. Question, I bought a Djembe what will I learn from the Longo dvd?
Washington Johnson says
l recently finished a book recommended by another musician. lt’s calledd |The practicing Mind”
ln it , it also talks about the “Process” and how we are a results orientative society.. l needed to read your post Adam. Just a reminder of why l am practicing. l am really getting into the process of learning and how l learn. And not just music, which this book talks about other aspects in your life. A great read and a website that the author has..
Nige Haynes says
Thanks Adam, that’s truly inspiring. I feel a little better now about times when it gets tough to stick at the hard work without getting any instant results.
Carlos Camarasa says
I love your words always , you hit the point , you are a philosopher , thank you so much for publishing , you are inspiring .
Jody Keeler says
hi adam –
good blog – thanks for posting it.. i often don’t realize that i’ve passed the plateau until some time after the fact… its plod, plod, plod (and enjoying the plodding) and then a’ll of a sudden i find myself improvising, playing fluently or otherwise easily using the material i’ve been working on. that’s a satisfying feeling.
keep up the good work. i always enjoy your tips.
John Russell says
All true. I’ve been playing for 40 years and it was only 2 years ago that something connected for me and my playing speed and accuracy really took off and surprised me. The cool thing is, I have retained that ability, it’s not an on-off thing, it’s there for me to utilize when I want. I struggled with speed and accuracy for a long time. I have tried every kind of pick and technique to improve, and I believe I am right back to where I started, same pick, same technique, but I’ve gotten real good at it, I wouldn’t use the word mastered, because I haven’t but I am darn good at it. My entire journey has been like that, guitar never came easy for me, but the guitar is such a totally groovy thing I have spent countless hours, days and years getting good at it. I’m good, but no where near the finish line. Peace!
Rick Brooks says
I’ve come to understand the “plateaus” as periods where I’m assimilating/integrating what I’ve learned during the “growth spurts”. It’s like breathing in and breathing out, and a natural part of the learning process. That said, I usually have 2 or 4 paths I’m working on … vocal tunes, fingerstyle instrumentals, and more recently, bluegrass flatpicking. If I get bogged down on one, I back off a bit, and concentrate on another.
Rick Hansen says
What a great post. Thank you for your words of wisdom. Like most folks, I feel those lonely plateaus, and sometimes it feels like I am the only one going through this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience.
This line says it all for me…”When I practice, I do it for the love of doing it.” Interestingly, I’ve been playing guitar for 45 years and practicing karate for 44. Lots of parallels in training methodolgies.
I’ve been playing guitar for just about 50 years……all genres…..at one point I thought I was pretty good playing blues and ragtime to small audiences….family mostly….then arthritis kicked in and for a while I just couldn’t play anything…..now with a few drugs I’m starting to play again although barre chords still hurt…..never give up though…!
Paul Price says
“Mastery” in music is a misconception.There is always more, and it’s the journey, not the destination. If you feel you have mastered something, you’ve missed the point. Pablo Casals summed it up when asked why he still practiced when he was in his 90’s. “I feel I’m making progress.”
Paul ABSOLUTELY. I stare into the endless void just like I did as kid. No end in sight!
Tobias Sebastien says
it is so amazing that you point out this subject right now, where I really feel like being on such a plateau. And yes the process is exactly what is the most satisfying.
Thanks Adam for sharing your thoughts
Stephen Lennartz says
Great info, Adam! When I hit a plateau … I try to visit areas where I’ve not been before. For example … a few months ago I definitely hit the wall. So I started ‘filling my head’ with … uh … country music. Really, not much of a fan at all but I really did a deep dive and found there is some amazing material out there.
Johnny Cash (more of a great story teller than guitarist), early Les Paul, Glen Campbell, and of course, Chet Atkins. Man oh man–great sources of inspiration there!
The more I listened … absorbed … and ‘studied’ … the more some of these inspirational notes & techniques came out in my playing. Highly recommended!
Thanks Stephen! Listening is key…
David Pike says
I’m a fan of “a change is as good as a rest” . Start something new, and you usually enter the steep climb again: some of my “something new”s :
– a layoff. I’m not recommending it, and I didn’t intend it, but life got in the way for ~25 years for me. I discovered when I started back, I could play faster, with more musicality and expression, and I was able to see a path to playing things that had previously seemed impossible. There was no FingerStyle as we now know it in the 80’s, except for Chet Atkins and a few of his friends. Before the layoff, I just wrote off anything Chet did as the domain of players with special and elevated skills, not accessible to mere mortals. With age and wisdom, I now see the way to learn them, and I know it is within my capability.
a particular technique. Vibrato for example. I was never happy with my ability there, but then along came the internet with video instruction, and people who could teach it. In this case I saw an online interview with BB King where he revealed some methods to his unique vibrato style, and suddenly I had a starting point that was real and possible
a new learning topic. For me it was a book on mastering the fingerboard. It took me on a journey through guitar music theory, and specific techniques for learning new songs, jamming, playing by ear. I plan to write a blog post about the book.
a related skill. I realized that my fingers had atrophied in my layoff, so I found some sources for finger gymnastics, and I do them every day. My hands are beginning to look like a guitarist’s, and I am confident that in time I will have the kind of reach, strength and finger independence I need to play the kind of music I admire.
Learn new songs. My repertoire is limited to challenging pieces that I am learning over time. But we all need to have a repertoire of the everyday standards that let us communicate with other players. I plan to blitz them to try for 30 easy songs in 30 days. After I’ve mastered the fretboard, I think.
… and so on. The point is, there are plenty of new skills and new knowledge you can acquire that will give you a bit of rest from your routine practice, and I find they kick me into another gear, every time. For me, I find that’s more productive than waiting for an everyday practice breakthrough. Obviously I’m not as far along as Adam (by a long shot), and the reality is I have a lot less time in my life to get there. Forcing the breakthroughs is how I will do it. And it keeps me motivated to try new things all the time.
I guess I should turn this reply into a blog post of its own. One more thing to do when practicing starts to drag.
Zoran Cikovac says
Thanks Adam for the nice thoughts about the grey zone in everything we do, especially in playing instrument!
alan smee says
You are the coolest guy on here ..you have the ability to come into our practise place inside our head,
and in the physical place..and make us feel better..
Yesung Kang says
I’m 14 years old, and I think I’m stuck on a plateau for 2 years already. This article was a great help. Thanks!
Bridget Gerard says
Thank you Adam for your words of inspiration. I have just passed my first anniversary of starting my guitar journey, and feel like I have hit a plateau. It’s really comforting to know that it happens to everyone. Can’t wait to pick up my guitar tonight! Thanks!
Chaz Gross says
Many thanks Adam. As a recent fan receiving your tips I have truly enjoyed the depth and insightful approach you have going on. Really delightful, and I hear this in your music – you have a definitive thing that is thoroughly cool.
Of course the Stevie Wonder stuff is what hooked me……
After a number of so called “music teachers” I discovered that some do not know how to teach. They play very well but that’s where it ends. Teaching takes ability. Some do not have it.
I find that the best fix for a plateau is to jump into something entirely different. Stephen Lennartz suggests an entirely new genre. For him, he’s never explored country, so that’s the best way out of the rut. You could pick a guitarist you’ve never played before, and try to learn a wide range of his music and add it to your everyday repertoire. When you come back to what you have been practicing up to now, it will seem brand new, and you will see all sorts of new possibilities. If you have particular techniques that you know aren’t working, pick one and work on it exclusively for a month. Again, a change is as good a rest, and you’ll be instinctively take your old music to a new (or just different) plateau. Join someone else’s band and focus on playing what he wants, the way he wants. Any topic you’ve never tried before, exclusively for a month or so will shake you out of the rut, and add new dimensions to your playing as well. Remember that Insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting the outcome to change. Change for change’s sake is a valid approach when what you’re doing has gone stale.
And Stephen, don’t be too quick to dismiss today’s Country. It’s not just Maybelle Carter and Tammy Wynette any more. More and more, the writing is professionally done, and the musicianship has surpassed almost every other genre. When these guys perform, they’re always doing it live, and improvising anew. The singing and harmony is also live and adventurous. Meanwhile Rock has devolved into electronic knob-twiddling, Rap (very creative, but not creatively musical), and specialty genres – Lesbian Rock, Political Rock, Paul Simon Revival, Azerbaijani Rock, Hindu Rock. whatever – that is about being different for the sake of being different, and no longer about music. I’m not always crazy about the subject matter of Country Music, but country musicians always play live, keep it new, and only the musically talented make the grade in Nashville, Real Pro singers writers and players, in cowboy boots and Stetsons. sure, but playing good music for real every time. Even though I don’t ‘get’ country, it’s one of the first stops on my Radio dial,
it is the same in learning languages. It takes years to bring yourself just to a conversational level. If you don’t enjoy the process it is so easy to quit.
I am a an old beginner and I know it will take me much longer to a level I can start playing what I want. However, I love the process of learning guitar. That is why I will be comfortable with guitar in ” few ” more years
Good word AR.
If someone had said: “I want you to learn these 12 things – do do# re re# mi fa fa# so so# la la# ti”…. it wouldn’t sound too daunting. IT’S ONLY 12 !!! Yet we will spend our entire lives without mastering them.
In the beginning, I wish someone had explained this to me: there is no finish line and no destination. The frustration regarding plateaus eminates from the belief that there is an arrival point: TADA ! (Balloons take flight – Confetti falls – pretty girl kisses you as a ribbon is pinned to your lapel). So we spend our years in the back seat saying: “Are we there yet?”; awaiting that long overdue kiss (’cause who really cares about ribbons).
Nope, it is the journey and that is what it will always be. So roll down the window, enjoy the view and stick your arm out and do that flying hand thing. It’s a good ride.
Thank you Rob!
Chris Kalafus says
Thanks for sending this…your articles have a way of hitting inbox at the right time. I’m trying to break through my current plateau by tackling Billie Jean. So far it has inspired some cool moments!