From OK to Excellent: Overcoming Learning Plateaus

Overcoming Learning Plateaus

Ask yourself this: have you gotten any better at typing on a computer keyboard in the last couple of years? For most people, the answer is no. While at first, it takes time to get better at typing, after some time, we become ‘fluent’ at it. Your fingers ‘know’ where to find each letter, and you can type without really thinking about it.

The takeaway is this: merely doing something a lot is not always enough to get better at it. Often when we reach a certain level, we stop improving. The same happens in music. We practice, and that helps us improve. We reach a point where we’re pretty comfortable on our instrument, are familiar with basic music theory, and are able to learn new pieces pretty effectively. But then progress starts to slow or even grinds to a halt … How do you break through that plateau? That’s what we’ll explore in this article. You’ll learn what exactly is holding you back and how to start improving again by adopting a different approach and a different mindset.

Three phases of learning

Whenever we learn a new skill, we go through three phases.

1. The cognitive phase

In this first phase, we’re trying to understand the task at hand, figuring out strategies to best carry it out, and making a lot of mistakes. This stage requires a lot of focus and intense concentration.

2. The associative phase

In the next stage, we know how to perform a task. We start making fewer and fewer mistakes and gradually get better.

3. The autonomous phase

We can call this last step the ‘automatic stage.’ This is where we stop paying conscious attention to what we’re doing, leaving us free to focus on other things.

The autonomous stage is a pretty good place to be. You’ve reached a level that’s ‘good enough’ for most of the music you want to play. It’s also very convenient to not have to focus on a skill anymore. You can do it pretty much automatically. But the downside is that you also don’t get any better at that skill. You’re stuck at what writer Joshua Foer calls the OK plateau: you’re not great at something, but just OK. And that can become frustrating after a while.

Moving beyond the plateau

To overcome this plateau, you need to change your approach. You need to go back into the ‘cognitive phase,’ where you’re highly aware of what you’re doing, as well as how you can perform better. 

So, what does this look like in practice? Let’s say you have a melodic line, drum groove, or chord progression. You can play it. But can you play it perfectly? Slow it down dramatically so you can hear all those little imperfections creeping in. Maybe your intonation needs improvement. Maybe the timing of the bass drum is just a little bit off. Or perhaps that open guitar chord you consider to be easy actually sounds a bit sloppy. Doing this requires a different way of listening. You need to tune into the smallest details of your playing. It can really help to record yourself and listen back. The difference between hearing yourself playing in the moment and hearing it on a recording can be like day and night.

MakeMusic Cloud’s suite of practice tools are a great way to become more aware of the areas in your performance where you can improve. It can record and assess takes for pitch, rhythm, and intonation accuray as you play to help isolate areas to work on. It also has a built in metronome, professionally recorded backing tracks, and the ability to slow down sections of music for in-depth practice.

Whatever approach you use, the key is to have a fairly quick feedback loop. You need to play, get immediate feedback on how you did and then try again. This process requires a lot of focus and can be hard work! But that’s what practice was like in the early days when you started playing your instrument. And that’s where progress happens.

A key to effective practice

So you’ve identified what you want to improve, and you know you want to put in the practice to work on it. There’s one final tip I want to emphasize, even though you’ve probably heard it a million times before… 

Practice slowly.

Over the years, I must have heard this from a dozen teachers, but I honestly never really understood exactly why practicing slowly is so important. Of course, there’s an obvious reason to practice something slowly. At first, you’re simply incapable of playing a new piece at a higher tempo, so you slow down, and voilà, you can now manage. 

But there’s a second, more important reason to slow down. To understand it, we need to take a brief look at how the brain learns. Every time you make a movement with your hands, certain connections are being made in your brain. And every time a connection is made, that connection is strengthened. Strong connections mean something is easy to do, like tying your shoelaces or riding a bike. Weak connections mean something feels a little awkward, requires you to focus, and you still will make plenty of mistakes. But by repeating a certain movement, those weak connections are transformed from dirt roads into smoothly paved highways.

Here’s the problem: your brain doesn’t know when you’ve played something correctly or with mistakes. In both cases, the connection is strengthened. So every time you make a mistake, you’re making it more likely that you’ll make that mistake again. For instance, if you play a line three times and only get it right the last time, you’ve essentially reinforced the incorrect method twice and the correct one only once. In other words, practicing quickly and making mistakes is actually worsening your technique. But when you play slowly, you can make sure you play something flawlessly, thus strengthening the correct brain connections and gradually making your technique better and better.

Conclusion: a new mindset

Moving from OK to excellent requires practice, but it also requires a different way of thinking. Many musicians practice until they get it right. You could call this the ‘video game’ mentality: you only need to beat the final boss once to complete the game. But in music, true mastery means getting it right every single time. So our thinking should change. As the saying goes: don’t practice until you get it right; practice until you can’t get it wrong.

Just Rijna is a guitarist and educator based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He is the founder of StringKick, an online training academy for guitar players. StringKick is focused on helping you to train your ears, learn music theory and develop your musicality, all with the goal of making your musical journey more fun and fulfilling.

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