9 practice ideas to overcome plateaus

Latest Posts  •  November 7, 2016

You’ve probably experienced a ‘plateau’ at some point or another. You know, where you start out in a new skill, you progress quickly for a while, but then all of a sudden … you stop.

Plateaus are something (pro) musicians know all too well. It’s the moment when you hit a wall and it seems like you’re not making any progress at all – when it seems like no matter what you do, you’re not getting anywhere.

This doesn’t just happen to musicians. Plateaus show up in all areas of our lives. We experience them in our careers, our fitness levels, when learning a new language or following a new weight-loss plan, and the list goes on. The good news is: we can break through, blow past the plateau and progress again. All it takes is to switch things up a little bit to keep the inspiration alive.

So before we give you a list of 9 practice ideas to overcome your own plateau, let’s first explain the science behind it.

Researchers have been studying the plateau phenomenon for decades. In the 1960s, psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner discovered that every time we acquire a new skill, we naturally go through three stages:

In the first stage of skill acquisition, the cognitive phase, we’re concentrating hard on what we’re doing. We’re trying to figure out how to perform better and we’re making lots of mistakes.

In the second phase of skill acquisition, the associative phase, we’re starting to make fewer mistakes and are gradually getting better.

And finally, as we arrive in the third phase, the autonomous stage – we turn on autopilot. As soon as we’re getting good at the task without having to think about it, we reach a comfort zone. This is where the problems begin.

Our brains love comfort zones, they are what allow us to drive our cars almost automatically or brush our teeth without having to think about it. But when it comes to learning, comfort zones are the enemy. We can’t get better on autopilot. In order to improve, we have to step out of our comfort zones.

Comfort zones create plateaus.

Like most musicians, you probably enjoy to play the songs, in whole or in part, that you’re already good at. And of course you do! It’s fun to be good at something. But in order to get better at a skill, you have to force yourself to also focus on the parts that are hard, the parts you haven’t mastered yet.
Research by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and Co-Editor of The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, shows the best way to push past a plateau is to step out of your comfort zone. To benefit from practice you have to constantly challenge yourself. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean repeatedly doing only what you’re already good at.

It requires effort and isn’t necessarily enjoyable on its own. It requires a lot of motivation and a strong focus on your goals.

Here are 9 practical practice ideas that will help you disrupt your autopilot (but won’t kill the fun):

  • slow things down (go so slow that you highlight previously undetected mistakes)

  • speed things up (play faster than you normally would)

  • have a timed note reading race (keep track of your time)

  • review old pieces

  • memorize everything

  • practice outside in a new environment

  • practice at a different time of the day

  • go to a concert (get inspired by live music!)

  • read the biography of your favorite performer and find motivation in something other than playing

2020-04-27T07:22:42+00:00November 7th, 2016|

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