We all had times where our playing seems to go nowhere. The growth of a musician’s skill is rarely linear. Step Theory is how I view musical improvement.
Whenever we start something new, there’s the initial period of frustration, then we take off. The beginning stages of playing music are usually smooth going, and we pick up things quick as the basics are assimilated.
This period is represented by the initial slope of the graph.
The First Plateau (and a Taste of Frustration)
After the initial stages, comes the first plateau. A time period where the student feels as if they go nowhere. The quick-coming improvement of the beginning stage is over, and the student must adjust.
This is the first step on on the graph. What begins to happen is that improvements are made slower — pretty much unnoticeable. But after some perseverance, the student makes a jump to the next step.
With each step it seems to take longer to progress to the next “level.” The gains made at each level get smaller. In other words, as a higher level is reached, it takes more work to improve a lesser amount.
My initial improvement with classical guitar was my first two years of undergrad work. Everything was easy, and I was moving quickly.
However, there have been several times during my classical guitar career where I’ve had periods of frustration. I can tell when I’m close to the breaking point and a seemingly magical bout of improvement because everything feels hard. My confidence levels go down, and it seems like nothing works. I give terrible performances and generally get kind of depressed about my playing. Then there’s a sudden “growth spurt” and I’m back to coasting or gradual improvement for a while.
I remember my first plateau being around the beginning of the third year of undergrad work. I was super frustrated, and felt like I was going no where. I practiced my ass off, and was very frustrated by some personal things going on. Then BAM a few months before my junior recital stuff seemed to start clicking. I experienced a similar plateau at the end of my senior year, right around audition times and my senior recital. The spurt of improvement after that plateau came during my first semester of grad school.
What do you think of this? Teachers? Students? What has been your experience?