Step Theory

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.


Initial Gains

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.

Continuing Improvement

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.

Personal Experience

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?

Posted on in Classical Guitar Practice Tips


  • Chuck

    The music is enough, for sure, but if I didn’t believe there was another step up somewhere in my future, I think I’d get pretty frustrated.

    I think the random nature of the steps acts as a reinforcement. Studies show that consistent rewards are not as effective in modifying behavior as the random ones.

  • Steve C

    Is that what I’m in, a plateau? Yes riding the wave in the steep improvements I had as a beginner was easy. Now it seems like “pushing sh*t up hill”! (an Aussie saying). I’m looking forward to that next random step.

  • Greg Arney

    Yes, I know exactly what you mean. However, instead of relating it to specific plateaus, I find my playing very much tends to “rest on laurels”– the initial period of learning is fueled by obsession and lots of practice, as well as a paradigm shift. Once I gain some confidence, I tend to revert to the safety of the comfort zone I have created for myself.

    The solution I see to this is: (a) accept that I am not always able to notice progress in my playing, even when it is occuring; (b) list every category of my playing (repertoire, techniques, etc) and ask myself what I tend to over-play and what will be the most difficult and frustrating thing. For instance, I can sight-read single note melodies very comfortable in positions I – VI, but have a hard time in the upper positions because I haven’t had as much discipline and have “reverted” to comfortable areas.