Peaks and Plateaus

My boy was two years old this weekend (bare with me, this isn’t a baby post, I promise). It’s absolutely astonishing how much more capable he is now than this time last year.

I remember a couple of months ago I was thinking he seemed to have been at the same level for a while. Then, in the last few weeks I’ve noticed a huge advancement, both physically and vocally. it’s quite startling. He’s started toddling, for one thing, and he’s stringing words (or sounds-like words at least) together in new ways.

The point being, it got me thinking about the learning process.

People often feel like no matter how much they practice they’re not advancing, and they can’t make the next leap. Being able to control bends in isolation but not while playing a song is a common example.

I’ve got two responses to that. The first is that – believe it or not – you actually are advancing. I know because I’m listening to you week-on-week and there are always improvements. You don’t notice it yourself because the improvements are incremental and you hear yourself every day (and because people are still too timid about recording themselves, but that’s a subject for another day).

The second response is that the Peaks and Plateaus theory is real. For whatever reason, it seems to be the way people are wired. Learners often find they have periods of rapid progression (peaks) which seem to stall suddenly and you feel like you’re stationary for weeks (plateaus). Lord knows I’ve spent more time than I want to think about on plateaus.

So, unfortunately, you need to accept this as part of the learning process. It does happen to most people and it’s normal. Don’t fret, you haven’t hit the ceiling of your capability. In fact, if you’re feeling a plateau, it probably means you’re nearer the end than the beginning. I have a few pieces of advice for navigating these seemingly endless deserts.

Firstly, it’s a good time to take stock and review everything you’ve learned so far. Have another look at the first song you learned. Remember how intimidating and impossible it seemed to begin with? Now it’s child’s play! Or if not child’s play, it’s at least not the behemoth it once was. You tamed the beast. There’s no reason on earth you can’t do the same with the challenges you face today. Not only will you be able to play the song, you’ll be able to really play it. Now you’ve internalised the techniques you’re free to concentrate on the sound you are making, and really put some feeling into it. Even more important than that, you’ll be able to play for fun, not just because you need to practice.

The second is to find some fresh material at your skill level. Something that isn’t a pushover but is within your capabilities. You can find and learn a song, that’s cool and useful. But just think, there’s a million licks out there. Steal some or make up your own and use Barrett’s Chorus From process to memorise and use them in different contexts. For me, that’s where the real joy of blues harmonica is.

Hint three is to take a day or two off. I always talk about the importance of practicing every day, but I don’t necessarily mean every day without fail for the rest of your life. You don’t need to obsess over it. On returning from a break (even a few hours sometimes) people find that suddenly – almost magically – things don’t seem as difficult as they did before. Weirdly, taking a break can sometimes kickstart you towards the next peak. You should always take a break if you’re getting properly frustrated and/or angry. You’re doing this for fun, right?

There’s a lot more to be said on this subject, but I thought it worthwhile to put these thoughts out there. Hopefully it will help/inspire/reassure some folk. David Barrett has a saying “You will be able to do it, you just don’t know when”. Or, to put it more cliched way, it’s not about the destination dude, it’s about the journey! Enjoy the ride.