Technical Plateaus, or "Why has my progress stalled"?

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Larry McDonald
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Technical Plateaus, or "Why has my progress stalled"?

Post by Larry McDonald » Tue Jan 01, 2019 9:25 pm

Hi everyone,
I don't recall every reading a thread on this topic. It's been my experience that impediments to one progress are mostly learned impediments, caused by invalid memory, both short term and long term. This thread concerns identifying why one stalls out in their progress. So, without further ado, technical plateaus can be caused by the following...

1. Faulty Mechanics. This is often the primary problem. An example of proper mechanics would be curved left-hand fingers, or a rest-stroke from the open-hand position. It's been my experience that plateaued students are not able to diagnose their mechanical problems, and are even more unfamiliar with appropriate remedial drill/etudes. This evaluation/remedy model is one of the roles of the teacher. Even one lesson or a master -class can make a world of difference with identifying and remediating some of your faulty mechanics. As you have discovered, these can be ghastly to correct since they reside in motor memory. Practice makes permanent, remember?

2. Inappropriately combined mechanics, also known as techniques. This is another motor-memory plateau (your brain performs complex combinations of mechanics, without conscious control). I call this level of study Segment Practice, or the stage at which the student investigates, discovers, and drives into motor memory the most economical solution to technical issues. These solutions are often different for different players. A segment has 5-9 individual mechanics, since this is the range of short-term memory. As an example, think of a segment in a Sor study as 1 measure plus one beat of music. A teacher can help the student identify segments that will not be stage secure, and suggest appropriate modifications. Be prepared to spend several months (or years) with a teacher at this level of study. Many of my students study on and off for several months at a time, and then take a few months to consolidate their new skill.

3. Poorly rehearsed Phrase-level-segmentation. This is the combination of 5-9 segments into a phrase (including dynamics, articulations, etc.), that ends with a cadence. This is the musical-memory plateau (you can sing along with your playing), and is actually quite easy to navigate if you have selected your segments so that each contains material from the preceding and succeeding segments. In other words, your segment choices overlap. This is mostly done with back-chaining, for reasons of short term-memory transfer into long-term memory. Phrase-level segmentation can be done without a teacher if the students' mechanics and segment practice skills are secure. If insecure, the student is wasting pieces since it is hard to undo bad phrase-level segmentation. As a teacher, I try to combine this study with the following...

4. The realization that you’ve become a copyist. This is the plateau that can be the most frustrating, and rewarding. How do we make another person’s music meaningful? Can we give a unique performance? Why do we prefer artist X over artist Y? How can I as a performer stay interested in a piece? Tough questions, for sure. At this level the student is tasked with applying their skills with music theory, form and analysis, and musical style. They need to take ownership of the music and make it theirs. This can take a lifetime. A student once asked Pablo Casals why he practiced so hard at age 92, after retiring from the concert hall. His answer, "I think I'm improving". Do you really believe that at his skill level he was worried about mechanics? I suspect not. He was likely still trying to improve his already world-class interpretations.

If you know of other reasons for technical plateaus, please don't hesitate to contribute to this thread. There are many non-technical reasons for plateaus, such as indifference to technical matters, physical limitations, etc., but please limit the discussion to technical and learned reasons for stalling out in ones progress.

All the best,
Lare
P.S. This is a copy of a post I made in the technique sub-forum.
Dr. Lawrence A. McDonald, D.M.A., Art Kaplan Fellow
Author of The Conservatory Tutor for Guitar
2018 Michael Thames "Ancient Dragon" Cd/Ir
2008 Michael Thames Cd/Br
Royal Conservatory Advanced Guitar and Theory Instructor

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Alexander Kalil
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Re: Technical Plateaus, or "Why has my progress stalled"?

Post by Alexander Kalil » Thu Jan 03, 2019 3:54 pm

Larry McDonald wrote:
Tue Jan 01, 2019 9:25 pm
If you know of other reasons for technical plateaus, please don't hesitate to contribute
Surely one reason for technical plateaus is the ominous belief popular amoung music enthusiasts that technique exercises by themselves will fix technique if only one practice them long and hard enough. And then you'll see many poor souls wasting hundreds and thousands of hours on all sorts of exercises trying to find the holy grail of technique and succeeding only in finding stalemate, frustration and injury. I've said it before and will say it again - exercises don't fix anything that's broken, teachers do.

(Okay I'm being a bit dramatic but you get the drift :D)

chien buggle
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Re: Technical Plateaus, or "Why has my progress stalled"?

Post by chien buggle » Fri Jan 04, 2019 2:23 am

Not sure if this fits into one of your categories Lare but not understanding the effects of excess body tension is one of the big technical plateaus I've seen in many players, myself included.

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Larry McDonald
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Re: Technical Plateaus, or "Why has my progress stalled"?

Post by Larry McDonald » Sat Jan 05, 2019 7:03 am

Both of these are great. Thanks.
-Lare
Dr. Lawrence A. McDonald, D.M.A., Art Kaplan Fellow
Author of The Conservatory Tutor for Guitar
2018 Michael Thames "Ancient Dragon" Cd/Ir
2008 Michael Thames Cd/Br
Royal Conservatory Advanced Guitar and Theory Instructor

Karen
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Re: Technical Plateaus, or "Why has my progress stalled"?

Post by Karen » Sun Jan 06, 2019 5:40 pm

I’m not sure how “technical” this is but ...
Choosing inappropriate music for your abilities. This is from the viewpoint of a (progressing) beginner. I am constantly being amazed at how deceptively simple guitar music can appear, yet there can be a big difference in how difficult it can be to play, even if it is all still in open position. Spending time on the easier music at the beginning level allows one to concentrate on technique while slowly developing the flexibility, strength, and coordination required to do some of the gymnastics later on, even at the lower levels. This is another point in favour of having a teacher, as mine seems to have a wonderful ability to choose music for me that challenges me where I need it most at the moment, but not so hard that I can’t feel a sense of accomplishment when I learn it.

Ausangate
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Re: Technical Plateaus, or "Why has my progress stalled"?

Post by Ausangate » Sun Jan 06, 2019 6:58 pm

I will point out to external causes that only an instructor can point out. Here I am referring to instrument, the strings, the way you are holding the guitar, etc. There are many things written about these, cut there are too many variables that depend on the physique of the student

Once again, the importance of a good instructor that one can visit once in a while that has the experience and wisdom to look for all these variables in the relationship student, instrument, and guitar support tools to help your seating and posture.

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Larry McDonald
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Re: Technical Plateaus, or "Why has my progress stalled"?

Post by Larry McDonald » Mon Jan 07, 2019 6:09 pm

Hi,
I thought of another reason for stalling out. Internal dialog can disrupt performance to the point that the student can't play, even-though they have practiced well. I've witnessed this a few times. It can be quite disheartening for some students.

Has this inner dialogue ever happened to you on stage?
“Ok. Here comes the hard part of the phrase. Relax and let it happen”.
[You inhale and clench. Ooops].

“I practiced it a lot and it’s still a bit dodgy, but I can get it 9 out of 10 tries.
[But it’s that 1 out of 10 that gets to you; do you hear that little drip of
panic?].

“Maybe I could slow down just a little, I’m always out of control here”.
[You only practiced to the recommended tempo].

“My girlfriend is smiling. The poor girl has heard this spot too many times”.
[You give her a distracted, crooked smile back to acknowledge her
patience with you].

“Damn, is that my old guitar teacher over there? He knows about this spot, too”.
[The jitters just kicked in. More panic dripping from the faucet]

"Stop Here!... wait... What??!"
[Panic pours in. You hesitate because this is how you practiced. You just
got a subconscious cue to stop and repeat this little bit of the hard part.]

"Go back somewhere!...where?...No..wait… I should continue…Aaaw CRAP!”.
[You stumble badly].

“What the hell just happened? That sounded like ass.”
[You tried relaxing (your teacher’s words). Impossible].

“I can’t seem to pick-up where I left off”.
[You never practiced re-entry points].

“Oh well, I’ll just restart at the next section. My girlfriend is giving me her
pouty-pity smile. And I want to smack that smirk off my old teacher’s
face!”

-Lare
Dr. Lawrence A. McDonald, D.M.A., Art Kaplan Fellow
Author of The Conservatory Tutor for Guitar
2018 Michael Thames "Ancient Dragon" Cd/Ir
2008 Michael Thames Cd/Br
Royal Conservatory Advanced Guitar and Theory Instructor

Tremeggio
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Re: Technical Plateaus, or "Why has my progress stalled"?

Post by Tremeggio » Tue Jan 08, 2019 10:30 pm

Alexander Kalil wrote:
Thu Jan 03, 2019 3:54 pm
Larry McDonald wrote:
Tue Jan 01, 2019 9:25 pm
If you know of other reasons for technical plateaus, please don't hesitate to contribute
Surely one reason for technical plateaus is the ominous belief popular amoung music enthusiasts that technique exercises by themselves will fix technique if only one practice them long and hard enough. And then you'll see many poor souls wasting hundreds and thousands of hours on all sorts of exercises trying to find the holy grail of technique and succeeding only in finding stalemate, frustration and injury. I've said it before and will say it again - exercises don't fix anything that's broken, teachers do.

(Okay I'm being a bit dramatic but you get the drift :D)
This is particularly true when it comes to tremolo. A billion hours of tremolo practise won’t get you there if the ergonomics aren’t right for your particular anatomy re: nails, wrist hand.

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guitarist_le
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Re: Technical Plateaus, or "Why has my progress stalled"?

Post by guitarist_le » Tue Jan 08, 2019 11:42 pm

Thanks for this. I have also plataeud and currently looking for a teacher. Been playing for 3 years now and I've become quite the copyist. But finding a qualified classical guitar teacher in Nebraska is tough.

Terpfan
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Re: Technical Plateaus, or "Why has my progress stalled"?

Post by Terpfan » Wed Jan 09, 2019 1:46 am

Has anyone tried to make tablature here?? Not just the frets, but left hand fingering and right hand fingering. When playing especially difficult pieces, you can concentrate on each hands separately. To really play well both left and right hand fingering has to be planned in advance. Many guitarists don't think too much about right hand fingering. I bet most concert guitarist can play the whole piece just the right hand alone.

Karen
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Re: Technical Plateaus, or "Why has my progress stalled"?

Post by Karen » Wed Jan 09, 2019 6:36 pm

On a more positive note about experiencing plateaus, here is something that is circulating in the art/photography world. Apropos to the art of music too I believe.
You do not have the required permissions to view the files attached to this post.

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Robin
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Re: Technical Plateaus, or "Why has my progress stalled"?

Post by Robin » Thu Jan 10, 2019 7:24 pm

@Karen: Your post about our skill at making art (or music) and our skill at seeing or evaluating our ability to make art (or music) is quite profound and a valuable point in this discussion. When we feel that we are stuck, we tend to think that either we are at the end of our ability or that we are doing something wrong but perhaps it is really all just part of the process. Sometimes the growth slows and goes underground so we can't see it. During these phases we may consider giving up but if we keep working, searching, adapting and believing there is a point when we, once again, can see growth and may experience a leap in our skills. What a wonderful visual you shared!

@Lare: Thank you for sharing these thoughts. They give voice to what we all commonly experience but don't always put into words. It's during times like these that we benefit from a teacher who can provide perspective from a different vantage point.

Best,

Robin
So much music, so little time.

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Steve Kutzer
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Re: Technical Plateaus, or "Why has my progress stalled"?

Post by Steve Kutzer » Thu Jan 10, 2019 7:37 pm

George Leonard wrote a lovely little book called Mastery. The key takeaway from this book is to "learn to love the plateau". The path to Mastery is stepped improvement followed by long plateaus. The start of the book has graphs of different kinds of learner such as "the dabbler" and "the perpetual beginner". I think if you follow a deliberate practice regimen and stick to it, you will see improvement; it's just that this improvement won't be continuous. You'll stagnate, even go down in skill from time to time, but sooner or later you'll take another step up.
See my technology (and guitar!) site CIO Dojo

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Robin
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Re: Technical Plateaus, or "Why has my progress stalled"?

Post by Robin » Fri Jan 11, 2019 12:28 pm

Steve Kutzer wrote:
Thu Jan 10, 2019 7:37 pm
George Leonard wrote a lovely little book called Mastery. The key takeaway from this book is to "learn to love the plateau". The path to Mastery is stepped improvement followed by long plateaus. The start of the book has graphs of different kinds of learner such as "the dabbler" and "the perpetual beginner". I think if you follow a deliberate practice regimen and stick to it, you will see improvement; it's just that this improvement won't be continuous. You'll stagnate, even go down in skill from time to time, but sooner or later you'll take another step up.
Thank you for this book recommendation. I'm going through a period of accelerated growth (self induced) as a musician which inevitably involves frequent crashes! This book may be a helpful and timely resource....on my way to that other website to order it....

Robin
So much music, so little time.

Carey
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Re: Technical Plateaus, or "Why has my progress stalled"?

Post by Carey » Fri Jan 11, 2019 6:17 pm

I agree that Leonard's 'Mastery' is a very good book. Took me quite some time (and aging, I think!) to really internalize the advice, though. Got to buy another copy myself.

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