A student’s first lessons with a new private music teacher are usually a mixture of excitement and possibility, nerves, and often a bit of overwhelm. Over the course of a few lessons, a perceptive teacher will identify certain areas of technique, posture, musicianship, reading skills, listening skills, performing skills, etc. that could use improvement. This can be disheartening, but incredibly valuable, like keys to buried treasure. That treasure is your progress!
A good teacher will explain his or her findings, explain the why, what, and how of the presenting situation, and offer ideas and exercises to remedy the existing problem, or help move you forward to the next level.
A good teacher will make a plan (covering months or even years!) for your progress, but address just one or two really important aspects of playing and performance at a time. Ideally, the teacher would present any overhauling or new learning in an order that builds skills systematically. For instance, addressing how the student holds and guides the bow, then tone, then bow strokes. It would be quite illogical to teach advanced bow strokes when the overall tone could use improvement. Similarly, teaching a student vibrato when his or her intonation is not consistent enough to find the pitches in general doesn’t make common sense.
If a teacher applies sound principles of playing and teaching, and the student is willing to practice, most of the time a student will see significant and sometimes monumental progress in the first few months of lessons. A fresh perspective brings new awareness and as we clean up old habits and learn new skills we see and feel the difference.
However, it is also quite natural and I believe, sometimes quite positive, to plateau at times. It does not necessarily mean we need to change teachers, or that our teacher no longer has much to offer our progress. It also does not have to mean we have “gone as far as possible” on our chosen instrument.
Especially when we're integrating many new skills, a plateau is actually a sign that you’re finally stable. It’s likely not the ultimate level you’d like to reach eventually, which can make any plateau very frustrating, but, like any dynamic, living, breathing system, it is a period of equilibrium and a time to cement pervious learnings. Anyone who has spent time with babies, human or otherwise, has probably noticed the cyclical periods of growth followed by the periods of stability. It is a similarly jagged, but hopefully upward climb, when learning to play a musical instrument.
However, when a plateau has been going on for more than 4-8 months, especially with a child or teenage student, and is accompanied by an increasing lack of interest in practicing, it generally means we need to try something new, get a new perspective, try a new style, or maybe try a different practice routine or approach.
Here are several ideas, in no particular order, to help jump start your continued musical progress:
- Squeeze all the benefits out of your current private lessons: Ask more questions. Take notes, or better yet, ask your teacher if you can record your lessons (audio and/or video) for more in depth home study. Also, ask your teacher if you can use one of your lessons to discuss your long term goals and draw up a plan for your success. Especially if you’ve been head down preparing orchestra/audition/jury music for a few years, both of you may have drifted away from that initial reason why you began playing an instrument, taking lessons, and what you hope to share through music in the future.
- Find a time, place, and reason to share music with others: Preparing for a performance, or planning a casual sight reading party or jam session with friends can be a great way to get inspired and re-dedicate yourself to your musical progress. Though often at least a little stressful, performance is a master at getting a student on task and on track. Similarly, though often less stressful, playing with others, especially when it’s not something someone does regularly, often sheds light on new areas of interest and often creates just a bit of healthy competition that can help propel a student to the next level.
- Try a new style, try a new piece: Sometimes we are plateau-ing because what we’re playing is simply at the same level of everything we’ve been playing, for months, or years! It may be time to step it up a bit. Maybe you’ve always wanted to fiddle? Or maybe you fiddle and wonder what you’d sound like on Bach? Maybe you’ve been avoiding double stops like the plague, but really need to dive in and add them to your repertoire? Finding a way to stretch yourself every so often, either with a new style or new, more challenging repertoire, will help you grow and stay inspired. It may seem like common sense, but especially if you’re learning without a teacher, it’s easy to get in a repertoire rut sometimes.
- Try a new teacher: Yes, sometimes we learn everything a teacher has to teach, and that’s actually a really good sign! However, sometimes we simply need a new perspective at that time in our life. Several of my online violin, viola, and fiddle students, for example, also take lessons with local teachers and have found me in searching for a “second opinion” and/or to learn a specific style or technique I have to offer. I think having two teachers who are willing to work in tandem is a wonderful asset to any student! Though I loved all my teachers, I wish I’d had the option of a specialized Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom teacher too when I was a child! In my experience, teachers generally side with either a repertoire or a technique focus. Many also effectively combine both, and all combine at least some of each. Students coming to me who already have a teacher are generally wanting more of a technical focus, being with a teacher who focuses mostly on learning new repertoire, perhaps in an orchestra setting, though sometimes in the studio as well. A student may feel he or she can play the pieces, but not with the skill and grace he or she hopes to. The balance between myself and the other teacher can actually work really well - the other teacher might direct much of the repertoire, while I take the focus of polishing it, rounding out the technique, and providing supplementary repertoire.
- Listen more and record yourself regularly: Sometimes we plateau because we literally cannot hear what could improve. As science has told us about the brain, we can only see (and hear) what we know. If we aren’t attuned to them, we can’t hear the out of tune notes, the tone that could be better, the vibrato that could have more life in it, or the phrasing that could be more dramatic or more subtle. A teacher could tell us all day what they think we should change and how to do it, but if we cannot hear the issue when it’s happening, it’s nearly impossible to make that change. Though recording yourself can be disheartening when issues do come to light for the first time, recording and re-recording yourself can be a wonderful way to find and resolve issues that are holding you back. If nothing else, having a log of your playing can help show you over time that you are (hopefully!) improving.
- Try a new instrument or bow: When I was 16, I realized that the violin I’d had since I was 12 was holding me back. It was a hard fact to admit, as I loved that violin, but when I realized that I could actually play better than that instrument would let me, I asked my parents if they’d help me buy a new one. Realizing that the timing was such that I’d be able to pass my old violin on to one of my advancing students and still visit with it each week, I eagerly went shopping and found the violin I still play today. And sure enough, I progressed by leaps and bounds in the first few years with that new violin. Similarly, a new bow can sometimes help you move forward in your playing. I went shopping for a new bow that could do better tricks in 2010 and realized nuances and strokes I hardly considered before.
- Adjust your practice routine: Maybe it’s time to overhaul HOW you practice. Sometimes we plateau because we simply are not using our practice time as effectively as we could. For starters, download my free podcast episodes “Practice Mastery #1” and “Practice Mastery #2” for tips and ideas for better practice. They’re my most downloaded episodes, for good reason - without practice, progress is slow, at best. Download the Violin Geek Podcast at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/violin-geek-podcast/id374305295
Whenever I get down about not being where I’d like to be in my playing (we are our own worst critics after all), I always like to remember a cartoon I saw a few years back. On one side is the drawing of an upward diagonal arrow and a description saying basically “what others think success is like”. On the other, a jumbled up mess of a line...but then a victorious arrow extending upward from it and the description “what success is really like”. Like any stock trader knows, some days, and some quarters, are better than others. Overall, our goal is for our musical ability and enjoyment to close our days higher, and closer to the unattainable “mastery” we will forever aspire to.