Hitting the Plateau–and What to Do About It

I get comments like these in my email inbox occasionally:

“It’s been really difficult to get my daughter to sit down and practice for the past couple weeks.”

“My son is talking about quitting because he says it’s too hard.”

“We have been struggling to keep our daughter interested in piano.”

These examples are issues of motivation.

It may surprise you to know that think about this all the time. I’m sure other instructors do, too, as the forums and blogs are replete with remedies to this problem. The thing is, there is no “one size fits all” solution, despite our deepest wishes. Every student is different (yeah, I know, SURPRISE!). One thing we have in common, though, is that learning does not occur in a linear fashion. If one were to graph how most people understand the learning process, it would look something like this:

common perception new skill

However, most people hit learning “plateaus,” in which they aren’t constantly mastering new material. A more realistic graph looks like this:

actual new skill

Motivation is highest where the above graph is increasing, i.e., where we feel like we are constantly making great progress and constantly learning new things. Motivation drops off when we’re on the plateau. A learning plateau could be due to many things. It could be due to having to spend a lot of time learning a skill or a piece of knowledge. It could be due to a lack of instant mastery. Or, it may occur when the “new” wears off of music lessons and the reality sets in that learning music takes work and effort. This plateau is a challenge that must be overcome to progress in music.

Slide1A plateau doesn’t always lead to a lack of motivation. Some folks enjoy and embrace challenges. However, I’ve seen a lot of high-achieving kids–those kids for whom school is easy, for example–have trouble staying motivated when the music gets harder. Here are some solutions I’ve come up with to stay motivated during the plateaus.

  1. Embrace the slow down, and be patient. This plateau time is, unfortunately, when parents have difficulty getting their kids to sit down and practice. It is critical that parents tell the teacher of these difficulties; motivation can be inhibited by trying to work through material too quickly, and a slow-down is in order. Kids are more motivated if they can master, then use, a specific skill relatively quickly. I have most students in 2-3 method books that are roughly at the same level but by different publishers. Different skills are emphasized at different times, and the students get more practice on each skill. The plateaus due to difficulty can be a particular blow to the ego as pieces are sometimes assigned for multiple lessons. There is nothing wrong with having to work on a piece for a while; it is not uncommon for professionals to spend years working on a piece music. Indeed, I have a Chopin waltz that falls into the “requires patience” category.
  2. Find material you want to learn. A lot of people look at “repertoire” or “the classics” as drudgery. There is a lot to be learned by studying the works of the masters, and we do some of that in my studio. However, I’m mostly a method teacher, and when it comes to repertoire I turn less to the classics than to songs people want to learn. For most of us, the songs we want to learn are things we’ve heard on a recording somewhere. I have students bring in at least one song of their choosing to work on so they have buy-in. Often, the song a student chooses is harder than their current level, which pushes them to try new things earlier than they might otherwise.
  3. Try something else. Sometimes variety is the kick people need. When I’m tired of the piano, I pick up the guitar. When I teach, I teach a variety of topics including composition, transcription, improvisation, as well as reading and technique. Heck, I even bring in other instruments like the organ, synthesizer, kazoo, djembe, mouthbow, and harmonica. I had one student who was not ready for the Bastien Piano Library Book 1 because he could not wrap his head around key signatures, a concept that’s introduced relatively early in that book. He hated it, so he didn’t practice it. We switched to Faber Piano Adventures, which delays key signatures. Another student was not ready for (or interested in) Bach so we are working on the blues. Another student couldn’t sit still at the piano so we found a curved stick in the yard, attached a guitar string to it, and built a mouthbow. If things are truly intractable, a new teacher may be the answer. Regardless, there are a lot of things to try before giving up.
  4. Try not to quit. You have put a lot of time, effort, and money into learning to play an instrument. Learning an instrument is like any other new skill–it takes practice. Take a look back at your own life. I’ll bet that the things that were most worth doing in the long run were not the easiest things you’ve tried. I’ve never met an adult who said to me “I sure regret sticking with music lessons.” I hear a lot of adults tell me they wish they’d stuck with it, or, for my fellow musicians, how beneficial music is in their lives.
  5. Be careful “taking time off.” In my experience, the phrase “we are going to take some time off” usually means “we are done with music lessons.” I have had several students take “time off” and even after several years, they have not restarted (with me or another teacher). So, be honest with yourself and your teacher if you decide to stop taking music lessons.
  6. Sometimes you just have to work through it. Take a piece a measure at a time. When you learn the first measure, learn the second measure, then combine them. Keep adding measures. Time is sometimes a good way to practice–set a timer for 5 minutes and work until the timer goes off. Take a short break and then go for another 5 minutes.

I haven’t said anything about quitting–sometimes that is the right answer, too, as learning to play an instrument isn’t for everyone. However, most people can get something out of the process, from understanding music better to playing Christmas carols during the holidays. It is worthwhile to work through at least a few learning plateaus.

Thanks for reading!

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