Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Getting Through a Slump

How do I know a student is going through a slump?  If I can't tell by their playing, I can sure tell by what they say.  We all know how it is...things are rolling along just fine, and then all of a sudden it seems like we've made no noticeable progress.  Or worse yet -- you can't do things that you used to be able to do!

I actually don't view these times as slumps, but rather as plateaus.  Everyone has periods of time where there doesn't seem to be any progress followed by periods of time where progress is very noticeable.  This is in addition to the fact that daily playing varies from time to time as well!  One day, you play well, another day you can't even get through the simplest song.  How do you manage to get through these times?

First of all, remember that you are not alone!  That way, as you are working your way through the plateau, you remain optomistic about actually getting through it!  Encourage others who are going through this, as we all need to know we will actually get through it.

Second of all, a plateau is a normal part of progression, and the longer you have been playing and the better you play, the longer the plateaus will be.  Even professional musicians have them.  I had been on a plateau with my fiddle several years ago that lasted several years.  I was playing okay, but there were many things I wanted to be able to do that I couldn't do.  I faithfully practiced them, employing all kinds of techniques to help me get better, but I saw no REAL progress.  One of the things that got me through this plateau is my next point...

A different instrument can help you in some cases.  Now I'm not saying that buying another instrument is the answer, but it can help in some situations.  In the case of my fiddle plateau, this different fiddle that I got was a miracle for me.  And I have seen this for others as well.  I had a good fiddle, but my "new" fiddle was simply easier to play and I was finally able to do some of the things I had been working at for so long.  And I'm talking for years I worked diligently at these things.  My "new" fiddle had a skinnier neck and it was angled more towards the E string side and I was finally able to reach some things with my little finger that I couldn't reach before.

Sometimes when you just can't get something, it helps to do something different.  This is where the cliche "don't through out the baby with the bathwater" comes in.  Why get rid of the whole song when there is just a small section of it you can't play?  Do something different in that section, or get rid of it altogether if it is just a variation.  You can keep working on the part, but just leave it out of your "playable" version.

Now, if we are talking about going backwards, there can be several causes for this.  You probably just need to slow down.  It's hard to do, so don't think you can't do this.  One of the phases of learning is "auto pilot" mode.  Most people never get past this phase.  Good teachers do because they have to teach others.  The three phases of learning are:  1) I know everything I do and I have to think about it as I do it; 2) I play on auto pilot and don't have to think about what I do.  If I start thinking about it, I can't do it; 3) I know everything I do, and I can play it at any speed that I am physically capable of playing.  You may have to get your tab or music out for this phase, or you may have to play through parts of the song up-to-speed to be able to figure out what you are actually doing.  Then you should practice the song REALLY SLOW so that you are focusing on technique.  Make every note as perfect as you can.  Make every technique or bowing as good as you can.  A metronome can be helpful in this because it will keep you playing slowly.  When I say slow, I mean REALLY slow.  Most of my students still play rather fast when I tell them to play slow.  I have to tell them to slow down several times before they get slow enough.  Pretend like you're teaching someone else how to play the song.  They are going to listen to you and need to be able to see and hear individual notes and phrases.  This technique is good regardless of where you are at in your playing.

If speed is your issue, and I mean that in the sense that you aren't able to play fast, then you will have to start practicing playing fast to get faster.  A metronome is also very helpful for this because you can write down what speed you are at and you will be able to actually see when your speed is getting faster because of the numbers. 

The most important thing is to keep going!  Talk to other musicians.  They will know what you are going through!  It can be a big help to hear how others have "weathered the storm," so to speak.  Keep on playing music!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Can't second your tips enough -- especially, (1) the metronome has been the saving grace for me and many other musician friends of mine going through plateaus in their playing; they are wonderful tools. And (2) I can't echo enough the importance of finding an instrument one really likes. There were so many issues connected to my own instrument frustrations before I found something that truly inspired me, affecting everything from how much I wanted to practice daily to how well I performed. It's amazing what even playing someone else's instrument for a while (e.g., in a jam session) can do for a player if one is feeling downhearted about one's playing.

Additionally, I find that playing with different people (other than the norm) also helps shorten and/or eliminate plateaus immensely. It always inspires me, giving me new ideas and a rejuvenated spirit for playing!

Thanks for bringing this up, Chris!!!