Dealing w/a Musical Plateau... (2003)
A lot of aspiring music students come to me expressing frustration over their lack of progress in their studies. Many question whether perhaps its "them" - - and they simply don't have the ability to go any further.
The first thing I explain to them is that music ability has nothing to do with fate, age, chance, luck or genetics ... its all about motivation, attitude and learning style. Students who fail achieve their goals usually don't fail because of lack of ability, and in the case of adult learners its rarely even motivation. The culprit is strategy and focus.
As for progress, one thing to consider is something I like to call a basic needs deficit.
This occurs when despite knowing a lot about a certain subject some rudimentary skill or information has been accidentally passed over... Since most Jazz musicians and students of Jazz are self taught to some degree or another, basic needs deficits are quite common - - the problem is, they are like when you go to pack for a trip and you end up packing everything except the one thing you need, and you don't find out until you need it. - - As an experienced traveller I have learned one thing about how to get around this problem:
Travel lightly !
Here's an example: Many students will give me a list of a half a dozen different books they've been studying even though after a needs assessment it will be apparent none or few of them have any relation to the actual deficits which are preventing them to reach their goals in the first place - - Students such as these are highly motivated, but more often than not doomed to failure due to that lethal combination of information overload coupled with a basic needs deficit. To make things worse, most of them spend incredible amounts of time learning by themselves and rarely play out (the situation where all true knowlege is refined and put to the test !)
I like to think of musical growth as a hierarchy of skills - - as you develop one skill upon another, your foundations become solid, however, if you decide to skip a few rungs and work on a higher skill before you've gotten the rudimentary stuff below it done you usually end up falling down... (*As an example, some students try to learn difficult runs before they've actually got their timing and fingering skills down or have enough of an understanding of chord/scale theory to apply them to any tunes, then they wonder why they can't play out...) - - Imagine it like this... you have two students. One keeps reaching for the top and falling straight down to the bottom, but he's impressed with his ability to touch the top each time even though he falls down only two seconds later. The other slowly starts slowly working his way up, building and building brick by brick deeply concerned with his craftsmanship and tasks immediately before him. A year later, he reaches the top and sees it for the first time and not only is able to stay there but can actually climb higher reaching previously uncharted territory (!) Meanwhile, the other student is still climbing up and falling down never getting anywhere. For this reason, my approach is foundationalist. It aims at building on the basics and preparing the student to go and learn the difficult stuff without me on his or her own.
My key advice to any musician who feels to have reached a rut - - either get out and play more and if necessary take a break. Use bandstand experiences as an opportunity to pinpoint problems. When sitting in, take note of when you feel at your strongest and when you feel at your weakest. Were you embaressed because a tune was called that you didn't know ? Then learn it... Having trouble trading fours ? Then get out the records and work on that.... Dripping with envy over another player's soloing ability ? Get his or her number, and if he or she is too much of a prick to offer some help, consider his influences and study them. And if all that doesn't work, just take a break for a week or two... put away all the books... take in a movie or a musical then get back to the drawing board with a fresh perspective....
In conclusion, musical development occurs over the process of a life... all musicians experience periods where they feel like their going nowhere as well as periods of sudden growth - - Part of being able to grow musically is not just studying the music but learning what makes you grow musically and how to embrace it, and that in turn means becoming more adept at identifying your actually needs, establishing goals and working on them directly. Through a combination of performing, coaching and self analysis, a learning plateau should simply motivate you to change course or step back... but never give up!