One of the great pleasures of being a musician is the moment when you first discovered that special instrument that speaks to you; the one that felt like it was the voice of your soul. For me it was picking up the tenor saxophone for the first time in the late 70s and feeling like I had arrived “home”. And although we all sound pretty terrible when we start, we excitedly practiced and thrilled at every moment we heard recognizable improvement in our tone and technique.
Naturally, as years of practicing pass, the process of improving often feels more like weightlifting than a blithesome journey. But no matter where we are on in the journey, we all have one thing in common. We end up experiencing practice plateaus: long stretches of time wherein we practice for many hours a day but still seem to make no progress over the ensuing weeks and months: even up to a year. Though demoralizing, this process is completely normal, and your body and mind are indeed absorbing the training whether you recognize it or not. So how do we cope with and prepare for plateaus when they occur? This requires understanding how change happens during such endeavors.
When first starting a new course of study, we are excited and make quick progress. Then, as we continue on for more than a couple of weeks, the initial thrill wears off and the challenge is much less inspiring the more we concentrate on the gap between our desired future outcome and where we currently are. This is how the plateau is recognized, as the gap seems to not be closing at all, and we become unenthusiastic, impatient, or frustrated. We may even begin considering practicing something else, something more fun that requires less dedication and patience, and this is where the brilliant players separate themselves from the pack: they carry on while others settle for less or give up. But we all have these plateaus, and must carry on regardless.
Then, suddenly one day, seemingly out of nowhere, we are able to play at a more advanced level, which is thrilling. This new level soon becomes a plateau as well as we set new goals, going through this plateau process repeatedly throughout our musical lives. So, to successfully cope with a seemingly endless plateau, here are some time-tested strategies.
First, we must identify the actual problem at hand. For instance, let’s say we are working on various ways to arpeggiate the symmetrical dominant scale (“sym-dom”), and are going about it all properly: slowly, with a metronome. If this does not seem to be producing results, then our goals and time expectations may be the actual problem. If you are expecting to master a dozen arpeggiation patterns evenly in all twelve keys much sooner than possible for your particular skill level, then you are not on a plateau but rather are expecting too much. Also, if you have studied and learnt these patterns from the recordings of your favorite saxophonist, the problem most likely is you are also expecting to play like that person sooner than possible. This is then a problem of comparison: a habit that creates major obstacles in both music and life. Once you begin using your own progress though as a measurement, starting from the previous year to your current level, you will have a much healthier, happier, and more productive life in music, and will be encouraged to continue on.
It is also wise to develop several strategies for solving musical problems rather than a single one, as this will shorten the time length of the plateau. Just practicing one or two arpeggiations of sym-dom will give you a rudimentary understanding of the scale. But developing a twelve key practice regimen that includes arpeggiation, sequential scale patterns, playing the scale with differing styles of phrasing (e.g. bebop enclosures), and transilient intervals like fourths and fifths will give you such a deep understanding of sym-dom that your original arpeggios will seem rather easy by comparison. If this regimen is too much to handle though, choosing the most effective two of the aforementioned techniques might be the solution, making your goal an attainable challenge.
Another effective approach is to not over-anticipate the timing and significance of the end result. Let your mind and body grow at your own healthy pace, as this frees you from much stress and anxiety, and rids you of the need to will yourself forward. Will power is not trustworthy, so we must not let it be our only option. Instead, creating a thorough but patient practice schedule guarantees you will learn what you are studying while not overthinking things. Anticipate there being a long wait, and just do the work at hand. This also includes scheduling time away from practicing to have fun. A happy mind and soul better processes (and solves) your musical problems unconsciously while you are away from your horn. This is why the plateau suddenly ends almost magically one day, because you have finally internalized all the practice in a way that is now a natural part of your thinking and reflexes. Watching a good movie at the right time is also a plateau-shrinking activity.
A plateau can be a nuisance, but with the right approach it will lead to better things. So be prepared and positive, have fun, and good luck!