As a child, I always loved getting new pieces to learn. It was all fresh, new, exciting stuff – and I sounded like garbage. So I’d happily set about learning notes, figuring out bowings and fingerings, and working at things until it sounded better. Progress was usually pretty quick and very satisfying.

But then I’d reach a point where everything seemed to progress more slowly. Where getting to the next level took more and more work, with smaller and smaller improvements to show for it. And sometimes, it’d feel like things were not only failing to get better, but actually sounding worse than when I wasn’t practicing it.

“Hitting the wall.”

The dreaded “plateau.”

Whatever you call it, we’ve all been there. That place where no matter how diligently we practice, or however much time we put in, nothing seems to work.

It can be frustrating. Discouraging. Make us feel like giving up and question why we even bother.

So what causes these plateaus anyway? And what are we supposed to do when we hit one?

Why, oh why?

When we’re learning something new, we start out with the bar set pretty low, so it’s easy for progress to come pretty quickly. And that part is fun! It’s very satisfying to see ourselves get better at something – makes us feel smart and talented.

But inevitably, it takes longer and longer to achieve ever-smaller boosts in the level of our performance. With plateaus seemingly becoming the norm, rather than the exception.

So at times like this, it’s important to be able to figure out what is causing our apparent plateau. Do we just need to be patient and keep at it? Or might we need to step back a bit and make a change?

Three factors

Plateaus can happen for many reasons, but most fit under one of three umbrella categories. Exercise physiologist Jeffrey Ives calls them “learner-based factors,” “instructor-based factors,” and “task-based factors.”

Learner-based factors are variables related to our mental, emotional, or physical state that have an impact on our performance, learning, or both.

Like how being tired or physically beat up makes it difficult to play up to our abilities – or even practice effectively (think trumpet player after a long week of too many rehearsals and concerts).

And how difficulty concentrating or staying focused makes for uninspired performances and junk practice (think kid being made to practice on Christmas morning before he can open presents).

Or how being unmotivated and feeling burned out makes it tough to even exert enough effort to decide what to have delivered for dinner, let alone practice.

Instructor-based factors come into play when a student is asked to do something or work on a skill that they’re not quite equipped or ready to handle. Like being taught how to shift on the violin, before ensuring that the violin is being held correctly and securely.

Task-based factors is where things get a little trickier.

How so?

Well…it’s one thing if we plateau because we have run out of motivation, or if we aren’t practicing effectively.

It’s another matter, however, when we plateau because we’ve reached the point where getting to the next level means letting go of our current way of doing things, and learning new skills or strategies.

This means going through the uncomfortable awkward learning stage again, and having to regress to a lower level of performance for a little while before getting back to where we were, and then taking the next step forward.

Pride, a tough pill to swallow

I’ve been stuck on a bench press plateau for a while now. I tried pushing past it in many different ways – training harder, differently, messing with different variations, and so on. But finally, I figured out that it’s my technique. I have a few bad habits that are going to hold me back (or result in injury) if I don’t relearn how to do things right.

Unfortunately, this means I’m going to have to swallow my pride and spend a good bit of time working at a much lighter load while I learn how to perform the lift with a more functional technique. Even though it’s the right thing to do, in the meantime it feels like a big step back. And who enjoys taking a step back?

Like developing a different kind of vibrato, playing with less tension, or learning to read music vs. playing from ear, the master’s journey involves many dead ends, where we will reach the limits of what is possible for that technique or strategy, and must part ways with something that served us well for a time, in order to find a new technique or strategy that will help us reach a little higher.

It could very well mean sounding worse or looking foolish for a little while, but perhaps that’s just the cost of getting to a more sophisticated level of playing.

It’s not a step back!

Like downshifting to pass a car on a two-lane country road, it might help to think of plateaus not as a stuck point, but an opportunity to prepare yourself for a step forward. To remember when you encounter your next plateau, that it’s not a sign you’ve reached the limits of what’s possible, or that learning has necessarily stagnated either.

But rather, that it’s an opportunity to “downshift,” to step back a bit, find a better solution from your current vantage point, and then take another few steps forward before you reach the next inevitable plateau opportunity to downshift and surge ahead.

Additional reading

More on plateaus @99u: 3 Tips on Overcoming Learning Plateaus from David Foster Wallace