Why do plateaus happen?
This is a complicated question that far exceeds the scope of this article. However, a way to simplify the why of plateaus is to categorize the causes into external or internal influences. In other words, is the plateau in question caused by something completely out of our control (illness, broken finger, malfunctioning instrument, etc.) or by something internal that can be controlled to some extent (mindset, self-beliefs, apathy, etc.)?

What do plateaus look like?
Plateaus take many shapes and forms: stagnation, slowed or no progress, lack of motivation, confusion, distraction, boredom, anger, even depression can play a factor in the makings of a plateau. Constantly monitoring the mental cues you get from your playing and practice sessions, and looking for any of the elements listed above will do wonders for your progress in the long run. A key to staying on a consistent path of improvement means identifying the plateau before it has a chance to kick in. 

Here is a list of strategic questions to determine the root cause of the plateau: 

Have you been consistently warming up before each practice session, playing session or gig?
While this may not seem like a big deal, not preparing your mind and body to progress is a massive contributing factor to most times of stagnation. I’ve dealt with this in my own playing and in the playing of my students. 

Have you actually met the playing goals you’ve set for yourself?
This is a BIG one! Very few players actually go back and review past playing goals to verify they’ve reached their playing goals or take stock of how far they’ve actually come in their playing. Players may be plateauing because it’s time to move on and try more difficult things... 

What are your current expectations for your playing?
As a player progresses, the expectations they have for themselves tend to wander a bit. As they master the basics, the bar usually gets raised a little too high. While playing expectations should grow to match the improvements made by a player most players begin expecting too much from themselves. 

Do you have a clear vision of your goals moving forward?
Most players will experience a shift in goals during their musical journey. That’s to be expected. A couple of quick examples might be that they change musical styles or find higher-level players to emulate. It becomes super important that they know what direction they are heading and talk through what steps they need to take with a competent instructor. Starting a trip without dependable guidance (map, GPS, etc.) could make the journey much longer than it needs to be. It’s the same with striving for musical goals. If you head off in the wrong direction, you’ve only added time to the journey. Plus, you could possibly miss your goals completely if things are not corrected in a timely fashion. 

Breaking free of a plateau
Now comes the million-dollar question, “How do you break free of playing plateaus and score a positive outcome?” If I had one solid answer to that question I would be retired :-) Unfortunately, everyone’s path is a little different. Below is a short list I’ve compiled throughout my lifetime as a musician and instructor of things that help me and my students break through to the promised land:

  • Taking a break - a few days away from the instrument can do wonders for your perspective.
  • Go back to where your love for music started (Bands, songs, players, etc.) - Listening to a few favorite records and allowing yourself to recapture the wonder of music is always a powerful tool.
  • Own the fact that ALL players go through plateaus - even the greats! Knowing you’re not alone is sometimes all that is needed to push through to victory.
  • Determine what motivates you to continue progressing on your instrument and then do it! Here are a few examples:

  1. Creativity (Schedule some time to be creative: writing songs, creating new sounds with your pedals, using an alternate tuning you’re not familiar with, etc.)
  2. Learn new songs you enjoy (Schedule time to increase your repertoire, get some friends together and create your own arrangements of your favorite tunes, record those arrangements and upload them to your favorite video sharing service, put together a Christmas song list you can with share family and friends (hint: try starting this in late summer to remove a bit of stress during the Holidays), etc.
  3. Master a new technique you’ve always wanted to use in your playing: sweep picking, artificial harmonics, fingerpicking, jazz chords, slide guitar, etc. (invest 2 - 4 weeks of solid practice time to really nail the technique once and for all. You’ll definitely gain a massive sense of accomplishment and confidence!)
  4. Last but not least - talk with your instructor about what you’re experiencing. Going through a playing slump alone is the worst! Sharing your experience with someone who understands and can help does wonders for everybody. 

Take away: We’ve all experienced stagnation in our development as musicians. All musicians are encouraged to apply the tools in this article to overcome and triumph over plateaus. 1) Determine if the causes are external or internal. 2) See the plateau as a stepping stone to growth and achievement. 3) Try and pinpoint what has changed in your practice and playing sessions. 4) Take decisive action to break free of the plateau by recapturing your love and excitement for music.

Until next time, stay focused, stay consistent, and expect the best from yourself!

About the author: Ty Morgan is a professional guitarist living in Mesa, Arizona who has passion for passing on the gift of music to future generations. If you are interested in taking rock/blues guitar lessons in Mesa, AZ be sure to contact Ty!

 One thing’s for sure, plateaus happen in all kinds of activities: sports, academics, relationships, spiritual pursuits, etc. I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s never experienced a plateau of some sort. 

Unfortunately, not everyone makes it through their plateau to achieve the results they desire. A major factor in pushing through successfully is the way people view the plateaus they face...

Two Major Plateau Perspectives: Negative or Positive
The negative perspective typically sees the plateau as something that will get worse or possibly never end… The positive perspective understands plateaus are necessary stepping stones to growth and a positive outcome on the other side. 

Before moving forward, how do you view plateaus? 

Playing Plateaus: Why They Happen and How to Overcome Them