The O.K. plateau

Posted by: Monica K.

The O.K. plateau - 03/24/11 03:09 PM

I was reading about the recent book, "Moonwalking with Einstein," by Joshua Foer, which describes the author's experience in the U.S. Memory Competition. (Long story short: It is possible, with training, for normal people of average intelligence to accomplish jaw-dropping feats of memory, like memorizing over 1000 random digits in a couple of hours.)

But I was especially intrigued by one section of the Q and A that was posted on amazon:

Q: Can you explain the "OK Plateau?"

A: The OK Plateau is that place we all get to where we just stop getting better at something. Take typing, for example. You might type and type and type all day long, but once you reach a certain level, you just never get appreciably faster at it. That's because it's become automatic. You've moved it to the back of your mind's filing cabinet. If you want to become a faster typer, it's possible, of course. But you've got to bring the task back under your conscious control. You've got to push yourself past where you're comfortable. You have to watch yourself fail and learn from your mistakes. That's the way to get better at anything. And it's how I improved my memory.


I suspect that I spend most of my piano time firmly entrenched in the "O.K. plateau." (It's certainly true of my typing!) I was also intrigued by the contrast between what Foer's saying here and the notion of "flow," which seemingly argues that automaticity is desirable. I'll have to read the book and see if those two positions can be reconciled.

But it strikes me that this is a benefit of our quarterly recitals-- they motivate us to work up a piece to as good as we can get it, not just okay. And there's probably also a major advantage of having a demanding teacher, who may be less inclined to let you languish on the O.K. plateau.
Posted by: BenPiano

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/24/11 03:21 PM

I'm just trying to stay out of Bad Peddling Falls, Techniquless Cliff and OH NO Canyon. grin
Posted by: Andy Platt

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/24/11 03:40 PM

It's also a big advantage of a teacher. There's always going to be something to improve.

On the other hand, I actually have some long term goals of where I want to get to and, if I ever do, I'll be happy ("OK") to stay there forever. I'm kidding myself I know.
Posted by: Michael Steen

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/24/11 04:09 PM

This is a super idea! I know I've fallen victim to the "OK Plateau" many times in life. When I was playing competetive chess, I studied and played my butt off to get to about 1300. Then I coasted. It was good enough to win some games, but getting better was going to be a whole heck of a lot more work that I didn't want to invest in.
With piano, I'm nowhere near the OK Plateau. I've left Rookie Gulch and crossed the Scales Salt Flats, and now I'm forging my way through Chord Change Canyon, with brief detours to the Interval Saloon and short breaks for a Sight Reading Siesta. But OK Plateau looms far ahead, at the end of Alfred's All in One #3.
When I finally get there, I'll find, open for confident play, my Reader's Digest Christmas and Broadway albums, the notebooks of Anna Magdelana Bach, and loads of other material of similar difficulty.
Sadly, I don't think I'll ever make it to Mozart Mesa or Beethoven Butte, but I know I'll meet a lot of friends at the OK Plateau, and I might sit and have a whiskey with "Pop" Music and Blues Billingsley. That'll be good enough for me.
Posted by: Akira

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/24/11 04:36 PM

I've never heard that term before, but it seems like it can be summed up in two words -- "good enough."

I learned to type in the seventh grade, and like most people, I imagine, never bothered to further develop those skills. I think I clocked myself at 70 wpm at the time, and compared to my classmates, concluded that it was "good enough" (particularly impressive, considering I learned on a manual typewriter -- oops, giving away my age). Could I have made it to 100 wpm? I have no doubt. Could I have made it to 1,000 wpm? Definitely not.

So, I see two points of progression. The first being, is where 'you' dictate where your limit lies. The other 'was' your true, but unrealized, potential.

The bottom line is that how far you proceed will be dictated by you and you alone. I'll be willing to bet there are a number of unmeasurable factors which help you conclude where that point will be. Persistence, passion, desire, education, resources, physical limitations, natural talent or ability, among others, come to mind.

I think everybody who reaches the 'OK plateau' is there by choice and is happy to be there. Of course, if this is not the case, the obvious answer is --- to do something about it. Its a matter of if you are willing to pay the price.

Great food for thought, Monica.
Posted by: Legal Beagle

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/24/11 04:58 PM

Great post, Monica. I find this idea absolutely fascinating, and it certainly rings true to my experience in various endeavors.

I agree with you at first blush that it seems to contradict the idea of "flow" and desirable automaticity... but after thinking about it a bit, I don't really think it does contradict. I think it just says that we tend to go to "flow" earlier than we perhaps could (and perhaps should)... and that once we do, it takes a conscious and significant effort to leave that world and "up the ante" (before, presumably, returning to "flow" at a higher level). Does that make sense to you?

I'll also say that I'm with the other posters here... I'd be thrilled to reach the OK Plateau with piano.
Posted by: MegumiNoda

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/24/11 04:59 PM

Thanks for posting that excerpt, Monica!

For me, I experience two kinds of OK Plateaus (Plateaux?). On a smaller scale, I notice that for most individual pieces that I work on, there are some weeks when practices just drag on slowly, and I get no improvements. On a larger scale, I sometimes feel like my overall progress is currently on a multi-year OK Plateau -- I am learning new pieces, but I don't feel a lot of improvements in the fundamentals of my technique/musicianship.

I feel more able to deal with the small plateau -- go to my lessons; do those glacially-slow practices that force me to be more conscious of what I'm playing; participate at our quarterly recital; and so forth. Of the larger plateau, however, I'm less sure. I suppose I can try to go tackle some insanely hard piece and flail about, but I'm not sure what useful conclusions I can draw from those kinds of failures and mistakes. Maybe just that I need more patience.
Posted by: Chris G

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/24/11 07:14 PM

I never feel like I've reached the OK plateau with my piano playing, I'm all too aware of many ways in which I need to improve. I'm not sure which is better - being content at the OK plateau or continually striving to improve because you are not satisfied with where you are.
Posted by: TrapperJohn

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/24/11 08:25 PM

Originally Posted By: Monica K.
...But it strikes me that this is a benefit of our quarterly recitals-- they motivate us to work up a piece to as good as we can get it, not just okay.


Or at least good enough to get a decent recording of it, which may or may not be as good as we can get it...and this is how some of us work on just about every piece we tackle...and why we revisit our favorites (or our most challenging works).

But, I think in the long run - over the course of many years and pieces - we can also do both: strive to progressively and gradually improve in a dedicated, conscious manner or ultimately settle into the OK Plateau at some indistinct point...


Originally Posted By: Monica K.
And there's probably also a major advantage of having a demanding teacher, who may be less inclined to let you languish on the O.K. plateau.


Which may be why many with such teachers give up - and why it's extra difficult to be self-teaching, pushing oneself past that plateau...

JF
Posted by: Mr Super-Hunky

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/24/11 08:40 PM

I look at it more like the law of diminishing returns. Even if I put a specific task back into the forefront, it may take a significant amount of additional effort just to get oh so slightly better. It doesn't mean you cannot get any better than what was achieved at a previous point. It just means that after a while, your efficiency rate (of learning/improving) starts to decrease significantly.

I easily find myself spending more time getting a piece from 95% to 98% than it took me to get it to 95% to begin with! Really!

I will certainly agree however that to get something from 95% to an even higher level you must actively concentrate and pay attention to everything. Nothing passive or even average anymore. You must really push yourself and try harder. This is where self motivated people start to shine best as their drive comes from within, not just someone else telling you what to do or accomplish.
Posted by: Mark...

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/24/11 08:49 PM

I don't believe the Plateau works with piano playing unless you play stuff consistently at the same level and you stop trying to improve. Typing can be a mindless activity with a set learning curve, but working on gradual difficult material in music can keep you moving forward for decades, if not a lifetime, no matter your age. You may get stuck at a certain level for a longtime, but with concentrated study you can push forward.

My goal from this point forward is to record pieces as best I can and move forward. Since I have 20 or more pieces at a time at various stages I hope to get a decent recording every week or two. I also stopped looking for at a boys. Its a waste of energy. Practice. record and move forward. The music itself will provide the good feelings.

The best part of having a teacher is the goal of graduated difficulty over time.





Posted by: Monica K.

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/24/11 10:57 PM

Originally Posted By: Legal Beagle
I agree with you at first blush that it seems to contradict the idea of "flow" and desirable automaticity... but after thinking about it a bit, I don't really think it does contradict. I think it just says that we tend to go to "flow" earlier than we perhaps could (and perhaps should)... and that once we do, it takes a conscious and significant effort to leave that world and "up the ante" (before, presumably, returning to "flow" at a higher level). Does that make sense to you?


That makes a lot of sense, Legal Beagle, and I suspect you are absolutely right. The ultimate goal should be that effortless 'in the moment' automaticity of flow, but to get the best out of ourselves, we should consciously and deliberately attend to minute particulars of our playing until we have reached the level we want.

I think everybody is making great points, with the consensus seeming to be that the O.K. plateau is okay if that's what you're comfortable with and it's compatible with your goals for piano... but if you want more, you're going to have to be willing to reach beyond your comfort zone.

p.s. "Bad Pedaling Falls" -- LOL!! laugh laugh
Posted by: Rickster

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/24/11 11:15 PM

Interesting concept...

I too feel that I have reached the ok plateau to a certain degree. But the fun factor is still full steam ahead!!

Besides, playing the piano, even at a mediocre level, helps to keep me from being depressed!!! laugh

Take care,

Rick
Posted by: Fate

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/24/11 11:48 PM

In martial arts, the concept is "Mushin" - no mind. There is a distinctively spiritual aspect to it as well. "Flow" to me is a similar concept, but again, without the spiritual aspect to it, I think it can be easily misinterpreted again. Neither in my mind refer to something perfunctory, and both require constant training and dedication.

Tracking my personal practice, I discovered for a while it felt like I had "peaked" and wasn't seeing much progress, despite lots of playing. It seems fairly easy to be playing a lot of stuff, learning new pieces, but not advancing as a player. I think this has a few causes: lack of a good learning resource (teacher,book,website,video...), not seeking out challenging material (keeping to intermediate pop piano books and skipping harder songs) or material overly difficult, and not learning or concentrating on technique.

Since I started playing easy songs that hit my weakest points, and started reading this forum / book, I've noticed immediate and significant improvements. I'm not sure how to avoid the trap of constant 'practice' where little is being learned, but at least now I'm aware it exists.
Posted by: tangleweeds

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/25/11 02:33 AM

I find a creative flow state to be quite a deep and spiritually meaningful experience, albeit different from what I experience during more ostensibly "spiritual" activities. But to call it non-spiritual just strikes me as weird, but then again, everyone defines art & spirituality differently.

Unfortunately I'm not so skilled as to be able to generate a satisfying flow state on the piano with much frequency. But for activities where I have done so more reliably (fiction writing, programming, higher mathematics, designing lace), I've found that flow states happen more often when I have been in a state of immersion with the project in question, where I practice working on it by choice every free moment, until I finally start dreaming about it in my sleep, and then the real juice begins to flow.

There's several people out there who write about how creative breakthroughs often flow out of deep immersion states, but I can't remember their names. Anyway, my flow states, although they can surprise me out of the blue, are much more reliable when I have been immersing myself in something to a pretty obsessive degree, and engaging in lots of dedicated practice to improve my skills.
Posted by: casinitaly

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/25/11 02:39 PM

I can't wait to GET to OK Plateau. What a great experience it will be smile

lol... Very interesting article Monica - funnily enough I heard this very book being discussed on the radio this morning.

I agree with the idea that typing and playing are not very similar. ...at least for me . Typing is just an extention of my brain onto the computer keyboard, I don't have to think about it at all. Mind you I've been doing it for...oh....yikes....almost 40 years? I too started on a completely manual typewriter, moved to an electric and then computers. I could, at my best, type 120 words a minute - I'm still pretty fast. But it is automatic - there is no thinking involved.

The only think I think is common is that I should be able to (someday) play piano without looking for the keys (at least not looking too much!). I realize that typing is rather like playing five notes left and right of middle c, in terms of moving your hands around, ..and that's part of my point.

What I do agree with is that we just touch the surface of our potential in a great number of our endeavours, because - it's "good enough". Most of the time we're perfectly happy to be on the OK Plateau and it takes something rather special to get us to even aspire to reaching Pefection Peak (always realizing of course that while we might improve greatly, perfection eludes us, and if we are deluded enough to think it is attainable, not realizing it is an illusion, we risk perpetual seclusion and people making allusions to our mental fitness - draw your own conclusions).


Posted by: Strings & Wood

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/25/11 05:26 PM

Quote:
I was reading about the recent book, "Moonwalking with Einstein," by Joshua Foer, which describes the author's experience in the U.S. Memory Competition. (Long story short: It is possible, with training, for normal people of average intelligence to accomplish jaw-dropping feats of memory, like memorizing over 1000 random digits in a couple of hours.)


So I should be able to memorize over 1000 notes in a couple of hours... oh wait, it said normal people. That explains why I am having a long term affair learning my newest piece. laugh

Seriously, I need to read that book.
Posted by: Andy Platt

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/25/11 09:02 PM

Originally Posted By: Strings & Wood
So I should be able to memorize over 1000 notes in a couple of hours... oh wait, it said normal people. That explains why I am having a long term affair learning my newest piece. laugh

Seriously, I need to read that book.


I could memorize 1000 much quicker than that. But I have to pick the notes wink

Most of these memorization techniques seem to revolve around the use of mneumonics ... which sucks for me because my mind just doesn't work in codes frown
Posted by: Monica K.

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/25/11 09:20 PM

The short story on memorization: Memory works best visually/spatially, so what you need to do is to encode the information to be memorized in vivid spatial terms. Foer does it by systematically creating vivid images of the items and "placing" them in a location in his childhood home, e.g., if the first word is "pie," you'd imagine a clown getting a pie thrown in his face while standing in front of your fireplace. Then put an image for the second word on the couch in front of the fireplace, etc. etc. It sounds like a whole lot of extra work, but because images are recalled easier than abstract verbal concepts, you actually memorize faster/better.

Here's a link to a NY Times essay by Foer adapted from his book that explains all that much more clearly and pithily than I just did.
Posted by: TrapperJohn

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/25/11 09:21 PM

Originally Posted By: Andy Platt
...I could memorize 1000 much quicker than that. But I have to pick the notes wink

Most of these memorization techniques seem to revolve around the use of mneumonics ... which sucks for me because my mind just doesn't work in codes frown


I memorize every piece I play, but I don't know how I manage to do it because my memory is so bad otherwise. It got to be such an aggravating problem that I once signed up for a memory course at our local Community College...but I forgot to go.

So, then I decided I wanted to take a course in how to avoid procrastination...but I just haven't gotten around to it yet.

However, there's also a course in clairvoyance being offered...but I can't see any future in that.

JF
Posted by: BenPiano

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/26/11 12:41 AM

Originally Posted By: John Frank
It got to be such an aggravating problem that I once signed up for a memory course at our local Community College...but I forgot to go.

So, then I decided I wanted to take a course in how to avoid procrastination...but I just haven't gotten around to it yet.

However, there's also a course in clairvoyance being offered...but I can't see any future in that.

JF


ha laugh
Posted by: Elssa

Re: The O.K. plateau - 03/26/11 01:00 AM

Originally Posted By: Monica K.

[i]Q: Can you explain the "OK Plateau?"

A: The OK Plateau is that place we all get to where we just stop getting better at something. Take typing, for example. You might type and type and type all day long, but once you reach a certain level, you just never get appreciably faster at it. That's because it's become automatic. You've moved it to the back of your mind's filing cabinet. If you want to become a faster typer, it's possible, of course. But you've got to bring the task back under your conscious control.


Well, my full-time work, medical transcription, requires a lot of typing. (If I relied on music for a living, would have starved and died years ago). Anyway, I use a macro system called "ShortCut", so instead of typing out "cardiac catheterization", have programmed it so that I just need to type "ccat" and hit the space bar, and so on for thousands of medical and non-medical words and phrases. I add new words/abbreviations to the system every day.

Guess I sort of have that same kind of shorthand system with chords/music. smile