What improves when you hit a plateau?

Posted by: WannabePT

What improves when you hit a plateau? - 02/05/13 12:44 PM

I'm sure most of us have been through this before, when we reach a certain level in our piano playing, and each tiny little step of progress seems to be taking forever. A lot of times, we tell ourselves, just keep going, we will reach that end of the tunnel, we will finally improve.

My question is, during those times we continue practicing when we're at our plateau, what actually improves? I know it's different for different people, but I was thinking of a non-exclusive, subjective list.

For example, since I am trying to play some pieces that are very difficult for me, I focus on it so much (takes so much time) that my old repertoire is now a mess. It's like a 3 step forward 2 step back (or 3, or 4) kind of thing. The thing is, what I'm learning now is even harder than my old repertoire, so does that mean I didn't improve at all, and I was just beating myself into learning something? Does something even improve? Touch? Evenness? Is it just having to remember what you used to play, but it will come out more musical once you're able to play it again?

I don't know if I'm being clear, or if this is a stupid question, but it will surely give me some encouragement especially when I think that my progress is soooo slow, even after daily practice (and I do focused practice, too, not just playing stuff I know over and over again).

Or..maybe another way to look at it is (unless this is another question), what did I "bring back" to my old repertoire that I can't even play anymore?
Posted by: jotur

Re: What improves when you hit a plateau? - 02/05/13 01:43 PM

I think one that improves is the ease of playing - familiarity, comfort zones, particular techniques that are more difficult for an individual. The time spent on the plateau reinforces all the current stuff.

Yes, it does seem sometimes that the previous stuff is going backwards while the newer stuff crowds out our focus. But I think that's jusst the distraction of the newer stuff.

For me, any way, I am amazed at what comes more easily now that used to take incredible amounts of time and still had tenseness associated with it.

Cathy
Posted by: BenPiano

Re: What improves when you hit a plateau? - 02/05/13 01:54 PM

Originally Posted By: WannabePT
My question is, during those times we continue practicing when we're at our plateau, what actually improves?


Every time I've hit a plateau (I call them piano funks), I've found myself taking a step back and working on easier things.

The easier pieces are faster to learn, I can focus more on details, and generally they're just as satisfying of an experience to learn. A lot of time also, these pieces are from varying eras - for instance, I'm in the process of learning a Japanese anime transcription, which I never imagined doing.

So, even with the "easier" stuff, I'm always learning something new, filling in gaps and just sort of rounding out more my experience at the piano.

And I usually emerge from these funks a little more well rounded, confident and motivated than before.
Posted by: fizikisto

Re: What improves when you hit a plateau? - 02/05/13 05:44 PM

These kinds of plateaus occur when learning any kind of skill. There's a famous paper in psychology called something like "the magic number seven" which shows that for many types of tasks, we basically have 7 available slots in our short term memory. This is why standard phone numbers are 7 digits long, an average person will be able to hold only about 7 numbers in his or her short term memory. So, let's say you want to keep a phone number in your short term memory. you can think of 357-2422 as 3 5 7 2 4 2 2 and use up all 7 slots, or you can chunk the numbers together...maybe like 357 (three hundred fifty seven - as one number) - 24-22. In that way you're holding only 3 numbers in your short term memory. Obviously that's a simplistic example, but this kind of chunking of data is essential for our learning.

Another example of how this can work is driving a car with a manual transmission. As you first start to learn to drive a car with a stick, it's really hard. You have to coordinate a lot of different things (hearing the engine pitch change, looking at the rpm gauge, pushing the clutch in the right distance, shifting to the right gear, etc...). It's very taxing and your brain has to work really hard to manage all those things simultaneously. But eventually all those things get chunked together into one integrated skill. You no longer have to think about any of those individual things, you just do them.

Now, our longer term memory obviously has much greater capacity, but the same kind of chunking occurs there as well. when you start to learn something new, you start feeding your brain all this data....then it reaches a point where it wants to chunk and integrate that data together. The brain is processing the data to find connections (especially connections to things you've already learned) among the data. At this time, it seems that your ability to add additional data has greatly decreased, because the brain is sorting through the pile of data you've already given it. Eventually the brain sorts things out and then you can start to add new data again (until you "fill up" again and hit another plateau).

So what's happening during these learning plateaus is that your brain and nervous system are working in a different way...but learning is still occurring. But instead of learning new things, your brain is temporarily focused on making the things you have been learning previously more solid and integrating those skills together.
Posted by: Toastie

Re: What improves when you hit a plateau? - 02/06/13 12:58 PM

Fizikisto that's a really great explanation.

thumb
Posted by: WiseBuff

Re: What improves when you hit a plateau? - 02/07/13 07:17 AM

Plateau? Wannabe, I can relate. Yes it does feel like walking on a treadmill sometimes with no forward progress. I'm there now and have been there before. The hard part is the emotional sense of fog that descends and makes the journey arduous. The pieces I'm working on vary substantially...some level 2 and 3 stuff (trying to get them up to speed) some contemporary music, some hymns, a Chopin mazurka that may take a long time, and all the pieces I'm trying to have ready to take the RCM level 5 exam. Am I learning? Probably but the increments seem pretty small.

To answer your question...or maybe reflect on my experience...is that those small increments are such things as tone, speed, relaxation, comfort level, and precision on the dynamics.
Posted by: dannac

Re: What improves when you hit a plateau? - 02/07/13 08:05 AM

Interesting answer fizikisto ... thanks !
Posted by: personne

Re: What improves when you hit a plateau? - 02/08/13 03:46 PM

Originally Posted By: WannabePT
For example, since I am trying to play some pieces that are very difficult for me, I focus on it so much (takes so much time) that my old repertoire is now a mess. It's like a 3 step forward 2 step back (or 3, or 4) kind of thing. Does something even improve? Touch? Evenness?


Do you have a piano teacher or are you learning on your own?
I never had platos, rather progressing pretty smoothly from level to level.
May be you just picking pieces which are too hard?
You cannot jump until you learned certains skills. Once you are ready, the progress is very smooth and stable. IMO.
Posted by: 4evrBeginR

Re: What improves when you hit a plateau? - 02/10/13 02:53 AM

Before taking on a difficult piece, learning the techniques required for the piece is key. Playing etudes that prepare for the difficult piece is really important. Unfortunately, it is impossile to pick the right etude and teach it to yourself. Only a qualified teacher could choose and show you the techniques that you need to master in order to play an etude correctly. Short of that, it may be just a long struggle to learn a diffult piece instead of seeing elements that you already mastered in etudes and applying it to the new repertoire.