A Music Student’s Plateau

 Successful Musicians Can Learn To Reach Their Potential

A Music Student Can Learn To Reach Their Potential

I have been studying music for a year now and I feel like I am not getting anywhere.

I think I have hit a plateau with my mandolin.

How do I get out of this rut with my guitar playing?

How can I take my banjo playing to the next level?

When will I ever figure this instrument out?


If you have taught music for a long enough time as I have, you will eventually hear some of the above comments and questions from students or class participants. As an instructor, I have learned not to take these comments personally.

My advice to the music student is usually the same: A plateau or rut is actually a normal occurrence. For those who seek advice and carefully commit themselves to a long-term education in music, the monotony of playing at what is perceived to be at the same level, is not insurmountable. However, for music students who do not recognize this potential pitfall and fail to seek advice, this stagnant period can lead to a loss of interest in playing an instrument all together.

So what is the secret to reaching the next level when practicing and playing your musical instrument?  First, you need to have a commitment for the long-term.  If music was easy, everyone could do it.  The majority of musicians are not born with a hidden talent.  They work hard every day to achieve greatness. Think of the hours spent by a virtuoso in an orchestra who practices regularly to earn the right to perform with his or her colleagues. Practice makes perfect as they say.  There are many ways to develop your skills to succeed.

How Can I Progress Beyond The Plateau?

First, keep in open mind when studying music.  Do you play various genres of music or do you limit your practice to one type; such as blues, pop, rock or country?  Experiment with your style.  Learning jazz and classical music, for instance, will open up the finger board and develop a greater understanding of how to improvise, while playing lead on your instrument.

Learn how to play various scales up and down the neck of the instrument.  While this may not seem exciting, learning scales is fundamental to learning your instrument and the music your play on it.

Train your ear by playing simple melody lines on a different part of the fingerboard.

Develop your chord vocabulary.  If you are unsure of how to accomplish this, begin with a basic understanding of music theory and what notes make up particular chords.

Do you have a qualified instructor?  If not, much is to be gained by learning from someone who has the experience in playing and teaching music.  A good instructor can teach you more in a shorter period of time than you can ever learn on your own (with or without books and DVDs). You made an investment in the instrument. It would be penny-wise and pound-foolish to short-change yourself by limiting your instructional tools and the methodology used to play that instrument. A good instructor is a good investment.

Performing With Others Is Invaluable

Performing With Others Is Invaluable

When in doubt, if you have been playing awhile; buy a new or different instrument.  If you play acoustic guitar, buy an electric guitar.  If you have an entry level banjo or mandolin, buy a nicer quality instrument which may be easier to play.  To play a new instrument for the first time is like opening up a present on your birthday  It adds some excitement to your daily routine. Another alternative is to try to add a second instrument to your collection and learn how to play it as well. Of course, only do this if you are serious about music.

Play music with other musicians.  You will develop your timing, rhythm and lead technique this way.  Playing alone will not provide you with the opportunity to build these skills.  Take advantage of working with others on a common goal.  You will make great friends this way and most importantly, improve as a musician.

These are only a few ideas to help you get over the plateau.  There are many other suggestions and tips that I will explore in later articles. Until then, keep practicing and don’t let the plateau control you.

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About fretmentor

Born in Detroit, Michigan, David F. Jakubiak has been involved in music since the age of 7, beginning as a clarinet player and then at 9 turning his attention to stringed instruments. He earned trophies in group talent competitions while a student at the University of Michigan. The instructor earned a BA degree in Organizational Psychology from the University of Michigan and a Masters in Public Administration at the University of Kansas. At college, he also studied classical music and music history. His passion is teaching music and in performing as a musician. In addition to on-stage performances, David has played in various venues from outdoor festivals to small nightclubs. He plays, performs and teaches various styles of music, including rock, pop, blues, jazz, classical, country and bluegrass styles. He performs and teaches acoustic and electric guitar, five-string banjo, and mandolin. His styles range from Scruggs, melodic, Reno and old-time style on banjo, to finger-style and flat-picking technique on guitar, to various styles of mandolin. For over 45 years, Mr. Jakubiak has taught all age groups, taking a personal interest in each student to ensure that they receive the attention and lesson plans that meet their needs and interests. His lessons and instructional materials place a strong emphasis on the practical use or music theory to ensure that the student understands the instrument and learns how to improvise to develop their own style. Mr Jakubiak teaches group and studio classes, webcam lessons over the internet, and individual private lessons to students of various ages. He has compiled and produced six instructional books on CD. David has written for Banjo Newsletter, a monthly publication for the banjo enthusiast and is in the process of writing an article for the Fretboard Journal. He is the founder of www.fretmentor.com. To contact David Jakubiak, please feel free to e-mail him at david AT fretmentor.com (substitute the @ sign for the word AT)
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11 Responses to A Music Student’s Plateau

  1. avatar Tigerpaws says:

    Anything that requires practicing will have the “plateau issue”. As a runner this is such a familiar ground. We train and improve and then it sort of stops…..must beginners think that they have reached their peak but it’s the body letting us know we have to change something in the training to continue to improve but it certainly is NOT taking a break….With learning a musical instrument, the same can be said!

  2. avatar espian says:

    After reading some good advice about the plateaus, I’m feeling better about what I considered my inability to progress. I have to look at it as more of an achievement than a set back (attitude is everything). After all, it’s not the first time I’ve hit one and it won’t be the last. The reality is that each one is a little bit higher than the last . Like Tigerpaws said, it’s time to change somthing in the way we practice or do something different. I did just that and am feeling pretty good about it. I’m looking forward to learning more.

  3. avatar dave2311 says:

    I’d have to say I’ve reached one of those plateaus. I find myself experimenting with different things, strum patterns, chord progressions, etc. If i practice playing scales, I drift into a mode where i start developing little melody patterns and riffs that just sound good together. One thing I’ll do is what is suggested, play another instrument. I’ll pick up my electric (while i don’t enjoy it as much as the acoustic) and do some funky chord progressions or riffs out of one of the pentatonic scales. Using overdrive or effects with the amp. I’m amazed at what you can do with the electric, and the electronics just adds a different dimension to things. But I like the tone and purity and simplicity of the acoustic. One of my problems is I want to practice with a purpose, and not just noodle, and I believe this narrow minded approach squelches, to a certain degree, improvisational creativity. I’ve got to have a more open mind!

  4. avatar brilind says:

    I think we all fall into the rut of practicing the same thing or playing the same songs with our mind a bit too detached. I am trying to work through my plateu by playing slowly and trying to get each note to sound sweet. No half hits no harsh notes. Controlled nice sounding notes.

  5. avatar Doug Fountain says:

    I hope to climb the mountain of learning so that I can plateau for awhile. After 50 years of playing the trumpet, I’ve found the best way to overcome a plateau is hard work. No obstacle can withstand perserverence and determination. The article you wrote about the upcoming Jens Krueger clinic is great, I am sure it will be met with outstanding success.

  6. avatar lspencerini says:

    I am very new at playing so I don’t think I have plateaued yet, but I do find myself becoming frustrated sometimes during my practice sessions. My frustration usually stems from me trying to go a little faster than my current skills allow me to. Then I take my teacher’s advice and slow it down to where my fingers don’t get all tied up in the strings (so to speak). I also go back to basics and work on timing (verrry sloooowly, if necessary). I also find it helpful to end my practices with some blues progressions I picked up somewhere. That always seem to make me smile. Because it’s really about having fun.

  7. avatar Frora Bosh says:

    I like your advice. I think we should have to keep progress and learn and all it happens through practice…I also like the idea of playing music with other musicians as we get many skills from others also..

  8. avatar gogogal says:

    I periodically experience feeling discouraged and feel like I’m in a rut and all the advice you give is very relevant. I think, for me at my level (intermediate beginner) the most important thing is to keep taking lessons along with playing with others on a weekly basis. If one is constantly practicing alone, without the opportunity to play with and hear other musicians, it’s like being in a vacuum. Playing with others has forced me to improve and practice harder. When I see others getting better, I am challenged to do better also. It’s not always so easy, but seems to be one way to see how my own playing is either improving or needs to be stepped up a bit/

  9. avatar Musical Girl says:

    Wow, this article is well-written. I got a lot of good points from it. Getting stuck in a rut is a reality, and it can be frustrating at times. Maybe because I’m the only one in my family who is so interested with music, no one in the house can give me further encouragement. Now that you said that getting into a group of music aficionados can help, then maybe i’ll do that real soon. As of the moment, i don’t have enough bucks to buy a new instrument yet. I’ll hang on to my guitar. Still works well.

  10. avatar Andy Baumann says:

    I’ve been playing guitar for nearly a year now, and it seems like I hit a plateu or a rut about every two or three months. Usually, it seems like I get caught up just playing the same half-dozen songs over and over. In the past, I’ve usually worked through these ruts by picking up a new song – preferably one that is substantially different in structure from the ones I’ve been working on (maybe a different musical genre or maybe something that introduces a new series of chords or chord structure). I’ve also found it helpful to go back and dig up old songs that I haven’t touched in months and brush up on them.

  11. avatar John Kino says:

    I don’t think about hitting a standing plateu. I just keep practicing every day, but it takes for me alot of practice befor I can play the song without looking at the tabs. But not enough hours in each day, 36 instead of 24 for me would have been ideal.

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