“The gate is straight, deep and wide break on through to the other side” – Jim Morrison

Ebino Plateau in Miyazaki, Japan. Photo by Ray Go, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Anyone who has ever attempted to play a musical instrument will eventually reach a phase we like to call a “plateau.” The place where progress seems to stop dead in its tracks. This is a useful metaphor because it allows us to visualize our musical progress from a place where we can see both the valleys below (as past accomplishments) and the hills in the distance (as future challenges).

This phase is frustrating only if we feel we need to continue climbing when the landscape requires walking on level ground. When this happens we feel we are trying and trying without getting anywhere. If it lasts too long our motivation can evaporate in the heat, and we may give up altogether. If, on the other hand, we recognize a plateau it for what it really is, we can use it to our advantage. It can become a place of great satisfaction where we recharge our stores of energy and inspiration for the challenges ahead. It is the part of our journey where the landscape levels off and we we stop climbing, take a few deep breaths, examine where we have been, and evaluate our progress.

From a plateau we can see that we have achieved a level of competency and begin to rely on pieces that we know we can handle easily enough. Some of us prefer to camp out on a plateau for a long time, or even forever. An accomplished songwriter may feel they know enough chords and theory to write the types of songs they want to write and then go about using those same chords in newly creative ways to record song after song, album after album. A lead guitar player in a rock band may have mastered the scales and speed required to play any song they wish and feel they can now coast along for the rest of their career.

I respect these people and at times wish I was more like them. It must be liberating to feel you have all the tools in your toolbox that you will ever need. But some of us keep climbing when we should be walking. We will keep pushing on in the never ending quest to explore a new style or technique that we haven’t yet mastered. It can be frustrating at times because in a very real sense, you always feel like a beginner.

“There must be some kind of way out of here,”
Said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion,
I can’t get no relief. ”
– Bob Dylan, from “All Along the Watchtower”

Bob Dylan at Lida Festival in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1996. Photo by Henryk Kotowski. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If you teach guitar for a living as I do you will continually be challenged by songs a student will ask you to teach them. In this situation, your very livelihood depends on being able to constantly push yourself and learn new things well enough to demonstrate them to someone else.

When it come to stagnation, one of my favorite quotes is by the drummer and lyricist of Rush, Neil Peart:

“Am I in a groove now, or is this a rut?” – Neil Peart

I like to paraphrase this by saying “there is a fine line between a groove and a rut. The truth is that when we are in our comfort zone, we are just cruising along, doing what we know how to do. It feels good, it is natural, and it is beneficial, but linger too long and you have stopped growing. Sometimes learning new things requires deliberately pulling ourselves off the well worn path and steering in a new unexplored direction. If it’s not happening either naturally or accidentally then you may need to shake things up deliberately.

Distant Hills

If you are a guitar player, its likely that you have at one time or a other had a style crisis. In other words, you suddenly realize that you only really know one thing well, and you have a burning desire to become more versatile. What style or area of study should you expand into: rock, jazz, blues, classical, country, flatpicking, fingerstyle? You think you are getting pretty good at what you do until you see someone at a concert or on YouTube that is playing a completely new style or technique that is blowing you away, and your heart either sinks into depression and envy, or you are inspired to go learn something new for yourself.

But we have all heard words of wisdom like: “a man cannot serve two masters” and “a jack of all trades is a master of none.” These aphorisms apply so well to the life a music teacher. There are so many musical styles that it makes the mastery of any one of them a difficult task sometimes. This unfortunately just goes with the territory. And a difficult task is exactly what we are after if we want to move off our plateau right?

The advice here is simple, if you are stuck, find a new, exciting style to explore. You will be forced to think about your instrument in an entirely new way. This can be frustrating and extremely liberating at the same time.

The Rear View Mirror

If new and challenging pieces aren’t being requested of you, either by your band, your students or yourself, and you are locked in to your chosen style of music, there is another way. You can look into the rear view mirror and still set lofty goals for yourself.

When I think back to the music that inspired me to want to play guitar in the first place I realize that there is a great deal of it that I never learned to actually play. Now that I am older and accomplished enough to actually play that music, I wonder why I don’t go back more often and learn to play some of those songs that once seemed. so elusive. Part of it may be that I enjoy listening to it so much that I don’t want to “ruin” it by learning how to play it. It’s a funny thing. Once you learn to play a song, it becomes something else entirely. Some of the magic disappears. It stops being a mysterious ethereal creation and starts being something on your practice schedule. It’s as if learning how to play a favorite song takes some of the luster off of it. I don’t know if this is the same for everyone, but I have have heard others say the same thing.

Somewhat humbling is that I have found that even after years of practice, some of the songs I once hoped to be able to play still pose a significant challenge. I am always amazed at the depth of musical technique and understanding that was involved in many of the songs I loved as a kid.

For example, I had always assumed that when I finally learned to play and became a real guitar player, that I would set about learning much of the music of some of my favorite progressive rock bands. The reality is that, although I have mastered most of the techniques involved, there is still much of it that is really challenging. The genius of progressive rock music and the imagination, skill and care that went into making it still astounds me to this day and those bands continue to earn my deepest respect.

Back to the Future

If exploring exciting and inspirational music can be liberating, the reverse can also be true. Sometimes when learning a cheesy, modern pop song for a student that I may have initially considered to be boring or something I didn’t like, I will be struck by the genius of the structure, the melody or the chord progression. Something about the song will fascinate me and it becomes a favorite only because I have understood what is under the hood, how it is put together, what makes it tick, so to speak.

“Breaking on through” requires first recognizing that you are stuck and secondly taking steps to get yourself to the next level. Sometimes this means practicing things that you have learned but not yet worked up to performance level, other times it means starting something new that challenges you. In either case it takes courage, because you are leaving your comfort zone.

A Musical Landscape

It is well understood that growing as a musician requires frequently challenging yourself with new material. This doesn’t only mean finding new, more challenging songs to play; it also means cultivating a new and deeper understanding about the world of music.

Guitar players tend to forget that there is more to music than just learning how to play a guitar. A sure fire way to get out of a musical rut is to dive into the deeper waters of music in its more general, traditional or expanded sense.

Some areas where you might seek to grow musically include:

Sight reading
Playing by ear
Lyric Writing
Understanding Music Theory
Music History

These are just some of the areas you can explore. Each one of them presents an opportunity to learn. Many people make entire careers out of specializing in just one or two of these areas, others dabble in many or all of these areas. It doesn’t matter what areas interest you, it only matters that some of them do. For example if you are a performer in a rut, why not try songwriting? Or if you have mainly played by ear all of your life, why not try to learn how to read music?

Charting a Path

As any teacher knows, it is not enough to simply learn the part that you intend to teach your students. That’s just the first step. The more important step is to communicate to them (or to yourself) how to go about learning it. Whether you are a teacher or a student, the following approach will help you expand on nearly every area of musicianship. For the serious, self taught student, it provides a way of proving to yourself how much you actually know and reinforcing that knowledge so you can build on it and perhaps choose a teaching career.

Many instructors rely on using published sheet music, chord charts, or free tablature off the Internet as source material for their students. This is a good approach and students need learn how to use all these things for themselves eventually. For classical pieces this approach is essential. But what about the importance of teaching a student how to play popular songs by ear? In examining the teaching style that I have evolved over the years, I think I have found an effective way to combine teaching a student how to learn by ear with how to create original song charts.

It is not a unique or revolutionary way, but it is simple and effective. Instead of learning a requested song away from the studio and then coming in the following week with the song written out for the student, I listen to the song and chart it out during the lesson while the student listens with me and adds input. This way the student can see how it is done and what is involved in the process. They soon begin to be inspired to try it themselves. I can’t think of a better way to teach playing by ear than by simply doing it together lesson after lesson, song after song.

The resulting charts are most often a hybrid of different types of musical notation. I write them on traditional staff/tablature paper. They include chord diagrams and symbols, rhythmic notation, strumming patterns and tablature for important riffs, melodies and solos. They also include traditional (and sometimes not so traditional) musical directions such as repeat marks, De Capo, Del Segno and Coda.

This approach to transcribing music helps both myself and my students break free of the plateaus that result when you are simply reading music that is published for you. It forces you to engage with the music at the deepest possible level, really listen closely, and figure out what is going on harmonically, melodically and rhythmically.

Charting out songs in this way doesn’t just develop your ear for music, it also aids memorization, teaches notation, and reveals the underlying patterns and structure in the music. It can also inspire a student to write their own original music since the “writing” part suddenly becomes way less mysterious.

New Horizons

We all carve out our own little corner of the musical universe. For most of us, being able to participate at all in this awesome art form is reward enough for the many hours of practice that it requires.

So when you find yourself in a rut, step back and take a look at all that you have accomplished since that first day when you decided to attempt those first painful chords. be grateful for the perseverance that took you this far. That is the surest way to realize that even though you have a long way to go, you sure have come a long way to get where you are.

“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world. ” – John Milton