A couple days ago I was practicing guitar and I realized that I had plateaued. I had been making steady progress through an exercise book called Guitar Aerobics when I hit Week 6 and was challenged by every exercise on the page. Even though they were supposed to build on the previous week’s exercises I suddenly found myself completely out of my league.
I decided to review my progress and analyze how proficient I was on the exercises covered in Weeks 1-5. Since there are 7 exercises a week I scored a total of 35 exercises. I created a 4-level grading system and based on this criteria I can play:
- 4 exercises barely at all
- 17 exercises at a slow tempo (40-72 bpm)
- 9 exercises at a medium tempo (72-96 bpm)
- 5 exercises at full tempo (108-120 bpm)
I had fallen in a classic trap. I had mistaken turning pages in a book with making real progress. I wanted to believe that I had made it all the way to week 6. I have been practicing guitar regularly for over 5 months now and accumulated ~75 hours of practice. Shouldn’t I be further along than week 6?!
Maybe… Maybe not. Who really knows? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I recognized what I was doing and I have a plan to move forward.
Learning how to play guitar is one of the most complicated skills I have ever tried to learn. Just like other complicated skills I have taught myself like Cooking, Kiteboarding, and Calculus it is built on a platform of base-skills (see note). In order to play guitar, you need to learn how to make and change chord shapes with one hand, strum and pick strings with the other hand, keep rhythm internally and be able to hear and adjust the tones and dynamics of the sound you are creating.
The best way to learn a base-skill is to strip it away and focus on it individually. That is how Guitar Aerobics is structured and why I think it is a great training tool. Of course it is only as good as it’s user. The truth is that I have been favoring the exercises that were coming easily to me and avoiding the ones that were more challenging. As a result I was improving some base-skills while others were languishing.
With this knowledge in hand I have recommitted to taking as much time as necessary to build all the base-skills fully before I move on to more advanced material. I will not move on to next week’s exercises until I can play every exercise in the previous week at a medium tempo or faster.
Note: I gave a lot of thought to the term base-skills. When I was first formulating this blog post the word “meta” kept coming to mind. Of course meta is the opposite of what I was looking for. Meta implies a broader categorization. Metadata is data about data. Meta-skills might mean the ability to play multiple stringed instruments, while a skill would be playing the Guitar, and a ____-skill would be strumming with a pick.
I turned to Google and asked “What is the opposite of meta?” Surprisingly I didn’t get a definite answer. The most convincing article proposed using the mesa prefix but this obviously hasn’t made it into the vernacular and since it doesn’t resonate with me I don’t want to use it. I also considered pre-skills, micro-skills, mini-skills, sub-skills, infra-skills, and proto-skills (the engineer in me liked that one) before I settled on base-skills.
I think base-skills highlights the importance of developing a strong base or foundation before you move on to the higher order skills. If the higher order skills are built on weak base-skills they will only be able to progress so far before the foundation’s weaknesses are exposed. At this point you will need to regress back to the underlying base-skill that needs to be corrected or improved. You hear stories of athletes (Golfer’s swing, basketball player’s jump shot, etc.) that try to do this after reaching a plateau in their development and it can be extremely challenging and some don’t ever regain their original skill level.
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