Pushing Through a Learning Plateau on Guitar

Posted on December 3, 2012 by

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Last week I shared some of the conventional wisdom for pushing through a learning plateau and this week I want to share how I applied that wisdom to tackle my own learning plateau on guitar.

Reflect on How Far I Have Come

While I was writing last week’s post I referenced a post on base-skills that I had written nine months ago.  As I was re-reading it I realized that it was also an essay on hitting a plateau.  I wrote then about how important it is to go back and fill in the gaps in knowledge you left behind as you rushed forward in excitement.

The worst part about reading my old post was that I realized that nine months later I had not progressed any further in Guitar Aerobics.  I was still on week 5!  “You have to be kidding me,” I thought to myself.  “Have I made no improvement?”

Fortunately I had noted how proficient I was on the 35 exercises covered in weeks 1-5 so that I would have a benchmark to compare myself to in the future.  Before I threw my guitar away in disgust over my lack of ability and progress I decided to quickly check my growth:

Skill Level Mar – 2012 Nov – 2012
Barely at all 4 0
Slow Tempo (40-72 bpm) 17 4
Medium Tempo (72-96 bpm) 9 13
Full Tempo (108-120 bpm) 5 18

Whew.  While I may still be working through the same 35 exercises I have increased the speed and proficiency at which I can play all of them.  I may not be progressing as quickly as I would like but I am definitely improving.

Focus on My Base-Skills

Nine months ago I promised not to move past Week 5 until I could play all the exercises at medium tempo or faster.  As I reviewed the exercises that were holding me back I realized that they all contained bar chords.

I was doing great with the minor pentatonic scales and rhythm exercises.  In fact I was doing so well on them that they had become the backbone of my practice sessions.  I would warm up with them, work on them at even faster speeds, and then jam with them to wind down.

I was avoiding the hard and deliberate work of practicing bar chords because they are really difficult and I am not very good at them.  When I work on them my guitar squeaks and squawks like it did when I first picked it up almost 2 years ago.

Bar chords are a key base-skill for learning guitar and I am going to need to learn them eventually.  There is no good reason to push myself much further in other areas until I conquer them.

Find a New Teacher (Tutorial)

To date I have never taken a lesson from a music teacher but I have read many articles and books and watched lessons online.  While I prefer to teach myself most skills I do not believe in stumbling forward blindly without guidance.  I just prefer to read or view lessons at my own pace rather than receiving them in real-time.

Since I was struggling with barre chords I decided to spend some time online searching for tutorials and articles focused on teaching them.  I eventually stumbled upon this amazing site with detailed tips, videos and pictures for learning bar chords.

As I studied the lesson I was reminded of some techniques that I needed to refocus on and some others that were vaguely familiar but suddenly made a whole lot of sense.  I was reminded of the Buddhist proverb, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

I have experienced this many times before but I am always delighted to experience it again.  I had already read many articles and lessons on bar chords and I probably had seen all these tips before, but I wasn’t ready to hear them yet.  The brain tends to ignore information it doesn’t know what to do with so if there are tips or tricks that aren’t relevant to you yet or don’t make sense then your brain will just ignore them.

Evaluate My Habits

With these new insights in hand I was excited to start practicing immediately.  I realized that I had not been focusing enough effort on bar chords and that I had not been following the tenets of deliberate practice in all my sessions.

All week I made an effort to really target bar chords.  The first thing I did was slow down even further.  I had been occasionally practicing the G-D-C-G progression at 40bpm but I was struggling to make the transition on the chords.  I slowed it down to 20bpm but I was still struggling to make the transition smoothly.  Finally I simplified the exercise even further by progressing in smaller steps up the neck (G-A-B-C-D).

Finally I was able to play that chord progression at 20bpm.  Of course I could only do it once or twice before my hand would clench up from the strain.  I would shake it out, try to relax it and then try it again. Eventually I was able to do it at 20bpm and I was able to start working on the G-D-C-D progression.

That is all I have been practicing this week and I have made progress.  I can now play the G-D-C-D progression at 25bpm…  As I write that I realize that it is a miniscule improvement.  That in reality I haven’t made that much progress, especially for a weeks worth of work. Yet, it felt amazing to achieve it.  It means that I am inching my way over the plateau and that eventually I will climb off of it.

I can feel my hands and arms getting stronger.  My fingers are starting to learn the positions they need to know.  My mind is starting to piece it all together and beginning to let my hands and fingers find their way quickly and naturally.  It is just a matter of time now before I can play this bar chord progression at full tempo.

Will it take another nine months?  Only time will tell.  I will keep you posted.

Posted in: Guitar, Learning, Practice