We’ve all been there, when the piece you’re trying to practice and perfect just seems to go into neutral gear. No matter how much you practice or how focused you are, you can’t seem to get off the plateau.
Sure, you could keep practicing, hammering away at it, with the hope that eventually it will move ahead.
Or you could put it aside, give the piece (and your brain) a rest. Working so hard with no results to show for it is fatiguing and depressing.
Is there another option? You bet.
First let’s look at how you got stuck in the first place. Mentally rewind to the first time you opened the music…
The music was new. The page was clean, unblemished by markings and full of promise. You dove right in.
You worked out the fingering and all the other technical details. You drilled the tricky passages. You practiced hands separately and together. You worked slowly and carefully, using the metronome, checking the details of technique and expression. You did everything right.
And then it happened.
The piece seemed like it was almost to the finish line. All you had to do was conquer this one measure or speed it up a little more or put the sections together. But you couldn’t make it happen. Your progress started to slow down. So you doubled your efforts, but to no avail. At last you had to admit it: you were stuck.
This kind of learning plateau is a normal stage of learning. It’s a time when we absorb the information gathered in all those hours of practice. The music needs to simmer inside us like a rich and flavorful stew. The trick to surviving this plateau is in knowing what to do while all that internal simmering is taking place.
What you shouldn’t do is to put the piece away in frustration. Nor should you simply put your head down and charge ahead. What you should do is to bring some intention and imagination to your practice.
Intentional repetition differs from simply playing a piece or a passage multiple times. The critical factor is the purpose, or ”intention,” behind each repetition. If you have a single and very specifically focused goal for each time you repeat a passage or play through a piece, you are much more likely to achieve that goal.
For instance, you could focus on fingering for one repetition and on technique for the next. The next time you could work on dynamics and the next on phrasing. You could try playing it at half tempo, then at full speed. The key is to have one and only one intention for each repetition.
When you are working on technique, don’t try to get all the dynamics right. When you are playing it at tempo, don’t worry about the sloppy fingering. Just take one thing at a time. But take a different thing each time.
So instead of just playing that passage ten times through, you will play it ten times through differently each time. In this process you will find that you achieve a deeper understanding of the music and a more relaxed attitude toward the piece too which will allow that stew to simmer without your waiting impatiently for it to boil. In the process, you will be preparing your piece for its finish stage.
Remember that in practice we are trying to develop habits. Most often we try to develop the habit of correctness, trying to play everything correctly all the time.
But that can often lead us to practicing the same thing the same way all the time, which only creates a habit of correctness in that specific way. Practicing that passage half tempo only creates correctness at half tempo.
What we need to do instead is to create a habit that leads us to where we want the piece to go, to the finished product. And that calls for some courage and imagination.
Here are a few ideas for some imaginative practice to help you get unstuck. You may find them unusual and even unmusical. But that’s the point – mixing things up to break the practice monotony and get you back on the road to progress.
Tactic 1: Go to Extremes. There’s no musical restraint here. Play it very slow or very fast or very loud or very soft. Nothing "appropriate"; nothing middle of the road.
Tactic 2: Fun House Mirror. Stuck on one passage? Don’t just play it - play with it. Distort it. Slow it down or speed it up at random. Change the rhythm. Change the dynamics. Mess with it. After all, it’s been messing with you.
Tactic 3: Speed Practice. What if you had to play this piece tomorrow? What would you do today in order to have it work tomorrow? What can you do right now? How much can you play very well and what would you have to change adapt or leave out? Start from where you are now and create a semi-finished product right now. Then add to it over the course of several days and see how much closer you can get to finishing the piece the way you want.
And when all else fails, just stay calm and let the stew simmer!