Everybody knows about writers who struggle with writer's block. Whether it be because they have lost motivation to write, lost their source of inspiration, or just don’t know what to write about, it's something that can be incredibly debilitating.
Musicians experience the same thing in the practice room. Oftentimes, we'll plateau for a while after a period of large growth. This is a natural process, but is extremely frustrating nonetheless. So how do we get off the plateau and get back to growing?
The first step is to try and isolate the exact issue. Are you burned out from practicing hard for an extended period of time? Are you having trouble feeling motivated to practice or feeling inspired to grow? Do you just not know what to practice? Whatever your specific issue is, try one of these solutions and see if it helps you out of your rut.
1. Take a break
If you're one of those folks who does a lot of practicing, like an hour or more per day, then you might have just burned yourself out. It happens all the time and is easily remedied. Plenty of private instructors and professional players talk about taking mid-practice breaks, such as a 15-minute break for every hour of practicing, but if you've been hard at work for a few weeks or months, it might be worth your while to take a little time off.
It doesn't have to be more than a few days – just give it enough time to start missing it again. Try as hard as possible to not touch your instrument during this extended break, and just allow yourself to relax and decompress. You might consider going camping or taking a short trip just to get away from the regular routine and recover as much as possible. Listen to lots of music during this period of time. You'll likely come back to your instrument much more inspired, and feel much more alive and aware in the practice room.
Try to do this at least once every few months. Daily practice is the best way to improve quickly, but if you're not taking breaks (both short and long), you put yourself at a higher risk for burning out and performance injury.
2. Listen to music
If you're getting stuck in the practice room, it might just be that you're running out of inspiration. I have a few go-to players who make me light up and feel inspired every time I put on one of their records. If you have a favorite player, listen to some of their music (or music that they've played on) and try to break down what it is you like about them. Try to find a few particular spots in the music that really make you light up. At that point, you can listen to those spots with a critical ear and compare them to your own playing. If you don't sound as good as they do, try to figure out why.
At this point, you might want to try to learn those songs that inspire you, or at least your favorite parts of the song where the musician really shines. Perhaps it makes you want to practice certain concepts that the player is applying. Either way, listening to good music with good players is always a great way of reinvigorating you in the practice room.
3. Hang with good players
Hanging out and jamming with some really good players always gives me more motivation to practice and often gives me some new ideas on what I need to be practicing. Few things are more motivating than playing with somebody and seeing firsthand what it would be like to be a higher-level player on your instrument.
More often than not, good players (especially ones you're friends with) will have no problem helping you out and showing you things they do that you can practice, or giving you advice on where your weaknesses are and how you can improve them. If you hear somebody in the room playing something you really like, don't be afraid to ask them to show you what they did once the song is over (or if it's a gig/rehearsal situation, after the gig/rehearsal is over).
Opportunities to play with great players depend a lot on your location. If you aren't in a band with players that are really good and inspiring, try going out to a local jam. If you know some good players, you may even want to host a jam at your residence.
4. Take a lesson
If you're having trouble figuring out what to practice, or how to practice something that you're weak at, find a great teacher and take a lesson! I believe that anybody who's serious about improving their instrument should be in weekly lessons, but that isn't always an option financially. If that's the case, then saving up and taking a single 60-minute lesson should be enough to at least put you on the right track, as long as the teacher knows what he or she is doing.
Regular weekly lessons are an even better way of getting out of a rut. Not only will you consistently have new material to work on, but you'll also have the responsibility of showing up each week with an assignment prepared. This sort of accountability gives you a really good reason to practice and can be very motivating. And since the lessons are one-on-one, the learning pace can be adjusted if you start to feel overwhelmed or aren't being challenged enough.
If you can't afford lessons but have some friends who are great players and/or educators, you can usually work out some kind of barter with them. I've often traded my friends some housework or petsitting in exchange for getting a few lessons from them. Even if I couldn't afford to take weekly lessons from them, this was often enough to get me moving in the right direction with my practicing.
5. Record yourself
The microphone does not lie. One of the easiest ways to figure out your playing weaknesses and the things you need to practice is to hear your playing from the perspective of a listener.
These days, you don't need to invest a ton of money (or any money at all, really) into a home studio in order to get a decent recording of yourself. Modern webcams and cell phones often have a high-enough-quality microphone on board that they serve just fine for checking your playing. Try taking a song that you're working on and recording yourself playing it. Then listen to your playing while also listening to the original recording (again, something that one of your favorite players has recorded is great source material). How is your playing different from the players on the original track? How can you get your playing to sound as good as theirs? Are there any glaring issues in your playing that you can hear/see in the recording? Those issues can now be your practice targets.
This is the best solution for somebody who can’t get into lessons. You essentially assume the role of a private instructor at this point, as you listen back to the recording of your playing. I personally enjoy using a webcam and getting both visual and audio feedback, as many technique issues can be spotted visually. Through this process, you might find that you don't sound as good as you thought you did and can go back to work on any concepts or techniques that are sloppier than you realized. Alternatively, you might find that you sound much better than you thought you did, which is a great confidence booster and will help you stay inspired to continue your dedicated practice.
Learn more ways to improve your practicing:
- 8 Easy Tweaks to Make Your Practice Time Way More Productive
- 4 Practice Tips to Progress Faster on Your Instrument
- 5 Practice Tips for Busy Lives
- 7 Ways to Practice Music While on the Road
Dylan Welsh is a freelance musician and music journalist, based in Seattle, WA. He currently plays in multiple Seattle bands, interns at Mirror Sound Studio, and writes for the Sonicbids blog. Visit his website for more information.