Brassatomic habits: the plateau

I see this often: If I practice Petrouchka everyday for a month, I still can step all over it in an audition. If I work on long tones for for a year, I still might not be able to play a convincing double-high C. If I practice Vizzutti’s Cascades for two months, I still have problems. In fact, it often seems that I haven’t progressed at all. I have entered the Twilight Zone: the dreaded plateau.

When I have plateaued, it feels like there is no correlation between my effort and results. It feels like what psychologists sometimes call “learned helplessness.” This state can be depressing. It can also be a problem with motivation, because we actually need to have a sense of accomplishment to feel motivated to continue.

Throughout most of our evolution, our decisions were framed in terms of immediate results. For instance, if we ran from a lion, we might survive. If we ate a poisonous berry, we might be sick very soon. If we fought the aggressive rival, we might be able to take control of the tribe.

In our modern era, however, most of our decisions have delayed results. We can decide to not eat the whole massive restaurant meal, but we won’t see a reduction in our weight any time soon. We might decide to study Spanish for 30 minutes, but we won’t be able to hold a conversation the next day. We may practice our lip slurs for 20 minutes, but we still may have problems with the arpeggios in the Tomasi Concerto. These types of efforts all take a long time of repeated efforts to see results.

A good way to think about our plateau is to compare it to ice, as James Clear points out in his book Atomic Habits. Let’s say you have a cube of ice that is 20º F (-6.5º C) You want to melt the ice, so you warm it up. If you warm the ice to 27º F (-2.7º C), the ice looks exactly the same as it did when it was colder. But even if it looks like you have made no progress, it’s easy to see that you are closer to your goal. You still have to raise the ice temperature to at least 32º F (0º C) to start melting it. To achieve your goal, you have to understand there may be gateway levels of effort in order to see the results you desire.

The long tones, slurs, the Petrouchka sessions, the recital prep are all necessary. They may not be sufficient, however, to play the high note you want, to win the audition or to play a convincing recital. You may need a little more, and that’s okay. But how do you stay motivated while you wait for these results? With marbles, with a calendar, with a journal or just a check box on your to do list.

You will benefit greatly in your motivation with some kind of external marker for your efforts when the desired results is still elusive. Let’s take, for example, the Petrouchka excerpt. If you have two bowls and 10 marbles, you can mark each run through of Petrouchka with your marbles. Each time Petrouchka sounds good, you move a marble over. Once you move all ten, you are done for the day. Every day, you continue this ritual. You begin to focus not on the audition, but on the process of getting better. The marbles themselves become a marker that provides motivation for your efforts.

With a device like the marble markers, you can stay motivated when you are on the plateau. Eventually however, your efforts will result in an incredibly solid and dependable Petrouchka. But along the way a subtle psychological change will have happened. Your motivation to win an audition will have been somewhat replaced by a more fundamental motivation to be a good trumpeter who practices. This identity will prove to be a much more important motivator. This identity will feel satisfying.

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