Overcoming a Learning “Wall”: Reach the Next Level

Getting over a mental wall is one of the hardest challenges that you have to overcome to improve. It seems you hit one every once in a while no matter how much you are learning or enjoying the music. Maybe for a beginner it goes like:

“Okay, I’ve learned the chords and I can strum most songs – this is boring.”

Or for the intermediate player it’s:

“Wow. I’ve learned picking to a bunch of cool songs, but it doesn’t seem like it’s getting me anywhere!”

And for the advanced it might be:

“I’ve come a long ways, but how do I set my playing apart? I sound just like __________!”

For myself, I’ve found that most times this negative reflection on your playing comes from the realization that you are repeating yourself. Whether it be playing the same chords the same way or riffing around the same scale in the same way, once you see it for what it is (no matter how great it might be) you are going to see the looming walls of the musical box you are. In other words, you start to feel *stale*.

To feel “not-stale” is your goal and almost always the cure for the woodshed blues. You achieve this by getting out of your comfort zone and finding something that makes music fresh again. A lot of times this revolves around taking an honest assessment of your skills and recognizing what you don’t know. What you don’t know = fresh.

Maybe make a list. Lists are great. Write down everything you know (or think you know) how to do really well on the ‘ukulele. Make it as detailed as possible and try to cover every angle. Now compare it to what you think your favorite pro musician’s list might look like. The difference is what you should (or could) practice. Make a second list as you are “comparing” the two and note down some of the things your list is lacking. The more the merrier and the less you’ll have to think about what to practice down the road.

Here are some things that I might put on my list just to give you an idea.

  • Playing steady groups of notes to the click of a metronome. One pick per click, then two, then three, four, five, six, seven.
  • Sequencing major and pentatonic scales in hard keys (F#, C#) in groups of 3, 4, or 5.
  • Soloing with the chromatic scale.
  • Playing my solo set to a metronome.
  • Sequencing scales with accents on alternating beats. (1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4)
  • “Update” a song or figure it out in a different key.
  • Jam along with a hard jazz tune and try to figure out the chord changes.

It could go on and on. Of course, that’s for me in 2014. If you put things on your list like “master DDUUD strum” or “learn Flight of the Bumblebee at 200bpm” – great! We are all on our own personal journey and every individual is at a slightly different level.

Now you have some ideas of what to practice. Some things may be simple and straightforward like “playing with a metronome” or “cleaner chords.” Other things will probably be a ways over your head. Those can wait. You need to find the most relevant thing to practice. In my experience, each time you escape a rut you do so with slingshot force and come back to playing much more inspired and excited about music than ever. So why not start by practicing something different and challenging if it might swing you out of the funk even faster? If you play lots of chords, work on writing a melody over one of your favorite progressions. If you play lots of jazz standards, learn some Celtic tunes. If you learn songs exclusively from tabs, sit down at your computer/CD/record player and ear one out. Anything to spark the possibilities in your mind.

I really like abstract materials containing information that can be used at whatever level you understand it as. In other words, a comprehensive presentation of simple concepts that can be made as complex as you need. That way you aren’t making a one-time purchase. You can revisit these books/DVDs every year until you die and still learn something new each time. My favorites are The Advancing Guitarist by Mick Goodrick, The Guitarist’s Guide to Composing and Improvising by Jon Damian, and The Groove Workshop DVD by Victor Wooten. Of course, these aren’t for ‘ukulele and are probably bad choices for a beginner, but if you have a fair grasp on music and are comfortable picking, chording, and holding time they might be useful.

Don’t play what you know, play what you don’t know.

In addition to finding a new world of music to practice, here are some other things that can be good for morale:

  • Play with someone who is better than you, even if they play a different instrument. Appreciate what they do well and how much time they have put in to get to that point.
  • Teach. It really makes you appreciate how far you’ve come and the students usually are in awe of what you consider your “just okay” playing.
  • Listen to music – different music than you normally do. Approach each song as if it has a lesson to give you.
  • Play other genres. Don’t be the guy who says, “That kind of music sucks, dude!”
  • Write a song.
  • Go to a concert or watch one on TV. Try and figure out some reasons the person is great enough to be putting on a concert.
  • Don’t listen to music for a while.
  • Don’t play for a while.
  • Read an epic (Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are always favorites).
  • Watch a heavy movie (Inception or Holy Motors).
  • Talk to somebody on the street. Everyone has a story that could be at least several songs.
  • Get in the ocean.
  • Change your perspective.
  • Keep practicing so that when you get out of the rut you won’t regret missing the chance.