“Help me, man, I’m on the plateau!”
I’ve seen that phrase – or variations of it – countless times in posts on TalkBass.com over the last year or so. I’ve had emails from some of my subscribers too with the same complaint.
Heck, in the 90s I even proclaimed to all and sundry that I was becalmed on the plateau myself, got frustrated and stopped trying to improve my bass playing abilities for a good 10 years or so (a period I now refer to as my “wilderness years”).
So What Is The ‘Plateau.’
The plateau is the Bermuda Triangle for bass players. It’s an imaginary place where bassists who’ve reached a certain level of proficiency (and that level varies from person to person) describe they’re stuck in when they don’t seem to go any better no matter how much they practice.
And so to explain to their peers, friends and families why they’re not getting any better despite investing two, three, or four hours of practice most days of the week they shrug their shoulders and say the dreaded words: ‘I’m on the plateau.’
The sad truth is that most players could escape this plateau and start progressing in their playing again – TODAY! – if they only knew how.
So How Do You Escape The Plateau?
Before you can escape it, first you’ve got to understand it.
In his excellent book ‘Talent Is Overrated,” author Geoff Colvin introduces us to the concept of The Learning Zone, courtesy of Noel Tichy, a professor at the University of Michigan business school.
Tichy draws three concentric circles. The inner circle he calls The Comfort Zone. The middle circle is The Learning Zone. And the outer circle is The Panic Zone.
The Comfort Zone represents all those activities that we can already perform. The Learning Zone represents all the skills and activities that we are not able to perform, but that we can envisage being able to learn.
The Panic Zone represents activities that are so far beyond us that we cannot even visualize how we might possibly perform them.
And bassists stranded on ‘the plateau’ are simply people who practice without going beyond their comfort zone. This is why they’re not making any progress; because they’re practicing the wrong material.
How Can You Move Out Of The Comfort Zone?
The first task is to identify that you’re actually in a comfort zone. If you look your practice schedule for the last few months this should be readily apparent. If the exercises you’re practicing today are the same or similar as 3 months ago – or 6 months ago – and at similar tempos, then it’s a pretty safe bet you’ve landed in the comfort zone.
Then identify what your learning zone is.
This is a skill in itself as you need to identify what skills you will need to work on, along with exercises that will help you attain those skills. Identifying your learning zone is something that you may need to do in association with a more experienced player, either a teacher or a mentor, as their greater knowledge can suggest specific exercises to direct you out of your comfort zone and into your learning zone.
What Happens When You Assimilate Something From The Learning Zone, To The Point That It Becomes Comfortable?
This is a natural part of the learning process. As your abilities increase, so your Comfort Zone expands.
So to avoid the whole plateau effect starting all over again, it’s vital to constantly assess your abilities and change your practice schedule accordingly to make sure that you’re always in the Learning Zone. If you do this you’ll always be working on exercises that will improve your playing. And you’ll always be challenging yourself in your Learning Zone – and you’ll never have to utter those dreaded words again: ‘Hey man, I’ve hit the plateau!’