Ten Ways to Avoid Plateauing

Posted on May 12, 2011 at 10:25 pm, by Ben

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I used to draw a lot when I was younger, and dad, being an exceptional artist, was my primary instructor. Occasionally he would take a look at my work and ask me if I thought I was “plateauing.” What he meant by this is “have you reached a position in your skill where you always make the same errors and are not getting any better?” This question usually made me uncomfortable because I knew it meant something in my art habits had to be shaken up– I’d need to leave my comfort zone of cartoon characters to climb above that plateau. At the time, I didn’t mind dwelling on the rolling hills of sub-mediocrity (which is where I was), I just wanted to draw for fun and nothing else.

Looking back, I wish I had relished my father’s input more… maybe I wouldn’t have let my artistic abilities coast and eventually slide like they did when I hit my teens. Now that I’m working as a professional composer in the field of music, I’ve come to view his reminder as something to heed and treasure.

I wanted to encourage some of you younger musicians (I’m pretty young, so that’s a narrow field) to not grow weary nor fainthearted in your quest for excellence, so I thought I’d play you an excerpt of something I wrote when I was sixteen compared with a clip of something I wrote last month for the Navigating History series. If this doesn’t make you feel better about your music, I don’t know what will. : )

5 Years of Change by BenBotkin

By God’s grace, I believe I’ve grown in my musical ability and skill a lot over the last five years–far beyond what I can take credit for. I see areas where I’ve slacked and ways I could have invested the years in a more disciplined fashion, but thankfully God has brought in a lot of influences and trials over that time to bring me to where I am today. To continue that growth over the next 5 years, here is a list of 10 pointers I need to follow better. (By the way, whenever I say “you” in the following list, I actually mean “me”.)

TEN WAYS TO AVOID PLATEAUING

1 – Acknowledge the Creator

Having an honest perspective on your lowly state and God’s exalted one is the best remedy for blind arrogance, closed-minded professionalism, and selfish ambition. Realize that (a) you’re not actually that great, and (b) If you are (you’re not), it’s due to God’s blessings on you–not your own merit.

Pray without ceasing. If God is the Creator of music, and if he will not give His son a stone when he asks for a fish, then beseech God for specific talents and skills… only make sure you ask with the right motives.

2 – Love correction and input

In a multitude of counselors there is victory–this means getting input from a lot of people is good. I know, you think you know way more about music than the plethora of people with musical opinions, but people with fresh ears and different tastes can often see your blind sides when you can’t. I guess that’s why they’re called blind sides.

3 – Identify and acknowledge your weaknesses

You always have them. If you can’t see what they are, that shows you’re gauging personal success with a broken barometer, and it’s probably pride.

4 – Never compare yourself to your peers

This will only produce, at best, a product percentage points above the accepted, and often, mediocre norm. Don’t ever think “I’m pretty good for my age” or “I’m pretty good considering my circumstances,” think… “How can I be better than the best?” Compare yourself to the greats, and you will always see something to improve on. If you don’t reach for the stars, you’ll never get past the clouds. (I should note that if your peers are actually your superiors, you would do well to acknowledge that fact.)

5 – Learn to imitate

Intentionally study and copy great composers’ music as an exercise (I don’t recommend trying to pass this music off as your own). Put yourself in the shoes of the greats and maybe you can learn how they walked. The more music you are familiar with, the more you can understand what creativity is.

6 – Get out of your comfort zone

Stretch your ear, your musical retention skills, your musical tastes, your technique, your knowledge–whatever you can think of. If you always play or write by ear, use sheet music. If you always compose at the piano, compose away from the piano. If you only ever write pop ballads, write a string quartet. If you only ever write symphonies, write something for big-band ensemble. Increase your knowledge in whatever ways you’re lacking.

7 – Study and learn things outside your chosen “field”

This sounds counter-intuitive at first, but a greater knowledge of theology, history, science, mathematics, biology, culinary arts, architecture or like disciplines can give you insights and perspective on your area of expertise you would never have realized being entrenched in that field alone.

8 – Write with clear objectives in mind

Don’t be a perpetual improviser or a wandering romantic. Have both long term goals with your music and short-term, piece-specific goals. “What mood do I need to communicate? What should the audience leave the theater feeling?”

(By the way, just blindly following that fuzzy “feeling” you get when you’re composing usually means you’re reverting to the things that automatically touch you in some way, i.e the things you’ve already decided you enjoy, i.e. the content of your ipod’s “most played” category.)

9 – Write music to please people other than yourself.

Isn’t this one of the goals, anyway? The opinions of people besides you are a much better barometer of how good you actually are. Musicians who exist merely to “express themselves” or “discover themselves” in music end up being the most unoriginal and unreasonable individuals.

10 – Do the work

Now that you know what you need to do to improve, do it… realizing that worthy goals aren’t reached without a boatload of effort. Self-improvement is an exercise and a discipline not devoid of enjoyment, but it’s hardly a bed of roses. Well, maybe if you include the thorns.

13 Comments

  • There were some good one-liners in there, but I think this was my favorite. “…can often see your blind sides when you can’t. I guess that’s why they’re called blind sides.”

    😀

    Great post.

    Posted by Gabriel H. on May 12th, 2011 at 11:30 pm
  • Some great thoughts! I think they apply to every area of expertise.

    Posted by Paul on May 13th, 2011 at 8:02 am
  • Thanks, Ben. I love that list.

    One point that I’m wary of: Often it’s easy to plateau *by* imitating others. It’s easy to let others do the work and copy them. I’ve seen many artworks that are not mere tips of the hat to an inspiring artist, but attempts to make good by copying a technique that has worked. However, you are right: we need mentorship, even if it is through analysis and imitation at times of those who have long passed on.

    One other point could be on the list: Rethink how and why your medium, genre, or specific artistic skill works. By getting down to the foundation of your discipline and theorizing to a certain degree how something work, we teach ourselves to paint or compose better–at least theoretically. We should be wary of this, too, because this is how factions and heresy happens. Still, I think it’s an important part of not plateauing. (But that would make it “eleven ways to avoid plateauing,” and that’s not as snappy as ten.)

    Posted by Matthew Sample II on May 13th, 2011 at 8:11 am
  • GREAT article. I’m using these in my monthly newsletter to my piano students.

    Posted by steph on May 13th, 2011 at 8:37 am
  • Thanks Ben! I really enjoyed this and found it very helpful and encouraging. Thank you for taking the time to write it and share it with us.

    Posted by Phillip Haumesser on May 13th, 2011 at 9:03 am
  • Thanks for the encouragement in this post, I think a lot of times I plateau and stay in my own bubble. Thanks for this post!

    Posted by John on May 13th, 2011 at 5:45 pm
  • What a contrast! Both examples have their merits, Ben. Thanks for the encouragement to not plateau. I affirm your point on imitating the best composers. The great composers of the past (and of today) learned their craft by extensively studying and copying and mastering the style of the masters who had gone before them. And when I say “copying,” that meant literally hand copying entire scores, in order to have their own copy and also as a start to really learn it.

    And of course, “copying” meant imitating their style as closely as possible, but perhaps using “original” melodies. And not just the composers immediately before them. Knowing Bach, especially, but also others that followed, requires discipline and produces a depth and mastery that cannot be achieved any other way. This would include mastering writing for various individual and families of instruments and mastering the various forms of composition.
    Great list!

    Posted by Gari on May 16th, 2011 at 6:20 pm
  • Thank you for this post- I am going to share this with our children!

    Posted by Heather on May 17th, 2011 at 11:39 am
  • Thanks for the encouragement and wise advice! We always need to be challenged to remain humble in our musical attempts, as with everything.

    Posted by Rachel Redman on May 19th, 2011 at 9:33 am
  • Thank you for this wise reminder to stay humble while pursuing excellence. It could be said that we can’t even perceive what is excellent until we learn how to be humble. Every point you mentioned is a refreshing take on steps toward humility, especially “Acknowledge the Creator” and being honest about our lowly states compared to the ultimate excellence of God and His creation. Thank you also for reminding me personally that there is no shame or time wasted in imitating the masters of the past or pursuing skills in fields besides my own.

    Posted by Sydni on May 20th, 2011 at 3:07 pm
  • Thank you so much for this!
    We have a family band and we’re trying to compose our own originals… Hopefully we’ll be able to implement these 10 points! 🙂

    Posted by Emily Stone on June 26th, 2011 at 8:54 pm
  • Wow. Thanks for sharing this! Very equipping. I think, like you mentioned, pride is one of our biggest roadblocks when it comes to pushing beyond a plateau in life.

    Posted by David on July 15th, 2011 at 12:00 am
  • […] in advance for those who may think I’m belittling talent or skill, I’m assuming that honing and sharpening your chops as a composer is already a given. I mean to address the other half of the coin: the oft-neglected and/or […]

    Posted by Professionalism for Composers « Ben Botkin on August 4th, 2011 at 11:54 pm

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