Two breakthroughs in one day? Yes, it’s possible – especially if one small tweak takes care of two problems at once.
Have you ever experienced a plateau in your playing that seemed to stick around for years and years? You regularly practiced prescribed exercises in attempt to overcome a specific obstacle; you understood, and maybe even taught the concepts to others, only to come short in achieving a specific level of consistency yourself.
In my experience – both personally and through observing students and colleagues – breakthroughs usually happen in one of two ways, and sometimes in combination:
Keep at It
“The greatest threat to success is not failure but boredom…as soon as we experience the slightest dip in motivation, we begin seeking a new strategy – even if the old one was still working.”
-James Clear. Atomic Habits. Page 234
Try to get 1% better every day. It’s not so much about how many hours you practice, but how many times you practice. Unless it’s clear to you that your current strategy is no longer serving you (and perhaps even making things worse), chances are you haven’t reached the tipping point yet. Often breakthroughs appear on the surface as a single event; a noticeable change – an “aha” moment. In reality, these moments are usually preceded by many deliberate repetitions spread across a large time-frame. Skills that take an especially long time to acquire are easily given up on because they simply take longer to achieve. This is even more challenging if you’re trying to change a years’-long habit. Don’t give up – the daily practice creates compound interest, and once you pass a certain threshold, it begins to pay dividends. Then, people might start asking what your secret sauce is.
Different Perspective on a Familiar Topic
Sometimes a breakthrough happens upon hearing different words to explain a concept you already understand, but perhaps your muscles haven’t been consistent with it yet. New vocabulary can find a missing piece of the mind-body connection puzzle. Other times, the breakthrough can happen from observing someone else play and then trying out something they do, which ends up solving a problem. For example, I’ve experienced breakthroughs when something was explained to me in more kinesthetic terms rather than visual. In fact, one of these instances happened to me quite recently, in a conversation about reducing tension in the left hand.
Everyone is different in this regard, and this is why a great teacher can give more than one viewpoint on the same concept. This is not to say that each person has one specific learning style; I believe this is a myth thrown around in the general education field. In reality, most people are capable of learning in multiple ways, but depending on the nature of the subject, one may be naturally drawn more to one style than another.
Finally another (powerful!) way to gain new perspective is through general personal development (outside of music) and having a growth mindset.
Make it Stick!
One of the toughest moments after a breakthrough – and this is where a majority fails – is to follow up the new sensation of success through lots and lots of (physical and mental) interval repetitions. This is especially crucial if you’re trying to replace an old habit with a new one. If it’s something that might be easy to forget, be sure to capture it on video, write it down, and perhaps even explain it out loud or teach it to someone else.