Finding Your Path on a Plateau.

High desert in western New Mexico at sunset.

I’ve totally lost track (not that I was tracking it in the first place) of how many times I’ve had new students or clients come in and start with something like, “I feel like I’ve hit a plateau.” What they’re usually referring to is how the many years of work they’ve done feels as if it’s become mired in something, or plateaued, the upward curve has flattened out. Of course, this is frustrating and it is the unfortunate cause of many people gradually falling away from their creative pursuits, as if it’s some sign from Apollo and The Muses that they aren’t deserving of their art. However, it’s more like a nice little teaching moment with Hephaestus, God of the Forge. My friend and fellow musician, teacher, Buddhist and a chapter in my book, Lemmy, shared this with me a long time ago and I never forgot it. It’s a quote from Joseph Schwab: Learning hurts. Education is a painful endeavor. It requires that you admit you don’t know something about a pursuit you care deeply about. This is why I always congratulate new students. It’s a tough decision, like choosing therapy over a drink, or opening up over cramming down your sorrow until it bursts forth like a beach ball held under water for too long.

When I’ve examined this block-in-the-process with students, it’s consistently been tied to a couple things.

One, is that they aren’t playing with or for anybody. Sharing is the final step of any creative pursuit. Playing with fellow musicians, whatever anybody’s level, is always a joyful experience. Those with more skills are usually happy to share tips, and those with less are usually anxious to learn. Playing for others is frightening, certainly, but it forges (see how I did that?) a truer self. In order to contend with stage fright, you need to get out of your lesser ego and be reminded that we do this not only for ourselves. It’s a letting go to gain control, thing.

The other constant cause of plateauing, is someone has holes in the foundational knowledge of their instrument. They are missing key skill sets and information. Having the right tools and knowledge makes for better use of your instrument. And speaking of mythology, knowing more won’t damage your creative process. It will enhance it. If you’re having trouble with your creative flow, that’s a mindset issue. Let me address that briefly, and look for other work I’ve shared on creativity and songwriter’s block.

Much of what I’m addressing here is about exercising your creative muscles. Whether you’re running scales, writing out lyrical interpretations or charts, or creating something from scratch, it’s all leading to the same place. You’re still going to be creating something literally from thin air. Your skills will help in this. You will be activating sound waves at specific frequencies to demonstrate your own emotional take on the human condition. You see, it’s not as mysterious as it needs to be. At least, not where the actual instrument is concerned. The mystery is in the human being. It’s in you. When you are having trouble expressing this mystery, you’re blocking something in yourself and there’s a very good chance it’s ego based. I’m not saying you’re arrogant (unless you are). I’m saying that you may not realize that you’re settling in on your haunches based on previous success with your instrument. That success can be as simple as having enough music to play a full set. I’m not referring to the business of music. I’m referring to the art of music. Movement forward is success. How do we strive to move forward?

We want to develop an ongoing ability to challenge ourselves and get really, really comfortable with being uncomfortable. So, a mental trigger you set may be; when you can say you’re comfortable with your skills and knowledge, it’s time to look for something more. For a slightly extreme example, I bought a baritone guitar. This instrument basically works like a standard guitar, but the strings are thicker and longer and it plays more like a hybrid between bass and guitar. Now, I’m very utilitarian. I’m also not rich. This isn’t a normal thing for me, to just go grab a new instrument on a whim. But I felt deeply that I needed to up my game somewhere. After much research, I bought an acoustic-electric baritone guitar. Shortly, I had some songs. In fact, my willingness to let myself explore the instrument on its own terms, to discover its different tonalities and how my technique adjusted, all led me to some of the most free songwriting I’d ever done. I took 5 mostly finished songs to my friend’s studio in L.A. and in 5 days, we had an excellent little album.

Here’s are some key elements to this story, though. My deep knowledge of the guitar and music theory, my comfort with working with other musicians, and the understanding that I know enough to take this kind of leap without falling off a cliff and dooming myself to a feeling of failure; all this gave me the confidence to explore the mysteries. You must forge the best use of your instrument. And guess what, when you’re really good at it, you realize how you’ll never be done. And that’s just badass. To think that there’s something you can do for the rest of your life and never grow tired or bored? I’m in!

One other way to explore your creative blocks is just that, explore them. Why are you really blocked? Don’t give the smoke screen answer. That is, your first answer may not be the whole truth. So, take your first answer and ask yourself, if this wasn’t a problem, what else would be in my way? Keep asking yourself about ego. For instance, are you trying to recreate some previous successful creation? Think about that. It doesn’t make any sense. You’ve already done that last thing. As a creative person, your very nature is one of exploration. What about perfection? Are you obsessed with perfection? Perfection is tyrannical. It’s also impossible and nonsensical. Art is mostly expressing how we deal with our imperfections. Or longing for the enigmatic perfection, with the understanding that it’s a fantasy. Assume that your identity is evolving and your previous techniques for creating may do the same. Let it happen.

Ultimately, running into obstacles is an opportunity for improvement. It’s all in the numbers. If we perceive a problem, that means our brain is finding that something doesn’t add up. Therefore, with the right formula or data, we can discover the missing elements and come to a solution. What did you suppose those story problems we all disliked in school were all about? They’re using math (numbers/code) to program our brain (a big mushy super computer) for better problem solving. So, when you perceive you’ve hit a plateau, you’re right. Use the emotional effect this has on you to motivate yourself towards the outcome you would prefer. Get a checkup with someone like me to discern what’s missing in your knowledge and skills. Work through strategies for dealing with stage fright and other human interactions that sharing requires. And forge a better artist in yourself, get that creative flow back in shape. I hope this helps. Peace.

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Phil Circle

Phil Circle

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Phil Circle is a Chicago-based singer-songwriter-guitarist, award-winning music coach and author, and the founder of Guilt By Association Records.