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Technical Plateau

November 16, 2015

I have noticed a recurring pattern in my life, and it bugs me that this seems to be happening to me in so many places.

It is a plateau of my technique or expertise in a given area where I come to realize more fully my limitations as an amateur, or my ignorance as an outsider.

What does this look like?

When my boyfriend challenges me to a game of Connect Four, I enter it thinking this is a battle of reactions. He goes, then I analyze what he must be trying, then I go. I’m thinking about laying down traps, and outthinking his. My boyfriend crushes me several times. He says, “You’re not following the optimal path.” Even without having studied anything, I know, vaguely, that I should stick to the middle. But I don’t want to learn optimal paths. Even though this is a solved game, I don’t want to play it as if it’s a solved game.

In chess, it looks like a friend crushing me several times. He tells me, “Well, you have pretty good reflexes, and decent tactical thinking, but you should really study on openings and defenses. Here you started with what looked like so n’ so’s opening, but then you did something very unconventional, so I was able to come in here and here.” He tells me about his development as a chess player, studying openings.

I have no idea who so n’ so is. I’m just playing the game, trying to think a couple moves in advance — but certainly not with an entire game played out in my head.

In fencing, it looks similar. My coach says, “You are pretty athletic, and good at responding, but you don’t have discipline. And you should study tactics” I know it. My footwork is terrible. Watching myself in videos is cringeworthy, even when I win.

But I just want to fence! I know the drills are necessary, but I just want to fence freely!

I wanted to learn how to draw, but the pain of drawing junk stopped me every time. (Maybe next time will be different?)

I started playing music again, and I got to a place where my sound started sounding good enough to me for me to continue.

And yet, here I am with the plateau again.

This past weekend, I released my latest cover: Katrina’s Theme from Romancing SaGa 3. If you’ve never heard of the game, don’t worry: I know how to pick the obscure ones, apparently.


The thing I like about covering video game music on a YouTube is I have to learn several skills at once. In addition to learning how to play my saxophone, I had to learn how to arrange music simply from hearing the original piece over and over. There usually isn’t sheet music already, and there may not even be a midi file, so I have gotten pretty good at arranging by ear.

In addition to both of those, I had to learn about recording. I am under no illusions of thinking that I am a master recorder. I am well aware that people go to school for years to get degrees in sound engineering, so whatever I’m doing at home with my $60 DAW cannot be compared to professional work. And yet, I’ve come to a place where I’m OK with my sound.

In addition to this, I had to learn about video recording. On YouTube, people don’t just want to listen; they want to see…something. And so, I played around with camera angles. I struggled to learn Adobe Premiere Elements, and then took a step back to learn Adobe Premiere Pro (and am starting to take the two steps forward…slowly, but surely.)

I like all of that.

But I don’t like that at each of these junctures, there’s that same technical plateau.

It’s not simply a juncture of people telling me that my stuff stinks. To my surprise (and my…relief?), people are generally far nicer and more helpful than I would have ever imagined. People say: “Never pay attention to YouTube comments!” Maybe I’m just niche enough to not have attracted any negative attention, but I have not found horrible negativity.

So, what is it?

Maybe it’s the silence? On the one hand, I know that if I want more views, then I should play more popular songs. On the other hand, I see some songs covered over and over and over and I don’t want to add yet another cover to the collection. So, as a matter of principle, I’m OK sticking with less popular stuff, as long as I like it.

And I do. But I would like to eat my cake and have it too.

But even more…I do want to improve. I do want to release quality products. People sometimes give really good constructive feedback, that I do appreciate. But what rocks me is when people give constructive feedback that only highlights how little I know. It’s constructive feedback that I don’t even know enough to parse out, much less to implement.

It’s daunting. Now there’s terrain that I know I have never traversed, but where to start?

The worst thing about it is that I know, objectively, that I have improved so much from when I started.

When I started, I didn’t even record with a click track. So, I wasn’t even keeping consistent time.

When I started, I didn’t line up my takes. So, one track would not be in sync with another.

When I started, I didn’t have a passable DAW. So, the sound was raw, unrefined, and clumsily edited.

When I started, I didn’t have video. It was just music and a still picture.

When I started, I didn’t write out the sheet music. At best, I would write notes on a napkin or envelope.

When I started, I didn’t branch out from the source material. There was little creativity or originality.

What I call a “plateau” is really nothing of the sort. Even of the stuff I know about, there’s plenty of room for improvement that I know I can make — without touching the unknown terrain at all.

And yet, that unknown terrain bothers me. My lack of training. My lack of discipline. Lack of knowledge of musical theory.

But I think what bothers me the most is this fear that music too is a “solved game” and that all the magic really is formula.

That seems simple enough, but here’s what my silly worry is about.

Let’s take Connect Four. At the outset, it looks like a game of wits. You make your move; your opponent makes theirs. Who thinks better on their feet?

…but that’s not what the game is about. Rather, it’s about who can execute the winning strategy most effectively. It’s a solved game.

Chess is a bit more complex, but it’s still the same. It’s not about thinking on your feet (even several turns out). It’s about the learning, practicing, recognition and implementation of several strategies and tactics that have been developed over time (or, if you’re a super genius, maybe coming up with one of your own?). It’s a partially solved game.

Fencing too. Fast reflexes gets you only far enough; you have to have knowledge and technique set in your muscles, and then you have to execute tested tactics.

Although I like to win, I am terrified of the idea that winning is the matter of learning a solved game. I don’t know how to express this as viscerally as I feel it. Even in a game as simple as Connect Four, where I can — just by looking — begin derive the optimal strategy, I refuse to learn the optimal strategy for sure. It feels like some sort of magic would be eliminated from the game (even if that magic is just my ignorance, and my ignorance is why I lose.)

I am terrified of chess turning into a game of openings and defenses and whatnot, even though I know that high level competitive play is about that.

I am terrified of music turning into music theory: rules about doing this chord first, then this chord next, all in a formula.

Well, enough of that. It’s time to begin arranging for this week’s track.

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3 Comments
  1. Agellius permalink

    Very interesting post. I don’t think there’s any way around the fact that learning all these things is learning something that’s already been solved. It’s the same with sports: The vast majority of people learn to implement “best practices” discovered by others: Planting your feet in a certain way before throwing a pass, swinging a golf club in a certain way, etc. The vast majority of people who learn a skill won’t get beyond the received wisdom. All we’re doing, basically, is achieving varying levels within the range of what people have already achieved before.

    A certain minority do get beyond that; humans as a race are always pushing the envelope, but only by perfecting the received wisdom and then moving beyond it. It’s an extremely rare person who surpasses the received wisdom without having perfected it first.

    I think your mistake is in having a problem with that. : ) Even within the level of the received wisdom you can do something, not necessarily better than anyone else, but at least with your own unique style, and get a lot of enjoyment out of it.

    Nice video by the way! Not necessarily my taste in music, but I’m very impressed that you did the arranging and played all the instruments yourself (I assume?), and your sax playing was flawless as far as I could tell.

  2. I think that this is a good way of putting it:

    Even within the level of the received wisdom you can do something, not necessarily better than anyone else, but at least with your own unique style, and get a lot of enjoyment out of it.

    And this is also something to strive for:

    A certain minority do get beyond that; humans as a race are always pushing the envelope, but only by perfecting the received wisdom and then moving beyond it.

    But still, i can’t help but feel somewhat disappointed. It’s definitely my mistake, but still it’s what I feel, haha.

    I did indeed to the arrangement, playing, drum programming, editing, videography, and so on, but really, the hard work (of the original composition) was done by Kenji Ito, even if I added some parts on top of it. Definitely not flawless playing, but isn’t that the trick: even *I* couldn’t tell until some far more experienced people started pointing them out.

  3. Agellius permalink

    Coincidentally I was just listening to an audio book about learning, memory, how the brain works, etc., and they talked about the plateau. They say the plateau happens when people are satisfied that they’ve learned something “good enough”. Even if you keep, say, playing golf for another 30 years, you will never get beyond that plateau, unless you start consciously seeking to improve and challenging yourself by doing things that are beyond your current capability.

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