As you may recall if you've been a MM blog reader for some time, I'm taking flying lessons. Over and over, I find parallels between learning to fly and our students learning to play music.
In the last several weeks I've made a lot of progress in flying. I've flown solo to some airports over a hundred miles away and returned home easily. Flying solo, I've made some difficult landings in crosswinds and tailwinds, and had gotten pretty confident of my ability to get the plane on the ground safely in nearly any situation. But recently, the quality of my landings deteriorated for no reason that I could see. All of a sudden, just getting on the ground solo was a problem. Safety was not an issue-- it's very easy and safe to keep trying landings over and over until one is right and you land-- but the landings were much more difficult. Practice didn't help, as my landings got more and more awkward. So in search of some insight I took a flight with the chief instructor, and he gave me some new angles, exercises, and tips on landing the plane, and now my landings are back to normal.
Is this connected to learning to play? You bet. Whether you're learning your first tune or your hundredth, you'll have ups and downs in your learning. You'll play a tune well one day, and suddenly be unable to get through it the next. You play in groups and jams with no problem, and then one day you find that your fingers don't work right in front of other people. This is normal!
This happens to professional players too, but you usually can't tell when they're on stage. Some days (or weeks) we just can't play as well as other times. Practice helps, but sometimes, like golfers and baseball pitchers, we can get into a slump, though the audience won't usually notice it. Professionals just let it go, perhaps giving themselves a break by taking a few days off, because they know that the music will come back.
When you're in a slump, try something new. If practice isn't helping, you might even take a few days off from playing. If playing in your usual jam group doesn't help, try taking a week off from the jam, or playing with some other folks for an evening instead. Listen to some banjo music that's different from your usual fare. Relax and play along with our Slow Jam or Picking Up the Pace DVDs. Ask your instructor to just spend a lesson playing, trading breaks on your familiar tunes, instead of trying to learn any new tunes for a while. Everybody needs a break!