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The Beginner's Plateau
By James Hill

I was enjoying a shiatsu massage in Singapore this summer when it happened. The massage therapist dug her elbow into my right buttcheek and my whole leg sprang into the air. An unbearable tickling feeling coursed through my nerves. The therapist, unphazed, moved on to my lower back. "Good," I thought, "she can see how uncomfortable that was and she won't do it again." Wrong. Seconds later, the elbow returned. Less discomfort this time. Again, she moved away from the area but soon circled back. Now I felt little if any discomfort. I was beginning to relax, to learn. I was in the hands of a good teacher.

When a student tries something new and fails or seems uncomfortable, it's tempting to avoid that area in the future. An experienced teacher, however, will "circle back" to the new skill or idea, approaching each time with a fresh perspective until the student has learned something new.

As the ukulele grows in popularity, I see a common phenomenon emerging that I call the "beginner's plateau." The beginner's plateau happens after the student has been playing for a year or two and it tends to affect adult learners more than young learners. A student at the plateau call him an "advanced beginner" knows a handful of chords and a few songs but has no idea how to progress to the "next level." This frustrating plateau is the flipside of the ukulele's too-gentle-to-be-true learning curve. It's the feeling of making your first payment on that "no money down" purchase. It's the feeling of the honeymoon being over.

In fact, the allure of the ukulele's initial learning curve has backfired before. Yes, put a noise-maker in the hands of millions of amateur musicians, let the majority of them hit a plateau after a year or two of playing and watch the backlash happen. According to Tony Coleman, director of Mighty Uke, this is one of the things that killed the great ukulele craze of the 1920s: too many people making too little musical progress.

So, as teachers what can we do to help a student move past (or better yet avoid) the beginner's plateau? First, we can recognize that while students often know what they want to play (e.g. "That strum from Somewhere Over the Rainbow," or "the chords to I'm Yours"), they rarely know what they need to learn in order to progress as musicians. It's the teacher's job to help a student a) "eat her veggies" and b) develop a well-rounded appetite for music. As Felipe Sequeria says in this issue's interview, "always giving the students a challenge is very important." (This month's pedagogy corner article outlines one of many ways to help a student discover new territory. Try it for yourself!)

The ukulele is a beautiful thing but it's not a free lunch. Dare to make your students eat their vegetables; challenge them with ideas, skills and repertoire outside of their comfort zone.

Someday they'll thank you!

James Hill
Editor, Ukulele Yes!

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