This originally appeared on my old blog on May 28, 2013
Some of you readers might also be listeners of The Musician Toolkit podcast, and also realize that most of my previous blog posts have been written versions of those podcast episodes. This post is one I wanted to revisit, but I am unlikely to include this as a podcast episode at least anytime soon.
"How long until I get good at piano?"
This is a question I've been asked many times by students of all ages. Besides being impossible to answer for the mere fact that there isn't a "one size fits all" practice plus progress formula, there's another big variable you have to figure out first. You need to figure out what your goal actually is.7
WHY ARE YOU TAKING PIANO LESSONS?
That's more of an attention-grabbing question than I intended, but it's a question all students should ask of themselves at some point. This isn't a question with a right or wrong answer, but if your goal is to be good enough to compete in the Van Cliburn Competition), then you need to know what that takes as far as commitment. Here's a sample of some goals you could have as a pianist, and a general idea of what your preparation should look like.
1. Be acquainted with the piano. In other words, you know where the keys are. You might read some music, and you may even know a few pieces. You would be considered a beginner in terms of level. This can be accomplished with just a little daily practice (5-10 minutes) and a short-term period of lessons.
2. Play for small churches or include piano as a secondary/alternate instrument. If you're primarily a musician on another instrument, and just want to have a solid grasp of the piano as an instrument, or if you want to be able to play for a small church, then you need to work towards knowing your basics: scales, chords, arpeggios...and learn at least average sight-reading skills. Daily practice of 15-20 minutes average per day plus 45 minute lessons will get you there.
3. Play as an ensemble player for rock, jazz or other non-classical group. This is a different type of focus. Reading music is nice, but you need to be great on your technique. You need to be as learned as you can with reading chords and incorporating them into music. You need to develop your ear training as much as you can. An ability to improvise a solo doesn't hurt. 45 minute to hour weekly lessons are good, and you should be trying to average 30-45 minutes practice per day.
4. Be a well-rounded, intermediate pianist. Some people read "intermediate" and see this as less than good. Intermediate means you are playing solid, non-beginning music such as much of Mozart, some Chopin, some Beethoven...and sound good when you play. You're not playing flashy, virtuoso music, but there is plenty of intermediate music that sounds good to the majority of listeners. This needs a well-rounded music education and eventual commitment of 45 minutes to an hour practice. Don't worry about these numbers. You can work your way up to them.
5. Be a "gigging" professional musician. To be honest, even though I somewhat qualify for category # 6, this is truly my personal category. A gigging or working pianist can play for theatre shows like You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, or large churches, or play for weddings/dinners/parties, and accompany dance studios. This takes a big commitment. Plan on years of lessons, eventually 1-hour long, learning as much music theory as possible, maximizing your ear training and sight reading skills, and fully mastering your technique. I recommend an average of 1-2 hours per day practice until you reach a high level. At this point, you can fall into a 30 minutes - 1 hour maintenance/slow progress.
6. Be a piano performance major at a conservatory like UNCSA. Because I teach in Winston-Salem, and because the University of North Carolina School of the Arts is so visible to the community, I sometimes get students who one day after taking a number of lessons decide that this is what they want to do. The only problem is that they've demonstrated the practice habits of one of the first 3 categories, probably not enough for category # 4 and certainly not for category # 5. This category is for serious pianists. The average performance major at UNCSA probably has averaged 3 to 4 hours of daily practice for years. You need to conquer everything. An hour lesson per week is minimal. To achieve this goal, you need to forget about most everything else. I don't mean school, but I mean other extracurricular activities. The people who make this goal are NOT well-rounded. They are specialists, very very good at this one skill. That's not to say you can't taper off and add some more to your life. The best organist I've ever met is now an avid long-distance bicyclist. That's now though. When I knew him in college, all he ever did was practice.
7. Top tier pianist. First, let me break this gently. Start young, and start aggressive. If you're 8 years old and not already practicing an hour or more per day and playing early intermediate repertoire, forget this goal. This is not your top 1% of pianists. This is your top 0.00001% of pianists. That's 30 Van Cliburn finalists measured against a roughly estimated 300 million pianists in the world. You need to devote your life to this single-minded purpose. Practice becomes your full-time job. 8 hours a day. You need to learn to master the most advanced repertoire that exists AND try to do it better than everyone else has. It's an intense goal that I could never recommend. You don't choose to do this goal. You are driven, compelled beyond reason to do this goal. In 23 years of teaching, I've had some talented students who have fit each of the first six categories. I've never had a student who came close to this. I never resembled anything close to this as a student myself. The only reason I put it here is for perspective. You need to know how your practice habits and goals stack up against the equivalent of the World Series quality for pianists.
Again, none of these 7 goals are better than the other. They are just various ways you can learn the instrument. Do you have to choose one now and keep it for life? No. However, you need to have a goal that suits where you are right now, and practice right now in such a way that you are working towards that end. Again this is only a sample, not comprehensive. Do you have a goal that doesn't fit the above categories?