Question: Hi Albert,
I always look forward to your weekly lessons!
My question today is, since piano practice is such a lonely (I just mean that you do it alone) activity, even the weekly lessons with a teacher are one on one, how do we gauge our progress, especially if we are older adult students? I've been studying for almost two years now, and wonder if my progress is normal. I know that I have progressed somewhat, but what should I be learning or about where should I be on a scale of beginning to advanced levels? How can you compare your results to others? Or should you even try? I guess I just need some encouragement to know that even though I'm just an ordinary person, no special musical talent, that I am progressing in a normal way. Thanks for any advice you can give me.
Albert's reply: We can and should only compare ourselves with our own potential. If you were to start, say, running, where "should" you be after six months, one year or three or five years? I assume you wouldn't be upset with yourself if you weren't setting world records, but would you bother to compare yourself to others at all?
Of course not—others' progress is their own, relative only to themselves. Music is no different. Everything depends on your individual capabilities, goals and the time you dedicate to study. The exception is if you are an aspiring professional musician, in which case there are very high professional standards of achievement to maintain. Even then, everybody is unique and each professional musician should aspire to achieve his or her own potential, for that is all any of us can ever do.
Beyond these factors, your progress will be determined overwhelmingly by your practice habits. All practice time is work time, and all musical work requires great mental effort as well as patience. I find that most amateur piano students do not know how to learn music, and as a result they do not make effective use of practice time. Amateurs tend to approach practice with a casual attitude, yet they are—not coincidentally—easily frustrated by their frequent mistakes and lack of progress. Treat every moment of piano practice as the concentrated work that it properly is and frustration will gradually give way to lasting progress.
While music, as art, is not ultimately subject to objective measurement, individual musical skills are. Your knowledge of music theory and the ability to apply it at the piano—can you play common chord progressions immediately in all keys for instance?—are measurable skills. Are you able to write down and play melodies you hear and recognize common harmonies? This is the domain of ear training and it is also measurable. Can you tap rhythms accurately and independently in both hands simultaneously, even at fast tempos? This is also an objectively measurable skill.
Piano technique is a problematic area when it comes to measuring progress. Yes, many aspects of technique are objective, such as the ability to play all piano scales at a given tempo. Other aspects of scale technique may in principle also be objective, such as dynamic evenness and articulation (how long each key is held and the length of time between key presses), but these are always judged by ear rather than measured by machine. (State-of-the-art technology such as Bösendorfer's CEUS reproducing piano could measure these aspects accurately—buy why, when sensitive ears are infinitely more useful?) I consider it dangerous to rely on objective measures of piano technique, since technique is married to one's expressive means because it is by definition the means with which we express music, and how can we objectify beauty and expression?
A practice log will help you to track your progress. A sort of musical diary, a practice log or journal is a booklet in which you log the pieces practiced, length of time you practiced each one, and any relevant notes such as subjective evaluations.
Often we make the greatest progress when we think we're not progressing. I've discovered that learning music is a lot like learning a language. I lived in Vienna for a year and a half and couldn't put a complete sentence together in German despite my constant efforts. Then I became fluent seemingly overnight and seemingly without effort on my part, with Austrians and Germans occasionally even assuming I'm a native German speaker. (My favorite was when I bumped into an Austrian friend I'd seen every now and then who was shocked to learn I'm American. "I always thought you're Austrian! I just thought you were a little slow..." and, lest my newfound skill get to my head, the very next person I'd meet would invariably identify my accent after my very first word!) What I discovered is that all the effort expended in learning, during which I thought I made zero progress, was actually accumulating in my subconscious, only to be expressed much later. Music is similarly cumulative in that conscious incompetence will gradually give way to unconscious competence (which I caution can be dangerous to the learning process, as every note and finger movement must be learned actively and consciously).
Finally, as always I recommend finding the best piano teacher in your area. A qualified, expert teacher can gauge your musical progress in every category as well as help you to achieve your musical goals much faster.