The first time I heard Hiromi Uehara in concert, I knew I needed to learn how to play the piano. Like many other people, my first experience listening to a well-played piece prompted me to learn the piano. The next question you probably asked yourself, just like me, was, “I wonder how long it’ll take me to be that good.”
The piano is a stunning and delicate instrument. It’s a sound you can listen to for hours on end. Learning the piano takes different shapes and forms. For some people, being able to play the Moonlight Sonata is enough to say that they can play the piano. However, for some people, the Moonlight Sonata is only just a mark of the beginning.
Piano learning is made up of numerous components: Techniques, fast playing, scales, and sight-reading. All these are aspects used to measure how advanced a piano player is.
However, in general, piano learners can also be grouped into four categories based on how well they can play.
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence
This is the stage where I had never played the piano. Looking back, it was when I first heard a well-played piece by Hiromi. I thought to myself, “This shouldn’t be too hard. I can learn it in 2 weeks.” Like many level 1 players, I was ignorant about just how hard the piano is. You don’t know what you don’t know at this stage, and you’re not aware that you don’t know anything.
This is also the stage where I made mistakes that I wasn’t even aware of. I know this now because my mother would record me playing a piece for her, and she’d be so impressed, and yet I was playing garbage.
This is also the stage where I almost quit piano. I wasn’t that committed to learning the instrument because I hadn’t invested too much time and energy into it.
Many stage 1 piano players don’t usually realize they’re in stage 1 until they decide to examine themselves retrospectively. This is because level 1 mistakes are hard to point out on your own. After all, you’re not aware that you’re making a mistake.
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
This is the stage where I became aware that I didn’t know what I was doing. Stage 2 is a difficult stage to overcome because you finally realize just how incompetent you are.
Low self-esteem and lack of patience almost took me out of the game for good. I had invested so much time into piano learning, yet I wasn’t nearly as good as the pianists I idolized. In stage 1, I had approached the prospect of learning the piano with a positive attitude. I knew I was a beginner, so, of course, I wasn’t going to be good at it in a week or two.
However, it was day 35, and I was making even more mistakes. My performance wasn’t musical at all, I was always hitting the wrong notes, and my rhythm was awful. On the positive side, however, I knew exactly what I needed to improve on, and I used this knowledge to propel me forward. The feeling that I was becoming worse was just an indication that I was now aware of what I needed to do.
Stage 3: Conscious Competence
This is the stage where you know that at least you’ve learned a few things. Stage 3 can be considered the midpoint between the intermediate and advanced stages. I was finally good at playing basic and medium level pieces.
However, it took me years before I could be considered a stage 3 piano player. It takes a lot of conscious effort and discipline, especially away from the teacher’s observation. I could play the piano for my family at Christmas, but I still couldn’t play in a public show. I still couldn’t play without giving thought to any of my movements. I was also tense most of the time, and my fingers would sometimes be sore from how tight they were when playing.
At this stage, my piano teacher encouraged me more than ever to practice every day. She always told me I needed to do it until I could close my eyes and let my fingers move on their own. “That’s the only way you’ll become a stage 4 player,” she said.
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence
A lot of stage 4 players don’t know that they’re at stage 4. Even after a mesmerizing performance, you’ll still hear them say,” I should have done better.” Stage 4 players are never aware of just how good they are at playing the piano. Stage 4 is the mastery stage, where you play as if you’re on autopilot. You can play intricate pieces without straining, and you genuinely have command of the performance. At this point, mistakes are minimal, and playing in public arenas is effortless.
Despite the level of proficiency at stage 4, it doesn’t mark the end of piano learning. Note that stage 4 piano players are still referred to as learners. Playing the piano is a lifelong lesson, and slacking can cause you to move down the ranks. Constant practice and discipline are essential at this stage more than the other stages.
Piano Learning Based on Techniques
Playing the piano, I learned, is not just about pressing keys in quick succession. Everybody movement contributes to creating music. How you place your fingers, posture, and movement of your feet affects how the piece sounds.
In the beginning, playing felt tiring, and sometimes I’d leave the lesson with a sore back. As a beginner, I was continually tensing my shoulders and clenching my teeth, especially when my teacher asked me to play for her.
With time as I became better at playing, I was less nervous, and thus my playing technique improved. Getting the right technique comes as your proficiency in piano improves. This is usually about 1 to 3 years.
Piano Learning Based on Sight-Reading
Sight-reading is an essential part of learning any instrument. Without its mastery, you can’t move up the ranks. A level 1 sight-reading student is one who can comfortably identify all the symbols in a piece.
They know what the symbols mean but still don’t know how to translate that into creating music. At level 1, I could read the music sheet and press the keys individually, but I couldn’t combine the notes.
However, a level 2 student can play a rhythm with a beat while reading music. At level 2, you know when to press each key and at what interval. It usually takes about 3 to 6 years to become proficient enough to read a new piece while playing it. This is the final and third level.
Piano Learning Based on Fast Playing
It is no secret that a piano player who can play a piece extremely fast knows what they’re doing. They have a good command of the piano, and they’re confident enough that they’re not going to make any mistakes. Fast playing comes as one improves in sight-reading and technique. Once you’ve mastered all the aspects of a piece, it’s easy to play it fast.
Piano Learning Based on Scales
Learning scales is a skill that is usually reserved for intermediate and advanced players. There are 12 major scales in piano playing. For me to be proficient, I needed to recall precisely what notes corresponded with a certain number in an instant. Learning scales is a deliberate effort that requires active memorization and constant practice. It took me about three years to fully master all the 12 major scales. For most people, however, it usually takes about two years.
So How Long Does It Take to Learn the Piano?
The time taken to learn the piano depends on how well you want to develop your skill. Beginner level players usually take about a year to learn piano. This is about level 2 in the Associated Board of The Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) grading. A beginner can play simple pieces and have an idea of how to learn from sheet music.
An intermediate player is one who has been playing piano for about four years. This corresponds with a grade 5 ABRSM level. At this step, you can do sight reading, play intricate patterns, and scales in multiple keys. An intermediate learner can also learn most pieces without a teacher’s guidance.
Advanced piano players are people who’ve been learning and playing piano for six to ten years. This level corresponds to grade 8 and above in ABRSM. As an advanced player, you’ll be able to sight-read and play complex pieces with minimal or no mistakes. An advanced player is also one who is proficient with scales, broken chords, etc.