As a single father, I’ve found that my daughter quickly becomes a topic of conversation with other adults when I talk to them. Her piano lessons inevitably come up, especially if I’m in the waiting room chatting with the other piano parents. Right or wrong, there’s inevitably some competition about whose kids are doing well and who aren’t.
I wasn’t really able to quantify how my daughter was doing at first. I had a general idea that piano lesson success could be broken down into beginners, intermediates, and advanced students, but where are the lines drawn?
I started looking into it and I found the lines are quite blurred indeed.
Something that complicates the matter is that there are actually multiple ways to break down the stage of piano learning. I’ve discovered that they can be described by competence, age ranges, and even where someone is at in terms of skill learning.
The Competence Scale of Piano Learning
The first scale I found was the competence scale. This is a model of learning that is used across all types of education but can also be applied to piano learning. This matrix breaks learning and its emotional stages up into 4 stages .
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence
The initial and most awkward stage is that of unconscious incompetence, where a student has no idea the things they don’t know yet. Literally, at this stage, piano students “don’t know what they don’t know.”
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
The second stage is that of conscious incompetence, where a piano student is very aware of what they don’t yet know. Most piano students progress to this stage pretty quickly within a few lessons to a few months of learning.
Stage 3: Conscious Competence
The next (third) stage is that of conscious competence where a student is good but they still have to really focus on something. I remember this stage in my own daughter where she was so proud she could finally read piano music. But I still remember the struggle on her face as she had to concentrate hard on it.
This is the stage I am currently in. I can play songs and play pretty well but I have to really think about timing and difficult chord changes.
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence
My favorite stage was the fourth and final one: unconscious competence. This is when a piano student gets good and doesn’t even have to think about what she was doing. You could call this stage the “comes to me easy” stage. The student becomes proud of herself. They are good and play music that is actually quite nice to listen to.
(For more on the Conscious Competence Ladder, visit mindtools.com)
Piano Level By Skills
Another way to look at where someone is in their piano playing can be broken down into five specific skills. They include sight reading, ear training, scales, rhythm reading, and fast playing.
Sight reading is a common first skill for piano players. I remember my own daughter learning how to read music sheets and books. It was so unlike reading text or even anything she’d done in math to that point. The learning curve was steep. Not only did she have to learn the notes, but she had to learn how to time playing out the notes too.
Playing by Ear
Ear training wasn’t as hard. Once she had learned how to read music and learn the specific keys at the same time, she also had to learn how they correlated with each other. Ear training simplified things for her, because she could just know from the sounds if she was hitting the right keys or not.
That made life much easier for her when she didn’t have to keep switching her eyes from the music to the keys and back all the time. This is often a point where someone is no longer a beginner.
Scales and Arpeggios
Another point where someone is transitioning from beginner up to intermediate is when they can start playing arpeggios and scales without breaks between notes. This is when they’re truly starting to ‘get it’.
Rhythm reading is a subtle skill to teach but I could see the joy in our piano teacher’s eyes when it finally happened. My daughter was now something of an intermediate player and no longer playing the same things badly or over and over. The Tylenol wound up sitting in my medicine cabinet more than it was used!
Fast playing signifies that a piano player is doing well. Some would argue that ‘advanced students’ should be classified as those who are playing long and complex pieces from memory. That is understandable. But, there are those of us that are just happy to see our kids playing music error-free at speed.
The Age Stages
While the first two breakdowns of the stages of piano lessons could apply to students of all ages, I found the following age stages to be very relatable as a parent of a piano student. Just keep in mind that the listed age ranges are approximations. Certainly, every child develops at their own pace. The stage may also depend on the age they started learning piano in the first place.
The Pre-Piano Stage
This is when I knew my daughter might have an interest. She’d call out for everyone to listen to her ‘play’ her toy piano. Of course, in the age range of 3 to 5 years old, she was just banging keys to make sounds for the fun of it. The concept of a musical instrument fascinated her. As such, she had daily ‘concerts’. We got to intermission as quickly as we could usually without a second half or encores.
Procrastinating The Work
Once my daughter turned 6 and going into 7, she realized that piano lessons were actually work. They took practice. She got discouraged as the lessons got harder. She didn’t like it when her teacher asked her if she had been practicing. And, keeping her motivated to practice took more work.
Look Dad, No Eyes
Once she got closer to her 8th birthday, things got better. Technical concepts started making sense to her, things clicked, and she started craving attention again. She could start playing simple melodies without her eyes closed. She knew instinctively when to play soft and when to play loud.
But I Wanna Play What’s On The Radio
Now that she’s approaching her teenage years, she’s started getting a bit argumentative again. Why learn difficult classical pieces when she could play the things all the cool kids are listening to? This stage requires some compromise. Working in songs that they like will make their practice more fun and productive.
Dad, I Want To Quit
I’ve dealt with her wanting to quit her piano lessons once or twice now. She’s gotten burned out and really wanted to quit. She wanted to spend time with friends, play video games, do more social media, you name it. I’ve noticed that a lot of students in the teenage range drop out.
I’m An Adult Now
This age will come for later. I hope I don’t laugh in her face when she yells “I’m an adult now and can make my own decisions!” Kids that make it to this stage have survived stages that doom like 95 percent of kids learning instruments. They actually now developed a real bond with their teacher and actually want to play.
So, How Do I Rank My Daughter?
I don’t! Here are the points I try to communicate to her. First, she’s come a long way since she started. Second, she’s doing great right now. Third, there’s always room to get better.
How do these stages compare to your piano learning experience? Tell me about it in the comments below!