The real reason you’re not progressing as a beginner pianist
For most new, beginner piano students, progress is steady and linear: they learn new pieces almost every week and acquire new skills at a surprising speed. After 6 months of lessons, you look back and marvel at all the things you’ve accomplished.
But every once in a while, there are aspiring pianists who just don’t seem to be making much progress. Instead of a motivating climb in skill, they experience frustration. Each week they struggle through their pieces and as the books get harder and harder, they spend more and more time on individual pieces and feel like they are taking forever to get through their books.
If you recognise yourself in these last few lines, then this article is for you!
Let’s explore some common reasons why beginner pianists stall in their progress when others seem to fly along.
You’re not practising (regularly) enough
This is 100% the most important reason for a decline in progress. Students that don’t practise, don’t progress.
Learning to play the piano can often feel like navigating a complex puzzle. But it is much more than a mental workout. Piano playing is also a very physical activity, requiring a delicate mix of fine muscle control, spatial awareness and left-right brain coordination.
As I explain in this post, the physical nature of piano playing necessitates a practice approach that revolves around repetition.
To be able to play your pieces fluently, the motions of playing that piece (the way your fingers, arms and body move from note to note, bar to bar, phrase to phrase) must become a learned, coordinated ‘dance’. To automate this dance, you need to repeat it many times over many days, so it becomes second nature.
If you don’t spend enough time engraining these movements, you’ll never build up what we commonly refer to as ‘muscle memory’ – the ability to move a certain way without conscious effort. Instead, your brain will be entirely occupied trying to match what your eyes are decoding to physical output, resulting in a choppy playthrough. You’ll find it almost impossible to focus on musical elements such as phrasing, dynamics, and telling the story of the music.
If you are not practising with any regularity (say, every 1 or 2 days) for a good chunk of time (15-20 mins of uninterrupted practice), you might not see the steady progress your fellow students are experiencing. This is because, with a skill like piano playing, it’s repetition and consistency that will make the biggest impact.
If you only go to the piano once or twice a week, for a short period of time, you won’t see the progress between the sessions much. That is because you either leave it too long in between sessions (which will make your brain ‘prune’ any learnings) OR you don’t give yourself enough time on the bench time for skills to have a chance to consolidate.
For adult students, it is tricky to get regular practice in. I appreciate that! But the only way to find time for something you want to do is to bump it UP in your priority list and make the time. If you want some practical tips on how to do that, check out my blog post here.
You are not practising correctly
Of course, if you are practising regularly but do not make progress, it’s very possible that you are simply not practising correctly.
If you start a new piece by diving right in, playing both hands slowly from start to finish, you’re doing it wrong.
Good, quality practice takes a little planning and some consideration. You really shouldn’t start any new piece by immediately putting your fingers on the keys. Instead, you should analyse the piece so you can divide and conquer, i.e. divvy up the piece into small, easily learnable chunks.
Usually, your teacher will help you explore the music in the lesson before you go home. Listen to their suggestions on how to best tackle the music, and try your best to implement the practice suggestions. You should work hands separately, keep to a SLOW tempo and you should always be counting.
For more tips on what (not) to do, check out my blog post here.
You’re not reviewing enough
At the early stages of learning to play the piano, you will learn MANY short pieces.
There’s a reason for that.
First of all, the pieces are short because it allows you to build your performance stamina gradually without wearing you out.
But more importantly, by playing LOTS of music, you get to practise your reading and comprehension skills in a wide variety of musical contexts. That musical exposure is really important in becoming a musician, because you get to practise your reading skills over and over in different pieces and styles, helping you to become a much more adaptable and mature musician.
But of course, learning lots of pieces will also mean having to set aside and move on from lots of pieces. That’s inevitable.
Yet it’s ALWAYS a good idea to keep some pieces you’ve learned (ideally, the ones you really enjoy playing) in your repertoire or review list. You should review this list multiple times per week, that way you can really consolidate your playing skills.
Students that are consistent with their review list (by which I mean, students who review previously learned pieces on a regular basis) always seem to progress faster and more consistently than those who aren’t.
In my experience as a teacher of adults, these three practice fundamentals are the BIGGEST contributor to success for adult beginners. Students that practise regularly, review their learned pieces and follow practice directions always progress steadily. And if students start to struggle, it almost ALWAYS relates to one or more of these three factors.
Before I conclude this blog post, I feel I should mention two other factors that can contribute to slow progress, though these are not usually things I experience in lessons as I actively avoid them with my students.
The first factor that can affect progress is the inability of students to choose repertoire that is level appropriate.
Some adults seem particularly prone to overconfidence – and rather than work on easier repertoire to build skill sequentially, they prefer to ‘jump ahead’ into much more difficult, sometimes even advanced, repertoire.
Often defended by the argument that “this is what I really WANT to play so I’ll practice more”, it may impact your practice frequency, but it rarely works in your favour in the long term.
Spending months learning just one piece when you could have learned dozens is NOT doing your technique, reading skills and musical development any favours.
While trying to learn an advanced piece can be a fun ‘challenge’ project on the side, it should be balanced by learning the fundamentals via more level-appropriate repertoire. Trust the process and be humble. Even the greatest pianists started by learning simple tunes.
Finally, one last reason you may be struggling to make progress can be that you are trying to self-teach. It may work for some people, but we all know, they are the exception, not the rule. Most students will make more progress by having a regular check-in, professional feedback and most of all, a real human being helping them chart their way through the repertoire to build their skill logically.
I hope I was able to lift the lid on some of the key factors for stalled progress for beginner pianists. Perhaps you recognise yourself – and if so, I highly recommend scrolling back up and checking out the linked articles as they contain helpful tips and tricks to get your practice (back) on the right track.
Till next time,