Nine Things About How Long It Takes

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Whether you’re wondering about some new part of a song you’re working on, a whole song you’re learning, a full Program you’re in the middle of, when you’ll get to some later Program you haven’t started yet, or anything else, if you want to know how long something will take in learning to play the piano, there are nine things to know.

Thing #1: Whenever a teacher or student asks Neil Moore himself how long something is supposed to take, his most common answer is:

It takes as long as it takes.

It’s a declaration that quality is not just more important than quantity but that quality itself is the best path to learning ever more — and ever more quickly.

Thing #2: Different teachers work through the parts of the Curriculum in different ways, going to different levels of depth with them. The deeper a teacher brings students into any given area, the more time it takes — and the deeper those students’ learning will be. Added strength in each area can multiply the impacts of progress in all other areas as well, often in ways that aren’t obvious. Composition and improvisation can increase coordination. Foundation pieces, Arrangements & Variations and Accompaniment all contribute to later success in reading sheet music. All your investments of piano time can pay off in many different ways.

Thing #3: This third very important thing has to do with the number three itself. In Neil’s experience with countless students over several decades, he’s seen a natural variation among students. Though projects vary in size and complexity, Neil generalizes his observations by saying that some students learn the equivalent of one project every week, others learn a project every two weeks, and others learn a project every three weeks.

In other words, it’s completely normal that some students progress up to three times as slowly as other students, and everyone falls wherever in between. What takes one student or group a single week, month or year to accomplish will take other students up to two or three weeks, months or years to accomplish. It’s normal and natural, because people are different.

Thing #4: It’s very important to recognize that what Neil says about the three speeds is how things go when students are doing everything the way the Simply Music Piano Method instructs — for example, see What’s On Your Plate?

If you’re not doing everything the way the Simply Music Piano Method instructs, it’s natural that you will slow your progress down — what takes other students from 1-to-3 weeks, month or years will take you longer. The Formula for Success is one good way to give yourself a sense of just how you’re doing.

Thing #5: Everything the Method instructs is important! But for now, I’ll mention just a few things that can gain you the most ground if you do them — and lose you the most ground if you don’t:

  • Keep your playlist alive — Exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point! If you do it, it’s one of the easiest parts of your piano lesson experience — and one of the most impactful in empowering everything else you do. If you don’t do it, it’s one of the hardest parts of your piano lessons, and it slows down everything else. You may believe it takes lots of time and effort — but it doesn’t. Think about it this way: once you’ve finished learning a piece and know how to play it, playing it is easy. Keeping your playlist alive means, simply, playing those easy songs just often enough so they remain easy to play — and the great news about this is that songs can be played less and less often over time and still stay alive. It’s like how you no longer need to practice saying words like “hi” and “up” and “car.” Even with a playlist of a few hundred items, you should only need to play an average of perhaps 10 or so items a day to keep your entire playlist healthy and strong — forever. On the other hand, to the extent that you don’t keep your playlist alive, then everything else in your lessons will be however much harder. And if you then try to get any of those playlist pieces back, it will take a lot more effort than you’d have spent simply keeping them alive in the first place. Regular practice means Current Projects plus Playlist review. The idea of it is as simple as that — and if you simply do it, the doing will be easy, too.
  • Control the Events (CTE) — You get clear in your mind about what next thing your fingers need to do — and then you make your fingers do it. That’s it, nothing more. Controlling the Events is the ultimate example of the Simply Music principle of working slowly to learn quickly. It’s also the ultimate example of why “natural talent” is mostly beside the point in making progress on the piano. Even the most impressive musical prodigy will eventually hit a wall in their progress if they don’t practice cleanly — while even the most average person will be able to make endless musical progress for the rest of their life if at each step they Control the Events. You can be the hare, making messy connections in your brain’s neurons, which then makes messy music come out of your fingers, staying messy no matter how many times you “practice” — or you can be the tortoise who wins the race without much effort by cultivating the patience to Control the Events.
  • Many of the most experienced Simply Music Piano Teachers say that the three most important strategies in the Method are Controlling the Events, Speaking Instructions Out Loud, and using the Practice Pad. See What’s On Your Plate? for more info on keeping your playlist alive, Controlling the Events, Speaking Instructions, the Practice Pad, and several other parts of a solid practice routine.

Thing #6: Remember the roles of the people involved and of the lesson itself. The lesson is only a few minutes a week, and it’s simply not where the learning happens. The lesson is a coaching session in which the teacher acts as method coach, clarifying the steps for working something at the piano. The teacher simply points the way down the path to be walked.

It’s in the walking of the path that the learning happens — and the student walks that path by engaging in a solid practice routine outside of lesson time. Walk the path the way you’ve been instructed to, and things go well. If instead you crawl, then you’ll crawl. And if instead you try to run, you’ll still find yourself only crawling.

The parent/life coach — or adult students serving this role for themselves — takes responsibility for making sure the student walks that path effectively, managing the ups and downs of the Long-Term Relationship with music.

The teacher can explain everything as clearly as possible, however many times, over however long a period. Maybe even write some blog posts. But in the end, the teacher is not present when the student has to walk the path. Only the student and life coach are there for that, throughout the 6 days and 23+ hours that occur between weekly lessons. For help supporting that process, Neil Moore’s free ebook on Music and the Art of Long-Term Relationships is an invaluable resource — one to consider reviewing one or more times each year, just like with the Formula for Success.

Thing #7: Master Simply Music Piano Teacher Robin Keehn as well as many other people say it’s easier to do something 100% than to do it 99%. That sounds counterintuitive, but much of the way the human mind works is counterintuitive. What this means is that, when you do something less than 100%, the issues that inevitably come up will impact you more than just the difference in effort would suggest.

If you do something 100%, you get 100%. And if you do something 0%, you get 0%. But if you do something 80%, you might save that 20% of the effort, but you’ll lose more than 20% of the results. If you want to work back to 100%, it will now take more than that original 20% effort you thought you were saving. The total amount of work ends up more than if you’d simply done what was needed in the first place.

The more effort you compromise up front, the more extra effort it will take to get you where you’d wanted to go. Like when you don’t keep your playlist alive and then have trouble learning new pieces and relearning old pieces. Like when you don’t Control the Events and the music and your neurons stay messy and you can’t seem to dig yourself out of the hole.

Giving 100% from the start means saving yourself unnecessary extra work — it means the smallest possible amount of work to get you where you want to go. The up-front investment saves so much more time and effort from that point on.

Thing #8: The thing about Thing #7 is that, even beyond what we’ve already said is counterintuitive about it, there’s something even more subtle and important going on. And it’s big enough to be its own separate thing. In fact, it’s one of the absolutely most important things.

Beyond the thing about the 100% is another truth at play here: we’re human. It’s all too common and easy for us to be over-eager about our goals and/or uncomfortable doing unfamiliar things. Why do we give less than 100% so easily even though giving 100% means less work overall? Because in any given moment, in the short-term, it really is easier to put in less effort. But even that’s not the whole story.

Say you’re at 80% with the actual piano work — let’s call that thinking/physical efficiency. Gaining the remaining 20% thinking/physical benefit likely also requires some emotional effort. Just how much depends on the student and the circumstances — the complexity of the thing being practiced, the background level of skills from all previous practice and playing, the student’s in-the-moment mood, the student’s longer-term temperament and personality and developmental history, etc.

Working at 80% thinking/physical efficiency, a student may actually be putting in less total effort than 80%. It could be 79%, or 75%. It could be 70%, 60% or even just 50% or less. Some smaller total effort could be good enough to achieve 80% thinking/physical efficiency. Sounds like a good deal, doesn’t it? From one angle it is. But we’ve already talked about how costly that missing 20% thinking/physical efficiency is. How important it is to gain it and get up to 100%. Now we see that getting there may not be a matter of adding 20% effort. It could mean adding 21%, or 25% — 20% thinking/physical effort plus 1% or 5% emotional effort. It could mean adding 30%, 40% or even 50% or more — 10%, 20% or even 30% or more emotional effort on top of the thinking/physical effort. Depending on the student and the circumstance, there will be different amounts of emotional effort needed to cover the remaining thinking/physical ground and close the gap to 100%.

Sometimes it may feel a lot closer to needing 95% emotional effort to gain 1% thinking/physical benefit!

Does all this sound like bad news? Well, it’s called being human. We work with what we’ve got. It’s all there is to work with.

So what’s the real picture about the 100%? First, the amount of extra effort needed to do something 100% may be more than we might think. Because of that, students deserve enormously high levels of compassion for the effort they make at every single step of the way! Finally, even with those things being true, nothing changes the fact that what Neil and others say about the 100% remains completely, utterly, entirely correct.

The best we can do is acknowledge that giving 100% involves patience in working the piano — and that there’s a very real need for a very different kind of patience on the path to that patient piano work. Both student and coach — and maybe others in earshot of what the student is playing — may need to muster up that non-piano-work patience. Frustration doesn’t help. Criticism, judgment, shouting — doesn’t work. Even perfectionism is, ironically, a terrible way to try to get a student to Control the Events perfectly. Compassion, patience and active involvement above and beyond mere reminders are the most constructive ways to get closer to 100%.

Whether you’re talking about Simply Music Piano lessons, or lessons with any other piano method, or lessons with any other instrument, or anything else in life that may have nothing to do with music whatsoever, this thing — Thing #8 — may be the most important part of succeeding in anything at all.

And when it does come to piano, at least Simply Music students benefit from both an easier approach to piano work than other methods as well as a far deeper understanding of the psychological factors involved in managing the Long-Term Relationship with music.

Beyond that is some very good news: the largest amount of emotional effort is needed only to build new habits in the first place. Once you do that, the emotional effort needed goes way down — from then on, forever. Once again, it’s about seeing that making an investment early on gets you a large payoff for a very long time.

Thing #9: So how long does it take? We can never predict or promise an answer. But we’ve come to understand some things about the question.

There are Neil’s three basic speeds when putting in 100% — one, two and three. It’s a pretty wide variation and yet it’s completely normal and natural, nothing to be concerned about at all. We need the serenity to accept these things we cannot change. Then there’s the practice routine. We have the wisdom to know the difference between Neil’s natural speeds and this other thing that we can change.

The farther you get away from putting in 100%, the more Neil’s basic speeds all must slow down. How much? We’d have to know exactly what percent someone was working at. It’s hard enough to know the thinking/physical part accurately, and probably even harder to know the emotional part. If you could somehow know that you were at 50% total combined thinking/physical/emotional effort, you’d know that you were losing more than half the results — half from the percentage, plus more for the extra effort to recover compared to being at 100% in the first place, combining so that everything takes more than twice as long as it could have taken.

What percentage do you think you’ve been on average since you started piano lessons? What results could you have had right now if you’d been at 100% from the start? How much faster could you now get to certain goals you may have if you closed the gap and got yourself to 100% — or even if you didn’t get all the way there but simply increased your percentage however much compared to what it is now?

While researching this post, I came across a discussion among teachers about coaches. One said that 95% of a student’s success depends on the coach ensuring solid practice. Another said that students with active coaches go an average of three times faster than students without active coaches. The same things hold true for adults playing the coaching role for themselves. Those are just individual teachers’ statements, not general quantitative truths, but they do suggest just how much of a difference a solid practice routine — and a dedicated life coach — can make.

We might only ever really be able to learn how much someone was slowing themselves down if they got themselves to 100% and we could compare what that looks like to how things used to be for them. For now, the only thing certain is this: the closer you are to 100%, the faster you go and the better you feel. Quantity and quality both win at 100%.

I’m here to support my students through all of it, however long it takes for each step and each goal, at whatever percentage they find themselves along the way. As I talked about in Results: A North Star for Piano Lessons, the best we can do at any given time is recognize where you are and what you need, and I’ll point the way. What you then do with what’s on your plate is partly based on those natural differences we can’t change. The rest of it is where students and coaches have the opportunity to improve their results — your practice routine, your patience working the piano, and your patience with your ability to cultivate patience with the piano work.

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