May 21 2016

FAQ: Is My Progress Normal?

Note: I have been asked this question by both parents and adult students. My responses have been written as if responding to an adult student for consistency, although you’ll notice some switching back and forth between tenses in the various quotes from other teachers. -Alicia Castaneda
Contributors: Ishtar Hernandez, violin teacher, Bruce Jackson, bass teacher, Yuri Kye, violin teacher, Pourya Khademi, violin teacher
There are so many variables that go into learning the violin, or any instrument, that it is impossible to determine what a “normal” rate of progress is. For example, I cannot tell a new student, “You will reach the end of x method book in x months” or make any similar statement with any kind of accuracy. Elements such as age, prior musical education, prior experience with the instrument, and so on, will create wide variations in the learning curve.
While it makes sense that people will learn at different rates, there still doesn’t seem to be enough of a trend to answer the question of normal progress easily. Playing a stringed instrument does not appear to produce a typical learning curve upon which most people sit, with a smaller number of outliers above and below, as exists in many other skill-based activities. To see whether this was unique only to my own experiences and observations, I asked several other string teachers to weigh in:
One question that teachers inevitably get asked is regarding a "normal rate of progress,” whether it’s in the form of, “Am I progressing quickly enough?”, “How long will it take me to learn ___”, or just a simple, “How am I doing?” In the case of children, parents ask these same questions: “How does my child’s progress stack up?” What do you tell your students/parents about “normal” progress when it comes to learning an instrument?
The answers that I got were remarkably similar. Each teacher responded in different ways, “compare your own progress to...yourself.”
Bruce Jackson, a bass teacher, replied:
I have framed this question in a comparative sense when it comes up in the lesson. I will say, “Do you remember how this sounded when you first played it?”, whether the first time was at the beginning of the semester or their very first session with me.
Bruce brought up an incredible tool to use when you are learning any skill: reflecting on where you started. It’s common to become so focused on what you haven’t learned yet that you forget how far you’ve come. It’s important to take a look every once in awhile at what you’ve accomplished and appreciate the work you have already put in and the strides you have made. (Recently, I made a student who had been playing for a year and was complaining that she didn’t feel like she had gotten very far put her violin on her opposite shoulder and just try to bow open strings, to remember what her first lesson felt like.)
Bruce went on:
I would not put the student into a certain rubric, or give them a standard map for progress. I think it is important for the teacher to be encouraging without regard to how fast they progress. In general, I de-emphasize the idea of a normal rate of progress for students.
Bruce brings up another good point: the importance of encouraging students, and framing their progress positively. Pourya Khademi, a violin teacher, mentioned in his response why it can be particularly damaging for a child to be compared to other players:
There is an irrefutable amount of scientific data showing that people learn different skills at different rates and in completely different ways. Therefore, while it may seem productive to wonder how we are progressing compared to others, it may not necessarily be to our benefit. In the case of children this may be particularly disempowering as they will inevitably think there's something wrong with them or that they're not good enough. The way kids think, it's never, "I'm not good enough to learn/play xyz,’ but rather, ‘I'm not good enough as person!"
Violin teacher Ishtar Hernandez made a similar statement:
I'm usually quite honest with them if the child is progressing quickly, by which I mean as fast as I think their talent allows. Not everyone is going to progress at the same rate, even when accounting for variables like amount of time practiced or repertoire being learned, so it's important not to be discouraging even if you believe they aren't moving quickly enough. Mostly, I'll tell parents that there is no point in measuring their kid's progress against that of other children.
Ishtar’s response briefly touched on another topic of discussion, talent, suggesting that, all other factors being equal, not every student will learn at the same speed.
How much does talent matter? Because of the success I saw in learning the violin at such a “late” age (20) through sheer practice hours and focused, goal-oriented practice sessions, I was honestly skeptical that talent even existed. I believed, briefly, that success came down solely to the quality and quantity of practice hours. (This was to my own benefit, because if I had believed I needed to be born with a great deal of musical talent to make a career out of playing the violin, I probably would have quit pretty early on.) As a teacher though, I have seen that talent does exist. Some students do learn faster than others, or have a more natural bow technique, etc. However, this only accounts for a percentage of progress when compared to practice.
I asked the same teachers a follow-up question:
What about talent? Do you believe some students are naturally more talented than others? If so, how much of a difference does it make?
Pourya’s experience was similar to mine: “I used to be idealistic about this and say anyone can do it, but after teaching for over 20 years it's clear to me that that is simply not the case.” Instead, he reframes the idea of talent: “Rather than thinking of it as talent,or the lack thereof, I consider each person’s learning style and unique strengths.”
Bruce points out why you can’t rely on talent alone:
There is clear evidence that some students have talent, or seem to be more gifted than others. Yet there are teaching techniques that remove some of the roadblocks to the less gifted students. Natural talent does make a difference but things like the 10,000 hours rule [the idea that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to master about any discipline] are as important to the more talented as they are to others. Talent still needs to be channeled, disciplined, etc.
How can you use this information to your advantage? The best way I’ve found to think about talent is not at all. If you believe that a lack of talent is holding you back, it will. However, if you believe that your talent is going to carry you to your goals, it won’t. At least, not for long.
Violin teacher Yuri Kye:
Talent varies widely from kid to kid and it makes an incredible difference from beginning to intermediate levels. Beyond that it's all about work ethic, dedication, and how much thirst they have for the knowledge and experience to improve. There needs to be a certain innate sensibility toward sounds, pitch, and expression--you can't equip someone with something they lack through training completely. However, being a musician is largely made up of components that are acquired through proper training, practice, etc., so I don't try discourage any kid from learning violin or piano for lacking talent. Musical natural talent is a pretty complex thing. And it's actually pretty rare in my opinion.
If you are decidedly lacking in talent, there’s still hope. In Pourya’s words:
Given the scientific evidence, it should come as no surprise that some people are better equipped at excelling in a particular discipline. However, this should by no means be used to dissuade someone from pursuing an activity they are interested in.
That is to say, if you want to learn the violin, you can--and a good teacher will be your greatest asset.
Talented or tone deaf, if you would like to make the fastest progress, speak to your teacher about how you can practice more efficiently, and figure out ways to create more practice time. As a fitness and skill coach as well as violin teacher, I help both my violin students and coaching clients manipulate their schedules and habits to accomplish their goals quickly and reliably.
Pourya summarized the reason for this perfectly: “The most effective lesson plan is a customized program based on the student's unique strengths and goals.” Yuri has a similar approach:
Everyone is different and the outcome largely depends your own efforts and commitment. It's really true. I usually redirect their concerns to what their goals are and how much they want to accomplish by a given date, and we plan out our curriculum and set checkpoints for progress to make sure we can hit targets...kind of like working out.
Ishtar included a suggestion for a more productive, beneficial way to measure growth:
What’s important is how they are stacking up against themselves week to week, and whether they are practicing smartly enough to accomplish the small musical goals of the week (get this section in tune, focus on keeping the wrist down this week, etc.).
A good teacher will create these types of small goals that Ishtar mentioned, or checkpoints, as Yuri referred to them, but if you have a specific goal in mind, ask your teacher about creating a plan to reach it. They will be able to push you accordingly, and to set appropriate smaller goals for you along the way. And, as you move forward, don’t forget to stop and look back on your progress now and then.
  • There is no normal rate of progress.
  • Talent makes a difference, but not as much as practice.
  • Don’t compare your path or rate of advancement with others.
  • Set personalized goals to maximize progress.