Pay the Piper

So you want to play a musical instrument?

But how long will it take? How fast will you learn? We tell you everything you need to know about progress on a musical instrument

Why play an instrument?
What instrument to play
How to buy an instrument
Other costs
Where to get lessons
Doing your practice
Music exams
Upgrading your instrument
Finding opportunities to play
Switching instruments
Violin & Viola
Double Bass
French Horn
Trumpet & Cornet
Other brass instruments
Your questions answered
What's copyright?
Links to other sites

How much progress will I make?

Well, it's up to you, isn't it? Learning an instrument isn't easy, and there will be times when you'll have to force yourself to practise. Many other things - your friends, your hobbies, and most of all your homework - will interfere, but without steady, regular practice you won't progress. Your teacher can't learn the instrument for you, or do your practice for you. Read the advice given in our page about practising.
Different people progress at different speeds, so it's hard to give advice on what you can expect to do. What's more, you progress at different speeds at different times - sometimes you'll have a period of several weeks when you don't seem to move forward however much you practise. Then, for no reason at all, something gives and you're on your way again. Strange!
Your teacher will be guiding and controlling your progress, too. He or she may be the kind of person who pushes on at a great speed. On the other hand, some teachers prefer to go at a measured pace and ensure that every single thing is learnt really thoroughly. You may be having your lessons in a group, so your progress will be controlled by the speed of the others - they might slow you down, or they may drag you along with them. Overall, group tuition in in no way inferior to individual lessons provided the lesson isn't too short. It's more fun, too.
Although by the time you reach Grade 5 or so all instruments are fairly equal in difficulty, some are easier to start with than others. Many people find the clarinet or saxophone really easy at first, and also the double bass. The French horn is traditionally regarded as a really difficult brass instrument to start. Many string teachers say that it takes twice as long to reach Grade 1 standard on the violin or viola as it does on most other instruments. Our advice is to ignore this. Starting any new instrument is strange, and difficult, and interesting and exciting, so what does it matter which one is slightly stranger or more difficult than the other? Are you the sad kind of person who looks for the easy way out? If so, learning any instrument is not for you - none of them is really an easy option.
It would be nice to say that ideally you should be able to accomplish one grade examination a year, and some people do. That assumes, of course, that grade examinations are an effective way of measuring progress and an appropriate basis for your instrumental curriculum. Sadly, they aren't - see our page on grade exams.
What it comes down to is simply this. "Progress" means learning new information and skills. If you go to each lesson knowing something more, or being able to do something better, than you did last week because you have practised regularly and effectively; and if you come away from each lesson having learnt one new thing - be it a new fingering, a piece of musical theory, a musical interpretation, a bowing technique or just a way of playing something you hadn't realised before, then you're making progress. Keep doing that week in and week out, and you'll be a musician soon enough.
That's all you need to worry about - not how many exams you've done or the fact that your friend who started playing the bagpipes at the same time you started the violin is light-years ahead of you already. The violin is not the bagpipes, and you aren't your friend.



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Copyright © David Bramhall 2001