Inability to Really Progress

by Debbie
(Antioch, CA)

I am a 65-year-old woman who has been taking piano lessons for the past 6 and a half years, but I am just now completing book 3A in Faber's Piano Adventures.

I practice every day for at least 30 minutes, but I'm only able to play what I am currently working on. When I go back to the beginning of my book, I can't play the pieces that I learned previously.

Recently, my piano teacher gave me a very simple 2 line piece to sight-read, and I couldn't do it initially until I practiced it independently for about 10 to 15 minutes!

It has taken me at least a month and a half to play Willow Tree Waltz, and I still haven't mastered it! This is so frustrating and disheartening!!!

I love the piano, but I'm wondering if maybe I should choose a different instrument to learn, and perhaps be more successful. Thank you for your help and time in advance!


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Maria's Answer:
by: Maria

Hi Debbie!

I hear your frustration! Even though it’s hard for me to give you an answer like this, not knowing you and your situation, I will give you some tips and guidance based on my experience as a piano teacher in similar situations.

First of all, congratulations on learning the piano and being so diligent in practicing 30 min every day! Good discipline there! :) From what you write I also assume that you take lessons from a qualified piano teacher.

So, my first thought is that you are playing the same material (Faber and Faber) all this time? And since you mention book 3A, you might be working with the series intended for children.

The learning process (for any instrument) does not proceed in an ever "up going" learning curve. It will go well for a while, then you’ll reach a plateau for a while (which feels like you’re not progressing anymore), then it will go great for a while again, etc. This is normal.

I have found that many students reach a plateau at about the 3rd book (you’re definitely not alone!), that’s when many piano students want to quit.

I believe you have 2 issues going on; 1) you have reached a learning plateau, 2) you have learned to associate progress with reading notes well. You’ll need to address both the note reading aspect and also the "learning by heart" aspect to play a repertoire that fuels your passion!

The learning plateau is normal in any skill development. The reasons may be many, but what springs to my mind in your situation is this: If you are playing a piano method for children, you are not being challenged as an adult.

This would normally result in pure and simple boredom. Being a good student, you might be trying to learn the pieces given to you anyway, ignoring the feeling of boredom- even blaming yourself for lack of progress…

Remember what made you want to learn piano in the first place, and what you love about it!

My first step would be to look at another piano method developed for adults. Or, perhaps no method at all for a while, but instead play beautiful pieces!

The most important is to find piano pieces that make you feel excited!

Start with the level you’re at (technically), but don’t be afraid to play something a little harder if you love the piece. The keyword here is love- there is magic in what you can do if you really like a piece.

To break out from a learning plateau, you need the element of something entirely different. So, stop with your method and try something new! Get excited again! (Perhaps make up your own music too?)

The other issue is note reading. Although most piano methods are developed to teach note reading, I have found that no method is perfect. It’s relatively easy to begin reading music at the start of a piano method. Then all of a sudden the information becomes more complex, and perhaps after a while, we feel overwhelmed but keep going anyway.

Note reading is a skill to be practiced separately. At the beginning stages, the piano method is usually enough, but after some time it’s important to plan some sight-reading practice. This will help you tremendously to learn new pieces, not just to sight-read. And build your confidence in the process.

Sight-reading is a skill, and there are actual, solid tools to help you get better at it!

There are many helpful books with sight reading practice. I use Sight Reading & Rhythm Every Day - Book 1A by Helen Marlais, with my students.

Start with book 1a. Sure, it’s super easy, but it gives you all the preparatory "tools" you need to develop the skills to sight-read. And yes, there are truly a lot of preparations you do to "sight read"! These preparations take time in the beginning, then you’ll do it faster and more automatically in your mind, and it will seem like you’re just sight-reading directly (prima vista).

So, to summarize; get out of the rut, find different exciting piano pieces (for adults), music that makes you happy. Set aside time to develop your note reading skills (which is an ongoing endeavor- not just for beginners!).

And remember that any development has plateaus and that you are playing the piano for yourself- not anyone else, so make sure you enjoy it!

All the best,

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