Hi friends!

Today’s Q&A session is about moving through method books and grade levels really quickly. I’ll discuss the pros and cons of this, and what I think is the best approach based on what I’ve seen in my studio over the past 10 years.

Question: Advancing through books/levels very quickly

Using the school system as an example

I’ve singled out Rifqon’s question specifically, but I’ve been asked many variants of this question. There are also lots of people who mention progressing through grades at a very rapid rate  – say a few years to get to level 8 or 9.

The first thing I want to talk about is the traditional school system. Here in Canada there are 12 grades (and kindergarten), each of which take a year to progress through.

If you were an adult and had never been to school, you’d likely progress faster than 13 years (and would probably sail quite comfortably through kindergarten and the first few grades). But at some point, as the learning became more challenging, your rate of progress would likely level out. Maybe you could get through the first 6 grades in a year or two, but the remaining grades would take longer, say 4-6 years.

Same with music. Some people can quickly zoom through the preparatory levels and early grades in a year or two if they’re motivated enough, and if their coordination doesn’t need too much work. This is pretty normal.

But far too often, I see people who have zoomed through the preparatory stages, skipped almost the entirety of intermediate repertoire, and jump right into the advanced stuff. People who jump from Minuet in G right to Chopin waltzes and nocturnes. That would be like saying in grade 3 of school, “okay I’ve got this down, let’s get to high school already”.

Maybe you can grind through the high school material doing a lot of memorization and study, but there will inevitably be gaps in your knowledge. Important gaps that mean you’ll have to study much harder to get the same results as someone who didn’t skip grades.

Questions to ask if you’re progressing quickly

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to go through a method book in a month and a half. But if you were my student, I would have some questions:

-How much time did you spend practicing?

-How long did you work on a piece before moving on?

-How well did you learn the material? To a decent level (say 75%), or to mastery (closer to 100%)?

For the first question, how much time did you spend practicing, I would be expecting at least an hour a day at that rate. Otherwise you’re quite gifted, or cutting corners somewhere. They’re both equal possibilities – but be really honest with yourself.

The second question is, how long did you work on a piece before moving on? If I assign my students 2-3 pieces each week, then we’d generally progress at a rate of 2-3 pieces per week. For someone moving through a book really fast, it would be more like 4-5 pieces per week (probably much more than that).

However, that doesn’t end up translating into learning a piece per day, and then moving on to the next. Pieces need time to marinate. Maybe you learn something in a day and it goes pretty well. The next day when you play it, it’ll almost definitely need some tweaking and adjusting. You want to be able to play a piece well the first try, and that doesn’t usually happen unless a piece has had time to sit for at least a few days.

If you’re playing a piece for a day and then forgetting it forever and moving on, that would be what I consider cutting corners. But if you’re returning to a learned piece for at least a few days afterward, you’re probably doing just fine.

The third question is, how well did you learn the material?

Not every you piece you play needs to be mastered and played to perfection, especially method book pieces. But you want to get them to at least 80% decency before moving on (and closer to 100% for the pieces you enjoy).

Some people have a really tough time with self-assessment. They play something and feel it was good, but objectively there might be a lot of errors. Usually people have the hardest time hearing the rhythm – most people can self-correct wrong notes, but rhythm is harder to be objective about.

For someone progressing through books really fast, I would want to make sure they were being very diligent about mistakes, and also that they’re observing details like slurs, staccatos and dynamics. If you skip that stuff in the early stages, you’re going to have big problems later on, when those details become more difficult and prominent.

So if you feel good about all of those questions, then sure – progress really fast! But be careful that you’re not letting your excitement to “move on to the next thing” get the better of you. A lot of learning an instrument is patience and perseverance.

Growth spurts

One interesting thing I come across in my studio, usually with kids who start hitting their teen years, are musical growth spurts. Maybe we’ve been carrying on at the standard rate of a grade per year – but suddenly their capabilities improve almost overnight.

For example, a grade 4 student might suddenly show aptitude for learning more challenging music, like grade 7 or 8 music. Suddenly they start sailing through the grade 4 material like it’s child’s play.

When these growth spurts happen, I usually roll with them. Maybe instead of spending a year per grade, we’ll move through two or three grades in a year, while supplementing with more challenging music to keep them engaged. That way we’re not cutting corners during the intermediate stage.

These growth spurts don’t continue on indefinitely, though. Usually after a period of rapid growth, things level out and we start moving at the original pace again (a grade per year).

It’s awesome if you experience one of these growth spurts yourself – they can be really exciting and motivating. And if you aren’t experiencing this rapid growth, know that such a boost could be right around the corner for you.

However, don’t get so excited that you skip a bunch of crucial middle steps. Going from Minuet in G to Chopin means that, while you might be able to play the notes of a Chopin piece, you might really struggle to express it properly, with all the subtlety required. I’ve done music festival adjudicating before, and let me tell you – this is incredibly common, and really obvious.