One popular theory of learning a new skill is the “four stages of learning” theory. Today we’re going to discuss this theory and what the four stages are, and how they’re relevant to you on your piano journey.
Let’s get started!
Brief overview of four stages
In this theory, the four stages are as follows:
- Unconscious incompetence (you don’t know what you don’t know)
- Conscious incompetence (you know what you don’t know)
- Conscious competence (you’re good but you have to think about it)
- Unconscious competence (you’re good and you don’t have to think about it)
We’re going to discuss each of these stages in more depth, which will hopefully give you a deeper understanding into your own learning process.
It’ll also give you an idea on why you think you’re no good at piano, a trap that most adult beginners fall into – a trap that often causes people to quit.
Stage 1: unconscious incompetence
The first stage is unconscious incompetence, or “I don’t know what I don’t know”.
This is the beginning phase of learning any new skill. Everyone starts here, no exceptions. At this stage, you basically have no idea how to set goals for learning the skill, since you have no idea what to actually learn. You’re completely in the dark and without a roadmap.
At this stage, you’ll be making lots of mistakes – worse, you won’t even know you’re making them. Again, this is completely normal, but many beginners find it very disheartening. They take their mistakes personally, thinking that it’s because they’re “no good” or “not talented”.
Plenty of people quit at this stage, assuming that, since they’re struggling, they’ll never be able to figure it out.
In piano, I see this manifest in a myriad of ways:
- Reading notes and rhythms incorrectly without realizing it
- Hearing me play their piece and saying something like, “how do you make it sound so much better?”
- A lack of progress because they can’t “hear or see” the problem (like playing a rhythm incorrectly without realizing)
- Brushing off a particular skill because they can’t see how it matters (like a student ignoring scales, or not practicing sight reading)
The important thing to realize here is that we all go through this part of the process. And the only way out is through. At first it feels like you’re floating in outer space, but you will eventually start to find your footing.
If you’re in this stage, it’s extremely useful to have a piano teacher, or someone to point out your blind spots. If you can’t see where you’re making errors, then you probably won’t correct them – and thus develop some bad habits.
Stage 2: conscious incompetence
Next is stage 2, “conscious incompetence”, also known as “I know what I don’t know”.
In my opinion, this is the most challenging phase and where most people throw their hands up in the air and quit. This is where self-esteem plummets and people declare, “I suck at piano.”
See, at least in the first beginner stage, most people can accept that they are, in fact, in the beginner stage. Most people realize they’re not going to know anything when they first start out, and are comfortable with having someone guide them (like a teacher).
But in the second stage, you start to become aware of all your shortcomings. You can see the territory a little more clearly. You know you’re hitting those notes wrong, and you know that there’s something off with your rhythm. You can hear that your scales are a little sloppy and uneven, and that your performance isn’t very musical – but you don’t necessarily know why, or how to solve it.
It’s one thing to make mistakes and not know it. It’s another thing entirely to make mistakes and be aware of them. This is very difficult for the ego!
If stage 1 is the beginner stage, stage 2 is the intermediate stage.
Some common signs of stage 2 are the following:
- The feeling that you’re getting worse instead of getting better, since you notice so many mistakes (you’re probably making just as many mistakes as before, but now you notice them!)
- A feeling of overwhelm (the more you know, the more you realize there is to know – it’s not just about the notes)
- Wanting to quit because the learning process seems so vast, and you feel like you’ve barely made any progress
- You start to see the value in certain skills (like scales and sight reading)
- You’re able to practice more deliberately, since you can pinpoint your weaknesses
If you’re in this stage, it’s important to not be too hard on yourself. If you’re able to recognize that you’re making mistakes, this means you’ve already come a long way in your learning process. You don’t suck at piano! Being able to observe your flaws means that plenty of growth is happening, and soon you’ll move into competence.
Stage 3: conscious competence
Then we have stage 3, “conscious competence”. This is where you know what you know!
If stage 1 is beginner and stage 2 is intermediate, stage 3 could be considered the proficiency stage. You’re finally competent! However, this competence requires a lot of conscious effort – you have to work really hard to make your music sound good, and you’re probably still making quite a few mistakes.
If you’ve ever worked hard on a piece of music, gotten pretty good at it, and then play miserably in a performance (even just to a friend), you’re familiar with this stage. You’re good enough to play it (sometimes), but not so good that you can play on auto-pilot, which is necessary for smooth performances.
Some features of stage 3 are:
- Being able to play something well, but only with lots of concentration and focus
- Feeling like what you’re playing is very challenging – maybe you hold your breath in sections, or tense up your body – since it isn’t second nature
- Feeling stuck in your skills – this is often when a piano teacher again becomes very useful, to help you figure out what specific areas need work to move to the next level
If you’re in this stage, the best thing you can do is practice often, and deliberately. If you’re having a time moving from stage 3 to 4, or making your piece or skill become effortless, it’s probably because you’re not practicing regularly or deliberately. You need to exactly pinpoint specific areas that need work, and attack them head-on.
Maybe this is a little trill on the third page, or a sloppy crossover. Maybe it’s paying pianissimo in a small section, or executing a scale at a certain speed. Whatever it is, you can recognize it – just don’t run away from it. The goal is to seek and destroy these micro-issues.
Stage 4: unconscious competence
Finally we have stage 4, or unconscious competence. This stage can be called “mastery”, when your skills go on auto-pilot and become effortless.
At this point, you can play at a high level (like stage 3), but without all the stress and strain. Hitting this stage is when playing a piece (or a scale or any other skill) becomes truly freeing and enjoyable – you can just sit back and let the magic happen.
Some features of this stage are:
- Making very few mistakes, even under pressure (such as a performance)
- The stage 4 skill can be multitasked (a loud noise outside, or a distracting thought, won’t throw you off)
- You understand what you’re doing well enough to teach it
- Playing a particular skill feels instinctual, not intellectual
One thing to keep in mind with this stage is that you can’t just rest on your laurels. This stage requires plenty of work still to maintain the level of ease you’ve achieved. If you start slacking off, your skill will backslide into stage 3.
I want to note that these four stages of learning can be applied to your piano journey as a whole, but also to individual skillsets. You could apply these four stages to a specific piece, or a specific part of piano learning, such as:
- Sight reading
- Ear training
- Scales, arpeggios, etc.
- Rhythm reading
- Fast playing
It’s likely that you’re more advanced in certain skills than others. For example, I’ve taught many students with very well-developed ears who are completely ignorant to note reading and theory. If this is you, it’s important to pinpoint your weak spots – your stage 1 or 2 skills – and develop them in order to be a balanced musician.
The temptation is to shy away from your areas of weakness. I want to encourage you to do the opposite. Pinpoint them and attack them head-on!
Review: Four stages of learning
So to quickly recap the four stages of learning, we have:
- Unconscious incompetence – you’re a complete beginner and have no idea what to learn. You’re making lots of mistakes but can’t identify them.
- Conscious incompetence – where most people give up. You can see all of your mistakes and feel like you suck at piano.
- Conscious competence – you’ve eliminated many of your mistakes and are quite good, but need to think really hard about the skill still.
- Unconscious competence – your skills are developed to the point where they start to go on auto-pilot. The level of mastery.
I’d like to give a shout-out to this website for the inspiration and resources – check it out for more information on the four stages of learning.
Until next time!