We learn naturally in layers. When we learn to walk, we don’t master walking right away. We learn to walk alongside other skills like eating and throwing balls (or food). As we age, we get better and better at walking – and then later on, we’re able to run and jump. If we just laser-focused on walking with the end goal to be able to run and jump, we would have to deal with a ton of repetition and frustration. Instead, that walking fifteen-month old doesn’t become a jumping toddler until around three.

In life, we learn many things simultaneously, in layers, and improve slowly over time. We don’t master one skill, like jumping or writing, all at once. As we develop the ability to write, we practice over time until we get faster, and find more ease. This happens over the span of years.

A three-year old might be learning to improve their gross motor skills, speech and pronunciation, vocabulary, understanding of the world around them, and a plethora of other things – simultaneously.

I call this the “layered learning” approach. It’s intuitive and natural. But – here’s the downside – it’s messy.

It would be much easier to chart progress if, when learning, you mastered one thing at a time. Let’s dub this “block” learning, as in, you learn one block fully at a time. This is a clean and tidy way to learn because you only have to focus on one thing, and you can track improvements every day. Once you’ve fully learned that block, you can put it aside, knowing it’s mastered, and then move on to the next block.

The problem? It’s slower and feels like way more of a grind.

Why is it slower and a grind? If you were a total beginner at piano and you decided that you needed to, say, master major scales, here’s what you would do. Spend 1 hour a day learning the different scales, focusing hard on memorizing them, building the finger patterns into your brain, slowly increasing the tempo, getting both hands playing together, and slowly increasing the complexity by adding more octaves. At the end of the process, you can play all 12 major scales in sixteenth notes at 80bpm in four hands-together octaves. It only took two months of solid effort – and you’re still not very good at them. But oh well, it’s been two months. Time to move on to minor scales. And you still haven’t practiced any pieces.

It’s an extreme example, but I come across anecdotes in this ballpark frequently. Not only does it take a lot of grinding to practice that way (especially as a beginner – detail work is very important for an advanced piano player), it takes a lot of time, and the results won’t be stunning. Have you ever dropped everything to learn a really difficult piece, committing many hours to it because you were so determined to learn it, only to have an end result that was just okay? And the whole process felt like a struggle?

Contrast that with learning that same difficult piece further in the future when you’ve built more skills. You’ll have a greater sense of ease while practicing, and it’ll take significantly less time. Plus, since your skills are more mature, it’ll sound better. This is because you’ve allowed your skills to build slowly over time, in layers. The same difficult task, be it 4-octave hands-together scales or a challenging piece, becomes very doable, requiring almost no grinding and far less time to do.

A beginner trying to master 4-octave hands-together scales, for example, is like a six-year old trying to master complex grammar when she’s barely begun writing. Skills learned need time to sit and marinate. Improvement is inevitable if this is the case, and the process, though messier, is much more enjoyable because the learning is all well within your capabilities.

How I translate this to piano teaching is by teaching a few 5-finger scales when they’re relevant to the music. For example, if we’re learning a piece in the key of G, I’ll teach a G 5-finger scale. I don’t teach every 5-finger scale all at once. A little later on, we’ll learn full-octave scales, but not all of them, and again, not all at once. If a student is learning a piece in the key of G major, they’ll learn a 1-octave, hands-separate G major scale. Later down the line, once they know several one-octave scales in major and minor keys, we attempt a few 2-octave (hands-separate) scales. It usually isn’t until around 3-4 years in that we even try parallel-motion hands-together scales. And that starts with 1-octave. I didn’t learn to play 4-octave hands-together scales until around a grade 9 level, which was when I had been playing for over a decade.

That might seem slow, but each step is natural, simple, and builds on the previous step. Combine this with a huge variety of other skills learned in tandem (sight reading, interval training, pedaling, phrasing, and so on), and practice is consistently interesting and engaging for many years. The pieces you’ll play at a grade 2 level are a slightly upgraded version of the pieces you play at a grade 1 level. You work on almost all of the same skills (phrasing, hand balance, hand independence, and so on) – it’s just that grade 2 pieces are slightly harder. You don’t master phrasing in grade 1, and then master pedal in grade 2. You consistently work with the pedal for years, in a variety of different pieces, until the technique becomes as natural as breathing over time.

I have a list of skills that I want a student to have by the time they reach a grade 1 level. For example, I want them to understand 6/8 time, how to play and count sixteenth notes, and so on. But this doesn’t mean they need to have mastered  these concepts. It simply means that we’ve worked on them several times and that the student understands them. Once they’re in grade 1, they still might struggle with sixteenth notes. But those sixteenth notes won’t be a new concept, and they’ll understand how to tackle them.

Perfection is the enemy of beginners. Skills build slowly and mature over time. As an accomplished diploma-level piano player, perfection makes sense. That’s where books like The Art of Learning come into play. But as a beginner, it’s all about trying things, then trying other things, then trying those same things again, sprinkled in with some other things. Variety, experimentation and the willingness to be imperfect are key. What kid walks perfectly all at once?

This is the style in which I teach my Complete Piano Path A and B courses for beginners. I assign a weekly lesson with specific learning points, a technique exercise, and daily sight reading assignments – and then I give feedback on people’s recordings of the week’s piece. It moves fast, it’s a challenge, but it’s also doable and creates real and meaningful progress even in the span of 20 weeks.

I only open these classes twice a year (and I can’t guarantee that I’ll be running these myself forever), so if you’re looking to get started, join us! We have a new beginner group opening in September, and a B group for progressing beginners opening up in October.

See you there!