One of the most difficult questions that we are asked at the music school is, “How long does it take to learn to play the ______ (fill in the blank) ?” Difficult because the correct answer is not the one you were hoping for and in fact there is no correct answer. There are simply too many variables. What instrument are you interested in? What do you think your goal is? Will that change over time? Will your expectations change over time? How much time and focus will you dedicate to practice? I can go on but I think you’ve gotten the point.
One valid answer is that the study of music is a life long endeavor; it is about the journey not the destination. We are of course a very goal oriented society. We tend to think in terms of fixed formulas where measurable actions lead to definitive results, most of which are not based on reality. No two students will finish their identical 45 minute homework assignments in the same amount of time because we are each programmed differently. No two trips to identical destinations using the same route and means of transportation, will take the same amount of time on two consecutive days due to a plethora of variable, uncontrollable factors including traffic, weather, mechanical and personal issues. The time to cook the same recipe on different occasions by the same chef, in the same kitchen will vary based on things such as freshness of ingredients, heat convection, human error and in baking, variations in air temperature, humidity and air pressure. No two students studying music will progress at the same rate even if they are learning the same instrument with the same teacher and following identical practice methods. We each bring our own strengths and challenges to everything we undertake. Those differences should be honored, accepted and embraced as part of who we are and the process we have chosen to engage in.
Because the study of music is a life long journey it is far more important to find joy in that journey and in each milestone reached. Every step of the journey leads to small accomplishments which accumulate and then change our expectations, nourishing and motivating us to greater goals; but all in small increments which can but should not be measured in hours, days or weeks. It is far more reasonable and enriching to stay focused on the tasks prescribed by your teacher and on very short term goals.
Rather than asking how long it will take to learn to “play” your instrument, begin by asking yourself how much time you will set aside each week to work on your instrument. Remember it is not reasonable to take lessons if you don’t have at least some time to dedicate to practice each week. Ideally you might aim to practice about 30 minutes a day, seven days a week. However, practically speaking the minimum time you will need to dedicate to your instrument is 30 minutes, four days a week. Anything less than that will not bear the desired results. Obviously the more time you spend practicing the faster you will learn. Another consideration is that it is far more effective to practice in several small increments than one longer session – in other words as a beginner, it is better to practice 30 minutes on four separate occasions than on one day for two hours. Of course, the more you practice and play the quicker you will learn. As you accumulate more knowledge that understanding will help inform your continued learning, so forth and so on.
Once you have determined how much time you have to practice, discuss that with your teacher and work it into your lesson plan. With that information you can set your first mini goal; learning to read music or learning to create a sound on your instrument or learning to find individual notes on your instrument, etc. Give yourself time to achieve that first goal before setting the second goal and time to achieve the second before the third. In this fashion you will learn how to gauge additional reasonable goals each of which should be enjoyed and appreciated for the accomplishment that it is.
In defining what we mean when we talk about learning to play is another ambiguity. Each person has their own idea of what it is that will bring them to that place of feeling as though they know how to play their instrument. I think a reasonable goal for any student is to strive to become competent and confident in their playing. Competence will follow you in all stages of your playing and confidence will help to get you there. Effective practicing and patience builds both. Don’t set unrealistic goals which will only serve to frustrate you and don’t compare yourself to others; everyone learns differently. Expect to make mistakes and to struggle a bit. If you keep at it, you will learn to play your instrument in your own time and to your own liking.
Finally, remember that NO ONE can play everything. What I am referring to is not only the fact that most great artists specialize in one instrument but that even then they don’t necessarily cross over into “all” genres or styles of music. They spend so much time perfecting their craft that at some point they have needed to quite purposefully hone in on certain aspects of the instrument and chosen or been forced to ignore others. The famous musician you follow, the pianist/guitarist/violinist/vocalist, etc. you so admired at that party, and your teacher have one thing in common, they have all spent many years learning to play their instruments and most if asked, will say they are still learning.