What Does Progress Look Like?

When we learn an instrument, we need to know we are making progress! That’s what keeps us motivated. If we feel like we are not making progress, there goes our motivation! This is why it is so important to have a clear and accurate picture of our progress.

Often the problem is our expectation of what progress looks like. Mistakenly, many of us think that progress is a steady uphill climb — but that is rarely what it looks like, especially when playing an instrument. This causes a problem for many learners because as long as things are going in the direction they expect, they stay excited and motivated. But as soon as we regress a bit or hit a plateau, we often feel that all is lost and then we start listening to the negativity in our head that tells us a myriad of half truths and even lies about our own ability.  So let’s take a look at what progress really does look like.

Using a MIDI software so that progress can be seen in numbers has been a great tool for our students and teachers.  Let me share Becca’s experience from the other day…

Becca’s working hard at piano!

Becca sat down at the piano-laptop and played a piece, Old German Dance, for the first time with the software. She received a score of 45% accuracy (this was after practicing the song at home, without the software, for at least a week, so she really knew it pretty well.) Keep in mind, playing with software like this requires you to be absolutely accurate in not only note and rhythm accuracy, but also in playing an exactly accurate tempo. It takes time and practice with the software before you even gain the skill of just playing right in time with it, so students who haven’t used the software a lot will score lower until they master that skill. (This doesn’t particularly bother me because we watch the numbers as they go up and it’s fun to watch that progress and know that you’re getting better!  Doesn’t really matter where you start, and THAT’S an important truth to accept when you’re learning, that we all start at a different place.) So, I asked her to write her score on a sticky note…45%.

Next, I asked her to play it again and write her 2nd score down…53%. It is exciting to see that simply by playing the piece a second time she increased her score by 7%! You might not expect any improvement simply from just playing it a second time, without any spot practice of any kind before assessing again. I find it interesting that students typically do not measure their own progress accurately. They think they are not improving, but that is simply not the case. It’s nice to be able to see this progress in numbers, since we are often not an accurate judge of our own improvement.

When Becca showed me her second score, she was excited, and so I asked her to go back to the laptop-piano and keep playing it over and over (straight through — not always the best way to practice — but remember, she had already somewhat learned the piece). I directed her to write down EVERY score, until she either got a score she was happy with, or, felt frustrated and needed help. The next time I saw Becca was when she brought the above sticky note pictured, and had received 100%.  She was all smiles! Of course we cheered and celebrated, then we plotted the scores on a graph and analyzed what really happened.

Notice how her scores only went up a few times, NOT every time she played it.  We discussed that if this had been a NEW piece, there would have been more plateaus and more frequent drops, resulting in slower progress, so it would be important to look at the WHOLE picture, not just what is happening now.  I asked Becca how she felt when she experienced a score drop? She said, “I wanted to do it again!” I had a similar experience with a teenager recently. When I asked her the same question, she said, “I was mad and wondered what was wrong with me?!”  Whaaaat? Seems like the older we get, the more we are tempted to doubt our ability. Sad. It made me wonder how many times a student quits, right before they were going to make a breakthrough. After that discouraging 74%, it only took ONE MORE TRY for Becca to get 100%.  ONE. MORE. TRY.  

So, WHAT IS THE KEY?  What truly determines whether or not someone learns an instrument is really just one thing…

Be willing to give it ONE MORE TRY.  Always. And if you need a break, take one.  If you have a bad day, chalk it up to experience and life. But get back on the horse, every time you fall off. 

The older I get, the more perspective I have, and it is really something to look back on experiences with the eye of experience.  So many times I worried about details, felt overwhelmed, or doubted my ability, when really ALL that was needed was just to give it ONE MORE TRY.  

Of course we still want to be creative in our problem-solving.  We still want to learn what we can and be open to making adjustments in our approach to progress.  We live in an amazing time with many creative solutions to our problems. But it is so very important to take time to pat ourselves, and our students, on the back just for hanging in there.  The most important success to measure, is the success of our willingness to work at it and give it ONE MORE TRY. Celebrate THAT victory, and you WILL find progress.

Thank you, Becca, and all my students, for teaching me.  Once again I am improved by knowing YOU.

— by Nan Croney