Notes from the Piano

Can 30 Piano Lessons a Year ever be enough?



We have all heard of researcher Malcolm Gladwell’s 10 000 rule which states that ‘it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of complex skills’, but is this true, don’t we all learn and acquire skills at different rates? There are so many factors in musical progress; the practice environment, parental support in the case of younger students, motivation to practice and of course our choice of teacher.

What do we consider ‘mastery’? I know many outstanding professional pianists who would still consider themselves to be on the journey towards the elusive goal of ‘mastery’ many consider that it is the learning journey itself that is the goal rather than some unattainable ideal of perfection, it is said that the legendary cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practice at age 90 and replied ‘’Because I think I’m making progress.’’

Many educational researchers argue that in fact the rate of progress is down to many other factors than practice. However, one thing I think most of us piano teachers would agree upon is that it is not possible to make significant progress without practice and that practice, and quality of practice are perhaps the most crucial factors in rate of progress.

Quality of practice, and the importance of finding a teacher who can show you how to practice effectively, are subjects that I have written about before, another factor however which can really affect the rate of progress is how many lessons students have a year and the length of those lessons.

Most students will have between 30-40 piano lessons a year, often in accordance with school term times, whilst there are many teachers who are willing to offer lessons outside of term time (I myself am one of those), many students do not take up the opportunity which means they are getting perhaps 15-20 hours tuition a year, can this ever be enough? Personally, I think not. For me the main problem is with students often taking a 12 week break over the summer, without lessons, even with the best intentions in the world, many flounder and by week 2 of the holidays, the piano lid is shut, and practice is forgotten about until perhaps the week before the next lesson some 10 weeks later, and students arrive at their first lesson of term apologetic and extremely rusty. The result is that we often spend the first half term getting back to where we were before, only to be met with yet another school holiday and break from piano lessons-2 weeks for many of my students.

Whilst a short break can be a good thing, we all need to refresh our minds, to have chance to really unwind and come back to studies with renewed energy, that is important for us as teachers too, however the constant interruptions of breaks for students who only have lessons during the school terms, in my opinion, really hamper progress for most.

As always there are exceptions to this and there are many intrinsically motivated students who practice well during their holiday breaks from lessons, but there are more who need the discipline and structure of lessons in order to maintain their motivation to practice.

Interestingly, I have noticed a massive difference between rate of progress during the two years of lockdown, where students had lessons across most of the holidays as they had little else to occupy them, and continued their practice enthusiastically, making great progress, and the post covid return to long breaks away from the piano where I have most definitely noticed a decrease in piano practice and rate of progress for many as they return to their desired schedule of  fewer lessons and longer breaks.

I would be extremely interested to hear thoughts from other teachers on this topic, do you teach through the holidays? How many weeks do your students take off and how do you feel this affects their progress? Would you give more lessons if students were available, or do you welcome the long breaks?

Lorraine Augustine is a Pianist, teacher and adjudicator based in Bedfordshire, with over 40 years’ experience of teaching and performing she teaches piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and runs a busy private practice in Bedfordshire.