What does it take to learn piano? Well, what does it take to learn any new skill? Beyond the obvious practical things like getting the right equipment and finding a teacher or class, understanding how you learn is very important. And no, I’m not talking about your personal learning style, or what lessons are best for your Enneagram type. 😉

What are the stages of learning, and what will you experience as you journey through each stage?

The Four Stages of Learning

The four stages of learning are something I teach right at the beginning of my 21-day piano course. Setting the stage for a successful piano journey means setting expectations and goals in a realistic way, and that’s what this is all about!

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

When you don’t know anything about something, you don’t really even know what you don’t know. That’s a mouthful, but think about it. Imagine you are about to learn a skill that you’ve had no exposure to. It’s not just that you don’t have the skill. It’s that you don’t even know what really makes up that skill.

A good example of this might be something like Bitcoin. There’s a big cryptocurrency craze right now, but only a small percentage of people really know what that means or how it works. I was talking to my parents the other day about this. They’re great, but they’re kind of old-school when it comes to these things, and no surprise: they had no idea what cryptocurrency is. And to be honest, even after my explanation, they’re still really on phase one. 😉 That’s okay, not everyone needs to be a Bitcoin expert!

Fortunately, piano is much more commonly understood, including by people like my parents. Most people who watch my videos or read this blog post are already past stage one. They do at least know a little about what a piano is and what it’s supposed to sound like. If that’s you, great! You flew through that first phase and can move right along to the second:

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

What is conscious incompetence? This is the stage where you know that you don’t know something, and it bothers you. You want to learn, you just don’t have enough skill developed to feel competent.

On the piano, that might mean you know there are things called chords, but you have no idea what they are or how to play them. Or you know the keys make different sounds, but you’re not sure how to identify them. Whether at the micro level of a specific skill, or a macro level of just generally not being competent, stage two is about knowing that you don’t know.

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

What comes next? It’s conscious competence. This is the stage that takes a lot of effort, but where you also start seeing a lot of results!

Conscious competence means you have skills, but they’re not really second nature to you yet. So maybe you can sit down at a piano and play the chords to a song now. Awesome! Maybe you can even add in some of your own improvisational touches. Even more awesome! But if it still feels like quite a bit of work: if you have to think about it and practice it for a while first… that’s conscious competence.

If you are at this stage on the piano, hang in there! You have come SO far from stage one, and you are finally starting to see some results. Do not get discouraged if it still feels hard. Just that fact that you can play now is a huge milestone.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

Finally, we have the stage that we all want to get to. Unconscious competence… sounds kind of relaxing, doesn’t it?

This is the part where you not only have developed the skill, you are comfortable in it. It feels like no big deal, second nature, just something that you do for fun without a bunch of practice or stress.

Now, don’t get me wrong: being in stage four does not mean you can effortlessly play whatever you want in any genre. (At least, not unless you go through all four stages in every single music genre!) It means you are competent, confident, and able to play the kinds of songs that are compatible with the skills you have developed. In other words, don’t expect to instantly be able to play Beethoven if you’ve been working on Billy Joel, or vice versa. 😉

Identifying Your Stage

Why does all this matter? Well, how can you set realistic goals for yourself if you don’t know what learning stage you are in? How can you measure your progress if you don’t have something to compare yourself to?

You are your own best measurement of progress, once you figure out what stage of learning you are in. Getting started is much less intimidating if you know what you need to do to move forward.

Like I said earlier, if you are reading this then you are probably already past stage one. So where are you? Stage two (conscious incompetence), with a need for basic instruction that will walk you through the basics step by step? Stage three (conscious competence), ready to work on your existing skills?

My 5-day workbook is ideal for beginners in stage one or two, but many people who think they are in stage three still find it very helpful as they get started with my resources. I hope you’ll download it today and start working towards that ultimate goal of unconscious competence!