This is a tricky question to answer, and is something I get asked a lot when teaching piano. Especially when someone is starting out and they would like to have an idea of how long it will take to reach a certain level.
To help answer this question it really depends on what your goals are, and what you’d ultimately like to achieve within a certain time frame. For example, it would be easy to assume that if you played and practiced the piano for 10 years consistently, then of course you would be a good if not exceptional player, and you’d be happy with the level you had achieved. However, most people starting out would not really want to look that far ahead and instead like to see some kind of winning post within a few months or years. I would completely agree with this approach, as it’s much more likely for someone to stay motivated to learn when the winning post is on the horizon.
I tell all of my students that by the end of the first lesson they will be able to read music – and they can! Although it may only be 9 notes in total, it doesn’t matter. The student is reading music, and has already stepped onto the ladder of becoming a pianist. Typically by the second lesson they are already playing a scale and a song. And remember – that’s only after two lessons. So if you have never played the piano before and you didn’t think it possible to play and read music so quickly, then think again. It is possible, and usually only takes a couple of hours to get started.
To assess how long it may take to reach a certain level, and to establish how many lessons that might be needed is very difficult – but can be done with a reasonable amount of accuracy. But there are a lot of variables to consider. For example, does the student have a natural musical ability (not essential)? Does the student have access to a piano on a daily basis? Is the student able to practice for a reasonable amount of time every day?
One of the most effective ways of learning and progressing is to take the exams with the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM). There are 8 grades (or levels) in total, and you start on number 1. Once you have prepared yourself for the exam by learning a set number of scales and classical pieces, you then play in front of an examiner and hopefully pass with flying colours! You then move onto the next grade which of course will get more difficult each time. I recommend this approach for everyone who’s starting out, but it isn’t compulsory to take the exams, as this can be very nerve racking and daunting. You can still follow the grades without the pressure of an exam, and allow your teacher to assess when you can move onto the next grade.
If we were to try and calculate how many lessons are needed in order to progress through these grades, then I would estimate that the average person would typically have lessons for approximately 1 year before taking each grade. That should leave ample time to practice between each grade and learn the new songs and scales. I would recommend 1 lesson per week of 40 minutes (an hour for higher grades), and practice time of around 30 minutes per day on average.
If you have a great natural musical flair, and/or you practice for much longer than what I’ve suggested above, then you may be able to progress through the grades much quicker. But a grade per year is certainly a good estimation of what to expect, and a more than reasonable goal to set for yourself when starting from scratch.
Don’t forget that you don’t have to do all of the 8 grades either! You may decide after grade 5 that you want to move onto something else, and learn different styles. Typically as standard the ABRSM grades focus on classical music. And rightly so, as this is the foundation of learning the piano to a good standard. Scales and theory are a must when learning the piano if you want to excel, but there may come a time when you decide you’ve learnt enough and you want to move onto something else. This is perfectly acceptable and advisable if you at any point start to lose interest in what you are playing and need some motivation. You may want to play jazz, blues, boogie woogie, ballads, Adele, Coldplay etc. However, you need to put the spade work in and graft for those first few years before you can do this. But once you feel you are ready, go for it!