I am frequently asked questions about piano playing, probably because I have specifically devoted a page on my website to questions and answers and have invited people to submit theirs. Often they will do it via email so you don't get to see near all of them. And several times lately I have been getting a question relating to how long it ought to take someone to learn something. The person writing (I have read variations on this question on other forums as well) wants to know how long it should take to learn a particular piece, or if the length of time it has taken them is unusually long or satisfyingly normal. One fellow wrote to me a while back wanting to know how long it would take him to learn all of the Chopin Etudes. I considered writing back, "how should I know?"
...which might seem a bit mean, which is one reason why I didn't, but it does sometimes feel as though I am like someone with a medical show on the radio, trying to diagnose someone's condition without having ever examined them, which is why a responsible person in such a position will still tell the caller to see their doctor. Or, if you have an auto show, where you are trying to tell the caller what is wrong with their car, you will tell them to see their mechanic. First, however, you may be able to at least put some useful thoughts in their heads about what their problem is likely to be, as well as give them a few other things to consider.
When it comes to the speed of someone's learning, there are quite a few variables that I simply don't know. How fast do you normally learn something? What is your history with piano lessons? What pieces have you learned before (particularly pieces which might have similar difficulties in them)? How long do you practice each day? Even more important, how do you practice, especially when you encounter difficulties? Hard as it might be to believe, I don't have a slide rule with a chart that says if you are x years old and have been playing the piano for y years and practice z hours a day then it should take you w days to learn v piece of music. But I can offer my own personal experience on that, which will probably sound like I am being a smart-ass, but I mean it sincerely.
How long does a piece take? Longer than I want it to, always. And when does it start to get good? After I would have given up if I had given up. At first it doesn't seem to move, then the pace of improvement starts to accelerate. Sometimes this happens relatively suddenly, as in a day, or an hour, when it all seems to come together after days of not seeming to get anywhere. I used to compare this to moving the tectonic plates until suddenly, without warning, the earth moved.
But this is just me. And the faster I learn to learn, the faster I want to have something learned already. My performance increases with the years, but it never manages to keep up with my impatience.
I imagine the reason people want to know about the time something ought to take is partly to compare themselves with others. That we really shouldn't do. It isn't a ticket to happiness. And it might not be at all fair, either, depending on which professional who has put in 100,000 more hours in the practice room than you have you are comparing yourself to!
But to be fair, length of time can be useful to know. If you have a deadline coming up it is critical. But most of the folks asking are not giving a concert next Wednesday so that's not a problem. It is simply reasonable to want to know how long you have to suffer before these notes you are trying to cram into your head turn into actual music, when that sacrifice of time and frustration becomes a thing of ease and ecstasy. Somehow, the discomfort seems less uncomfortable if you know when it is going to end, or if you have the sense that it is not taking any longer than it ought to.
The most important single ingredient for making the stage pass quickly, however, may be the thing most of us haven't got. It isn't simply time, though practicing for hours can make it easier to accomplish something in just a few days or weeks that only seeing a piano for 15 minutes a week. It is how you practice. When you encounter a tough spot, do you zero in on it? Can you try different approaches to solving the problem? Do you even know what the problem is? Very specifically, not in a vague, unsatisfied sort of way.
Many of the people who ask me these questions don't have a teacher at all, so not only do I have no idea what their playing and problem solving are like, nobody else does either. They are the sole judge of what they need to get from here to there. That's not going to make things any easier. After technique, I think the most vital thing a teacher can teach is how to practice. That is a complicated science and it takes years to acquire the tools and techniques, as well as the active mind that is continually listening and correcting one's own playing. Done well, good practice can shave hours, days, weeks, off the time it might otherwise take to learn something through sheer repetition, particularly if you are just playing through the entire piece over and over.
It has been over two decades since I graduated the Conservatory, and I have by now become an expert at sizing up how long it will take me to learn a particular piece. I had sure better be good at it! Virtually everything I play has a deadline when I will have to play the piece in public, and since I have to juggle many of those situations at once it is absolutely essential for me to know just what exactly I can get away with, and how little practice I can spend on one piece so I can spend the rest on another. Most of you don't have to worry about that, but the one thing you and I have in common is impatience. So naturally we'd like to know how long before we see results. My knowing has come about as the result of much experience. Yours will too. But before I diagnose you over the internet, I would need to know more. This is why I recommend an experienced teacher, if you can find one, wherever you are.