An emailer asks how to tell if you are making progress. That can be tricky, can't it?
What exactly does progress mean? How do we measure it? And, after all, isn't that the point, that we want to be able to measure, to quantify, to be sure that we are better than before, that we aren't just wasting our time, spinning our wheels? Well?
I'm quite sure that I'm a much better organist than I was five years ago. On the other hand, I may have topped out as a pianist (I have an advanced degree in that instrument; my efforts at the organ started later and my real passion for the instrument developed more recently). However, from one day to the next I probably would not have been able to notice a great deal of difference in my overall ability at either instrument. General progress tends to happen over time, which is why it is so hard to be sure of it. If you want to develop an overall sense of your ability, the only thing I can suggest is that you start recording your performances (if you haven't) on a fairly regular basis. Then, a year from now, listen to a recent recording of yourself, and one from a year earlier and see if you can spot a difference. Of course, that will take a year!
But looking for general progress may be the wrong focus. When you are trying to learn a piece of music, the point is to try to play that particular piece well. You want to master the technical difficulties of the piece and play it musically. Most of your practice time is going to be spent on specific problems and specific pieces, just as, when you are running a Marathon, you can't run the whole thing at once; you have simply to put one foot in front of the other each moment that you are out there. We can obsess about progress, but it can be a chimera.
Still, it is natural to worry about progress, and teachers have ways of making sure progress happens. Most lesson books are designed so that pieces get gradually more difficult from the front to the back of a book, so that the student will know that they are improving their playing ability simply by learning all the pieces. Once you get out into the general literature, that gets more difficult to figure out, though there are still patterns to notice. Here's one: Haydn Sonata, Mozart Sonata, Beethoven (early) sonata, Beethoven Middle Sonata, Schubert sonata or Beethoven late sonata.
In college it became clear that the freshmen were given Haydn and Mozart (and early Beethoven), that as a promising Sophomore I was assigned an ambitious middle period Beethoven Sonata, and that only graduate students played Schubert, not because he was more technically difficult than Beethoven, but was considered more poetically challenging, and needed a more mature sense of musicality.
I was rather proud of myself when as a junior I got to play a large piano cycle by Schumann, since I had already figured out that those were mainly for graduate students. Other cycles include French suites by Bach, pieces from the Well-Tempered Clavier, followed by the English Suites, and the Partitas at the summit of difficulty in that corner of the literature.
By the time I began assisting for my teacher at the conservatory (which mainly meant giving lessons to preparatory students), I could pretty much tell where a student was simply by what pieces they were playing. That assumes that they COULD play these pieces adequately, and with a qualified teacher to guide them and assign them pieces as the teacher felt was appropriate, I could trust that as a indicator.
A number of persons who ask me questions via email do not seem to have teacher, and this is where I jump in again and suggest to you that it is infinitely preferable to have a good teacher guiding you because he or she will know many of these things and will be able to keep a good eye on your progress.
For example, I could tell you which Chopin Etudes are the easiest, which the most difficult, and what sort of skill is required to play each without looking in the score. If a student of mine wanted to play one but was not ready for it, I could suggest another piece which would have some of the same difficulties in it but was simply not as tough overall so that by playing THAT piece, the student would then be ready to take on the one they really wanted to play. That is one of the things a good teacher will do. Knowing the piano (or organ) literature really well gives you those tools.
My emailer did seem to equate speed of learning with progress. When he went back to earlier pieces, there was some initial difficulty, and then he could play them again, he said.
This is an interesting way to look at progress. Do you learn pieces faster than before? Do you remember the pieces you've learned?
I can tell you that when I return to a piece that I've played before, I notice two things:
1) the longer and harder I worked on the piece before I put it away, the longer I can go without playing it and still get it back under my fingers quickly.
2) sometimes, a piece that I've not worked on for a long time will seem strange to me at first. That first day I wonder if I'll have to start all over again and why the heck I can't seem to just haul off and play it already! But by the second day a mysterious thing happens and I start to be able to play it again. If it has been several years since I last played the piece it may take a few days, but I will notice that I "learned" the piece much faster than I did the first time, which tells me my brain has been storing it somewhere and it just took some time for the recall process to fully work.
There are various skills all at work here, including memory, sight-reading ability, technical ability, and so on, all of which may be improved by working on them separately, and all of which can sometimes help improve the others. My ability to learn quickly, and to sight-read (not the same thing) have both improved enormously in the last decade or so, which is good because I have a concert in a couple of days, another different concert a week later, and church services every week with new music to prepare for each. Speed of preparation helps greatly here.
But a pianist playing for his or her own enjoyment may not really care about these things. In which case, what IS your overall goal? And how will you get there?
And who might be able to help?