Four levels of learning

New Years Resolution Sale!

Save 25% on instructional courses/packages through 1/31/21. Click here to learn more.

One of the frustrating things about playing the piano is having to try to apply what you know in real time.  That means making decisions about what to do quickly enough to avoid compromising the tempo.

For example, as an church music improviser, you might have to read four part harmony, convert that harmony to chords, determine which chord substitutions work for those chords, pick color notes for the new chords, and decide on a treatment or voicing for playing the chords.  These are just some of the decisions that have to be made, and in a typical song, you have less than a second per chord to make those decisions.

I can’t prove it, but I suspect that the conscious brain just does not work well enough to make all of those decisions as fast as they have to be made.  Rather, pianists must rely on the unconscious power of the brain.

What I am referring to is what some might call “second nature”, instinct, or behavior that “comes natural.”  Pianists who play sophisticated music at full speed are not thinking about what they are doing in the way you might suspect.  Rather, they are relying on what might be called unconscious competence.  The same is true for highly-skilled people in any discipline.

For decades, psychologists have talked about the four stages of learning.  Here they are:

1) Unconscious incompetence.  A person does not know how to do something and does not even realize the shortcoming.

2) Conscious incompetence.  A person does not know how to do something but at least knows the shortcoming exists.

3) Conscious competence.  A person knows how to do something but has to concentrate when doing it.

4) Unconscious competence.  A person knows how to do something and can do it without even thinking.

Obviously, excellent pianists need to be in stage 4.  Most of us (including me) often find ourselves stuck at stage 3, at least in some areas.  Clearly, finding ways to get from stage 3 to stage 4 is the difference between being merely competent and excellent.

People are often amazed when I explain the decisions that I make in real time in my music.  There is a lot of thought behind it and many can’t fathom that they would ever be able to think that fast.  What they don’t understand is I am not thinking that fast either.  I simply have a bigger bag of tricks at the level of unconscious competence.

I am likewise amazed when I hear pianists far beyond my ability explain what they are doing.  Again, the difference is just the amount of material they have moved from conscious competence to unconscious competence. 

I am on a constant quest to move more and more of what I play to the level of unconscious competence.  As I look back over the years, I can see how various skills have crossed that gap.  The bad news is that there is a large gap between stage 3 and stage 4.  The good news is that it is not insurmountable.  You simply need time and the right kind of practice. 

The practice I speak of is not necessarily fun.  It is actually anything but.  It involves playing scales, chords, voicings and so on until they become second nature.  Eventually, that kind of practice pays off.

As I find myself teaching more and more, I am looking for tips to help people move from stage 3 to stage 4.  If you have any thoughts, please let me know.