How Long Does It Take to Master An Instrument?
Authored by Marci Ricklick & Richard J. Chandler, BA, MA
We define music mastery as possessing expert skills on their musical instrument. Musicians who play at a professional or semi-professional quality level will qualify as master-level musicians.
Although there is no precise agreed-upon time frame, music teachers often state that mastering an instrument requires 1 – 3 hours per day of study, practice, and rehearsal over 10 – 15 years. Musical mastery varies based on the specific instrument played and the commitment made to mastering it.
Although reaching a professional skill level of mastery can take many years to accomplish, there are mastery levels you can reach earlier in your music journey. Because some musical instruments are more difficult to learn, you’ll want to consider that when asking how long it takes to master an instrument.
The Levels of Mastery
The ultimate mastery level is becoming a professional musician or one who earns the majority of their income from performing on a guitar, piano, strings, woodwinds, brass, or percussion instrument. We cite seven milestones in your musical instrument mastery journey that are worth celebrating.
Levels of Music Mastery
Here is a chart laying out the music mastery journey.
|Level 1||First Chair Player In Student Orchestra, Wind Ensemble or Concert Band||Becoming a first chair player as a student in a school orchestra or band. |
A first chair player means they are the best instrument player in their music section, whether that be flutes, clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, or another instrument
|Level 2||Music Competition Medalist||Entering and earning top ratings in school-sponsored music competitions|
|Level 3||CollegiateMusic Student 1||Playing well enough to be admitted to college or a university as a music student|
|Level 4||Collegiate Music Student 2||Receiving scholarships based on musical skill and mastery|
|Level 5||Adept Collegiate Musician||Performing recitals that are well-received by college audiences, and music teachers, because the performance is both entertaining, musically accurate and demonstrates musicality.|
|Level 6||Semi-Professional||Getting paid to perform on a musical instrument or voice. This may occur while attending a music college or after graduating.|
|Level 7||Professional||Professional musicians earn the majority of their income as instrumental performers, singers, music arrangers, composers, and music teachers.|
Music Mastery for Violin, Viola, Cello, & String Bass
Different instruments require differing levels of music mastery. Some musical instruments are more popular than others. The violin or the piano, for example, are more competitive, and therefore a higher level of mastery is expected.
If you are learning the stringed instruments of violin, cello, viola, or string bass, they will take longer to master than instruments like the piano. These instruments require learning pitch more accurately and being able to transfer what the musician hears with their inner ear to the strings to produce and in-tune tone. But with the piano, you can make a pleasing, in-tune sound just by hitting the piano keys.
The violin generally requires a higher level of mastery; musicians often switch from violin to viola. Orchestras and other ensembles need viola players to balance out the string section. Because the violin is so competitive, those that change to the viola find that it is easier to make a
The same thing happens with cello and double bass. Kids will start on cello. As soon as they get big enough to play the double bass, some will be encouraged to switch by their teachers. Those young cellists already excelling in cello are not as likely to switch to double bass than those that aren’t doing well on cello.
Percussion, Woodwind, & Keyboard Instruments
For string instruments, people often start learning earlier than for woodwind instruments as most music teachers believe that string instruments take longer to master. In the USA, students typically begin the band instruments of woodwinds, brass, and percussion while in the 5th grade, which is age 10 – 11. By contrast, piano and string instruments, where kids often start at age 5 or 6.
The Percussion Instruments of Drums, Tympani, Cymbals, Chimes, Bells, Mallets & Hand Percussion
In general, percussionists learn to play a great many instruments to reach an expert level of musicianship. Percussion includes the most wide-ranging and colorful family of instruments; percussionists must learn to play a great many varied instruments. It takes many years for players to learn complex rhythms and to keep a steady beat.
Keen skill in coordination is needed to synchronize all the body’s movements to play percussion well. Percussionists need to get particularly good at linear and layered coordination. The website, PlayDrumsNow.com, discusses 21 skills that drummers need to master. Two that are unique are linear and layered coordination. Additionally, percussionists must focus on auxiliary sounds and stick techniques, which are not factors for other instruments.
Mastering the Brass Instruments of Horn, Trumpet, Trombone, Euphonium, and Tuba
All of the brass instruments produce sound by buzzing the lips together. Simply purse your lips tightly together and blow out a focused stream of air into the cupped brass mouthpiece, connected to the instrument, to make a warm, resonant sound, so unlike what it sounds like absent the mouthpiece.
A large part of mastery on a brass instrument is to develop and build up the musculature in the mouth to sustain the embouchure, which is the position of the mouth when playing a brass or woodwind instrument.
Another major factor in playing brass is to play a whole series of notes with the same fingerings, (or arm length for trombone), known as the overtone series. Brass musicians play a vast range of notes can by playing overtones, despite the seven arm-length positions for trombone and only three fingers of one hand needed for the trumpet, horn, euphonium, and tuba. Mastery of brass requires knowing the sound the player wants before playing the note, then “voicing,” the notes by positioning the tongue and throat in the same position as if one sang the notes.
One additional mastery skill needed on the brass instruments is double and even triple tonging, requiring years of practice to produce a series of quick, separate, staccato notes.
Of all of the brass instruments, the Horn, sometimes wrongly referred to as the “French Horn,” is considered the most difficult to master. Astute band and orchestra directors encourage their most musical and dedicated students to switch from trumpet to horn.
Mastering the Woodwind Instruments of Clarinet, Oboe, Flute, Piccolo, Bassoon & Saxophone
Both brass and woodwinds musicians power their instruments with the air from their lungs, diaphragm, chest, and abdominal muscles. Controlling that air, and directing it into their instruments in focused and musical ways takes years to master. Another factor is the specific embouchures adapted specially to the single-reed instruments of saxophone and clarinet or the oboe and bassoon double-reeds.
As a saxophone player who learned the bassoon later in life, due to the smaller bassoon reeds, where the two reeds are the mouthpiece, I can attest, first hand, that sustaining the proper embouchure is much more challenging for bassoon than any of the saxophones. Embouchure is a significant factor in playing woodwinds well.
Except for the bassoon, nine of your ten fingers play woodwinds’ keys, with the right-hand thumb supporting their instruments. The bassoon is even more complex to play with the right-hand thumb controlling up to 5 different keys, and the left-hand thumb up to 9 keys! Additionally, there are scores of complex fingerings, with many alternate fingerings for the same note to master.
Consider Starting with Saxophone
The saxophone is the easiest woodwind to master, as round pads, not the fingers themselves, cover the holes of the instrument’s body. Additionally, it has no “half-hole” fingerings – where a finger covers a tone-hole only partially, and which takes years to perfect, as do the clarinet, oboe, and bassoon.
Good posture, breathing, proper placement of the mouth on the mouthpiece or directly on the reeds are all factors in mastering woodwind instruments.
One last variable is vital to mention; for all woodwinds except for flute, the musician has to have a great deal of practical knowledge in working with his or her reeds. This working knowledge is even more critical for the double reed instruments of oboe, English horn, bassoon, and contrabassoon.
According to WindPlays, “Most beginning woodwind players start out on the flute, clarinet, or alto saxophones.” Those instruments help create a good foundation if the student ends up wanting to switch to the more difficult woodwind instruments of oboe or bassoon.
Although sound generation and playing in tune are not factors, the piano can take longer to master than many other instruments because:
- Performing standards in classical music are more stringent for piano than for other musical instruments. The expectation is that soloists memorize the compositions that they play.
- In addition to solo performance, pianists commonly are collaborative musicians, accompanying other musicians. It is not uncommon for pianists to devote many hours daily to practicing, learning, and memorizing new music.
- To have a smooth and connected sound, pedaling takes a good deal of practice and master.
The Pipe Organ
Unlike the piano, the pipe organ generates sound by routing air through one or more pipes. The pipes have both flute sounds and reed sounds. In addition to having one, or multiple keyboards, organs also have a foot pedalboard, which resembles a piano keyboard but is much larger. Organists play low notes on the pedalboard with their feet. Because there is so much more to do, playing multiple music lines with both hands and feet at once, it is harder to learn than piano.
Reaching a professional or semi-professional level on the organ can look quite different than for concert performance on other musical instruments due to the music and the setting being religious-based. The level of mastery need depends on the church organization itself. Musicians hired as church organists need to play well enough to play in that church’s setting, satisfying the level of demand of the particular church.
The skill level needed can vary based on the number of people attending the church, the denomination, and the church’s location. The pay for the organist reflects the level of skill they need. In general, smaller and rural churches will not have a need, nor wish to pay for a skilled professional organist.
Larger churches and cathedrals in large urban centers often have massive organs and require an extremely advanced professional organist to meet their congregation’s expectations and of their community. This high level of skill can take decades to master.
Essential Ways of Mastering an Instrument
The route taken to master an instrument can vary, but usually, there are some common factors.
Music Lessons: A Shortcut for Music Mastery
Typically, musicians who have excelled in music have taken numerous music lessons throughout their life. Music lessons ensure that the student does not waste time learning with improper or wrong techniques.
By taking music lessons consistently, musicians succeed by having the ongoing feedback of their music teachers from the time of starting to the achievement of music mastery. Most musicians only get to the point of mastery after attending a music school or while pursuing a music degree.
Find a Good Music Teacher to Master Your Instrument
Look for a music instructor who has:
- Mastered a musical instrument themselves at one some point in their music career
- Knows how to both explain and demonstrate what constitutes the proper technique for your instrument
- Plays their instrument musically and focuses on helping you to also play or sing with excellent musicianship
Playing In A Band, Ensemble, or Orchestra
Learning how to play musically, blending, and fitting in with your fellow musicians is vital. Being part of a chamber music ensemble, a band, or an orchestra allows you to hone music skills.
Ensemble playing also gives you the experience required to secure paid music gigs in the future. Receiving payment for playing occurs at the collegiate music level or higher.
Achieve Music Mastery on Your Instrument through Practice, Practice, and More Practice!
To become a semi-professional or fulltime professional musician, one must study and consistently practice. Music mastery requires investing one, two, or more hours per day of study and practice.
Please don’t forget about the 10,000 hours of study, practice and rehearsal time maxim to achieve music mastery. You really can’t afford to skip practicing if you want to become a top musician.
Takeaways for Musicians Wanting to Master Their Instrument
Honing your skills to the level of a semi-professional or fulltime music professional takes years to do. Even so, it is possible to do so. It is essential to celebrate small victories.
Each musical instrument is unique, and some are harder than others to master. Select the musical instrument – or the voice as an instrument – that you are passionate about playing. The path to becoming a professional musician involves many lessons, concerts, and hours of practicing, so make sure to have fun along the way; enjoy the journey!