On guitar, for example, if you learn 3-5 chords, you can play a TON of different pop songs (of course, it does take a lot of practice to change between the chords!) Piano students will be able to play simple melodies and have their teacher (or guitar playing friends) accompany them. Voice students will work on pitch matching, breath control, placement, vowel shapes, and contour. Your teacher will be able to help find music that matches your voice and range. Ultimately your progress depends on: natural ability (a little), determination and perseverance (a lot), and how much time you have to practice. You should see a definite improvement within a few months, and like anything, the more you do it, the better it gets!
Young Students: Parents should be actively involved in young children's lessons. Children who can't read yet will need help going over their assignments and understanding what is expected. It helps to bring in a notebook and your teacher can write down what you should be working on and any helpful tips (rhythm, posture, hand position). The most important thing with music lessons is that it is not only a mental skill, but a physical one as well, that needs to be practiced over and over to master the muscle memory needed to be successful. At the beginning, your child should probably be practicing 10-15 minutes most days. Don't leave practicing until the day before your lesson, you really can't "cram" it in. You'll definitely want to practice the day after your lesson, when your teacher's tips are fresh in your mind. Piano students will generally use a series of 4 books (Lesson, Theory, Technique, and Performance) which work together, and gives your child several different ways to practice one skill, which keeps it more interesting. Guitar, violin, voice, and other instruments will usually have 1 or 2 books to work with. Another tip for practicing is to have your child play each song the number of times of their age (7 year olds will play each song 7 times.) Be sure to listen in and make sure they aren't just rushing through! The goal is to improve at least one thing each time you play.
Make sure your child stays in lessons long enough to get the joy of mastering an instrument, which usually takes until about Level 3 of most lesson book series (approximately 2-3 years). Psst...you're paying for lessons, so you want to make sure your kid is getting the brain benefits everyone is talking about, right???
If your child seems frustrated or bored, talk to their teacher about adding some fun repertoire (maybe music from their favorite movie or video game), or finding an ensemble or performance opportunity to keep them motivated!
It's very common to hit a plateau with your playing. KEEP IT UP! That means you are making progress and just need to "get over the hump" to make it to the next level! If there is a piece that you are struggling with, ask your teacher for hints, break it up into sections, practice it a million times and move on!
Jessica Solares is one of the founders of Bucktown Music, along with her husband Luis. She holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Elmhurst College, and is a licensed Kindermusik educator with Top Program distinction.