Vocal imitation involves incorporating instructive auditory information into relevant motor circuits through processes that are poorly understood. In zebra finches, we found that exposure to a tutor's song drives spiking activity within premotor neurons in the juvenile, whereas inhibition suppresses such responses upon learning in adulthood. We measured inhibitory currents evoked by the tutor song throughout development while simultaneously quantifying each bird's learning trajectory. Surprisingly, we found that the maturation of synaptic inhibition onto premotor neurons is correlated with learning but not age. We used synthetic tutoring to demonstrate that inhibition is selective for specific song elements that have already been learned and not those still in refinement. Our results suggest that structured inhibition plays a crucial role during song acquisition, enabling a piece-by-piece mastery of complex tasks.