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The Top Three Myths About Learning to Play the Piano

by Bruce Siegel on October 4th, 2011

(NEWER POSTS ARE BELOW THIS ONE)

I keep this old post up top because, as one of the commenters says, it looks at the BIG picture of how we learn to play. You’ll find practical tips here as well as exercises, resources, and the philosophy behind the DoctorKeys piano courses.

Whether you’ve been playing the piano for years or are just getting started, what you think you know may be holding you back.

Here are the common fallacies we’ll debunk:

• It all starts with learning to read music.
• It’s all about the fingers.
• Practicing means playing a piece over and over.

(Each topic is a clickable link.)

The conversation will touch on all styles of music–-pop, jazz, classical, etc.

So let’s get started. Just ahead: fresh thinking about the piano, and how we learn to play.

MYTH #1 “It all starts with learning to read music.”

For many, this is a given. Without sheet music, after all, how does a beginner know what notes to play?

But others see things differently. Among the growing number of programs that delay the introduction of reading is the highly regarded Suzuki Method, as well as the more recent Music Moves for Piano and Simply Music. (Not to mention countless independent teachers, universities, websites, and so on.)

So what’s going on here? Are things changing, or are the rest of us just catching up to what the best pianists and teachers have always known?

To get a handle on all this, let’s start by looking at some disadvantages of the reading-first approach.

How not to enjoy the piano

Say you’re a beginner studying on your own, using a method book that teaches you to read music from the very start.

If you think about it, that book is asking a lot of you. With your eyes focused on a page filled with mysterious dots and lines, you’re being asked to curve your fingers, relax your wrist—and all this, remember, while also having to keep track of where C, D, E, and so on, are located on the keyboard.

Oh–and don’t forget to count out loud!

Having to do so much at once, leaves little opportunity for you to use your musical instincts to simply play.

You know–to express yourself. To make music.

And emphasizing reading at this early stage shortchanges you in another, equally important way. And to understand what that is, let’s look at some musical success stories.

How the best musicians learn

If you read about the formative years of the great performers and composers, one fact that stands out is how many of them were aural learners. For Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and countless others right up to today’s jazz and pop icons, the focus from the start was on playing by ear and improvising.

For example, here’s an excerpt from the biography of Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein) by David Ewen.

When he was four he could piece together on the piano bits of melodies, using two fingers. . .By the time he was six, Dick played the piano by ear with two hands. . . He disliked trying to read music from the printed page . . . Instead, he would spend hours either improvising melodies or trying to perform the songs he had heard his parents sing and play.

Like other musical greats, Rodgers’ introduction to the piano had much in common with how we learn to speak: talk (play) first, read later.

We’ll look at similar accounts in just a bit, and put these insights to use. But first, we need to clarify a key point.

How your ear fits into the picture

Can you carry a tune? Most people can sing to some extent, and let’s be clear about what that means: when you hear a melody for the first time, you can sing it. (As much of it as you can remember, anyway.)

In other words, you can “play” your vocal cords by ear.

Now that’s an unusual way to describe singing, but it may help you to understand how natural it can be to play an instrument when your ear is in control.

OK, now contrast that to what happens at the piano in the reading-first approach. You are shown a symbol on a page. You are taught that it tells you to put your finger on middle C. You play the note.

But here’s the strange part: your ear never had a thing to do with it.

In other words, teachers and students usually bypass the ear. Instead of encouraging an organic process in which your ear gradually learns to guide your finger to the note, the standard approach has been to use reading as a shortcut, a crib sheet, of sorts.

Are you beginning to understand the drawbacks of this approach? How it leads to a way of playing that’s quite different from the experience of those accomplished musicians we were talking about?

If so, it’s time to look at alternatives.

Getting practical

A word to the beginner: if you can possibly study with a teacher, now’s the time to do it. After all, you’re building the foundation, and you want to do that well.

If you choose to work with videos or other self-instructional materials instead, then by all means, find ones that show you not only what notes to play, but how to play them. Videos that cover basic technique, in other words.

(And check out the forums at Piano World. You’ll find a supportive community of students, professionals, teachers, tuners and so forth discussing every piano-related topic imaginable.)

If you do decide to study privately, you now have a better idea what to ask a prospective teacher. For one thing, at the first lessons, will he or she focus on playing rather than reading?

But maybe you’re wondering how that’s even possible. Maybe you’re asking the question we raised earlier:

Without sheet music, how does a beginner know what notes to play?

One solution is to study with someone who has a repertoire of simple pieces he or she teaches by rote, chord, and pattern.

Let’s break that down.

Rote learning: involves simple repetition without any true understanding.

Chord approach: better, because it teaches you about the basic structure of music. (If you don’t know what a chord is, go to your piano and play C, E, and G. That’s a C chord.)

As to pattern, think of it this way. Music is repetitive, recycling the same elements over and over, in different ways.

For example, a piece might start with a C chord, played one note at a time (C, E, then G), in a certain rhythm.

Next, that same pattern, including the rhythm, might repeat on an F chord (F, A, C). Then again, on a G chord (G, B, D).

So by knowing a few chords, and grabbing on to the rhythm by ear, you can learn to play simple music without ever having to read it.

Chords and Lead sheets

In a sense, chords are the “words” that make up the language we call music. (It’s as true for Beethoven as it is for the Beatles). Which is why a little chord savvy, which you can easily pick up, can help you get off to a great start at the piano.

But the good news about chords doesn’t stop there. Though learning to read standard notation takes time, there’s a way to read and write chords that you can grasp immediately: lead sheets.

[12.11.13 UPDATE. In the following section, I refer to wikifonia.org. That site has been unavailable for weeks, so it may be discontinued. The good news is that there's now an better source for free chord charts: Ultimate-Guitar.com. It has everything Wikifonia did, except that the melodies are not written out--but you don't need to see the melody to play an accompaniment. And Ultimate-Guitar has a much bigger selection of songs than Wikifonia did. Like Wikifonia, Ultimate-Guitar will also transpose (change keys) for you.]

Go to wikifonia.org and enter the name of a song you like. When you get to the page for that song, here’s what you’ll see: the melody written in standard notation (we’re not concerned with that), the lyrics, and the chord symbols, which are the big letters at the top of the staff, sometimes followed by a flat, sharp, number, or abbreviation.

Lead sheets can be used in all sorts of interesting ways (we’ll talk about one shortly). And unlike standard notation and its typical use as a crutch for beginners, lead sheets tend to nurture the ear. Why? Because they encourage improvising, jamming with friends, singing, and songwriting–just the sorts of activities that develop your ear rather than neglect it.

A collection of lead sheets is called a fake book. And a great one for beginners is Your First Fake Book, published by Hal Leonard.

The advantages of learning to accompany

If chords are a great starting point for beginners, one way to begin using them is to back up your own singing. For the student, accompaniments have several advantages over piano solos.

For one thing, because you sing the melody rather than play it, learning to accompany is relatively easy. Often there’s not much more to it than repeating a chord in a steady rhythm with your right hand, while your left hand holds down a single note (the root of the chord–the note that gives the chord its name, like C, for a C chord). Your lead sheet will tell you what chords to play.

If you’re a beginner, the ease of this style of playing allows you to focus on things like technique, rhythmic flow, pedaling, and so on.

And don’t worry, if playing and singing at the same time sounds difficult, you can always add the singing later. Or have a friend do it.

After just a few weeks or months of lessons, a complete beginner can master basic accompaniments for 3-chord songs like Hey Jude, Imagine, or Amazing Grace. In contrast, learning to play the same songs convincingly as piano solos would take much, much longer.

Not to mention the fact that songs are meant to be sung!

(If all the above is whetting your appetite, see Play & Sing, an online course that teaches you to accompany yourself in pop, rock, blues, and folk styles.)

Chords for the classically-minded

But chords aren’t just for pop players. The classical-sounding pieces in beginners’ methods are sometimes composed entirely, or almost entirely, of chord tones. Often they use broken chords, meaning the notes are played one at a time, as in the illustration we looked at earlier for learning by pattern.

Pieces like these are easy to learn without reading, which makes them exactly the sort of repertoire teachers can use with students in the early stages.

But there’s a lesson here for advanced players and readers, too. When you learn a new piece by grasping its chords, you can memorize it quickly and securely. Then, since you’re not distracted by having to read, you have the freedom to focus on technique and expression.

Some favorite intermediate pieces that are largely chord-based are Fur Elise (beginning section only), Angels’ Voices by Burgmuller, and Bach’s Prelude Number 1 from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” (Book 1).

With music like this, you can study the score, label the chords, and memorize the piece before you ever begin to practice it. Depending on your abilities, you could also record yourself as you read the piece at the piano very slowly, and then learn it by ear.

But maybe you’d like to take an occasional break from playing other people’s music, and begin to play your own. It might be easier than you think.

Improvising

Think about how we learn to speak. We pick up a few words (by ear), and immediately begin to use them in our own way, stringing together various combinations to create phrases, and later, sentences. In other words, we improvise.

Even after we’ve learned to read and write, improvising (speaking) continues to be at the heart of how we use language.

Unfortunately, when it comes to music, we often equate improvising with jazz. And that makes us think of it as a terribly complex skill, certainly not within the reach of beginners.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Your first improvisations

Try this: in the octave below middle C, play a C chord with your left hand, but leave out the E. That’s your accompaniment.

With your right hand roaming just three notes–C, D, and E–see how much interest you can create. Long notes, short notes, silence–mix them up for maximum effect.

Re-play the left hand part every now and then to renew its sound.

Most of all, don’t stop for anything you might consider to be a “mistake.” Just keep the music flowing, because continuity is essential to improvising–its only rule, you might say.

Gradually, expand your vocabulary to include G, then A. That gives you the full pentatonic scale, one of the improviser’s favorite resources. (It’s probably best to save F and B for later as they’re likely to introduce more dissonance.)

You might also try switching to an A chord with your left hand, which will instantly give your music a darker (minor) flavor. Then switch back to C.

Then try an F chord, and then others, too.

As you get more comfortable, you can begin to play the left hand part in a well-defined rhythm, perhaps playing it every beat, every two beats, or every 4 beats.

Or, try a simple waltz feel, with the left hand playing every three beats. Or, on the first and third beats.

While still keeping a 3-beat groove, another possibility is to break up the two-note chord, playing the lower note on the first beat, and the upper note on the second, continuing to hold it on the third. (Hold the lower note down for all three beats.)

For those of you who can read music a bit, a great resource is the Pattern Play series of books by Akiko and Forrest Kinney, published by Frederick Harris.

Beginning with the simplest left hand patterns and right hand scales, the lessons gradually help you to improvise in a variety of styles including New Age, classical, blues, jazz, and so on. (You can hear me improvise on the first Pattern Play “piece” here.)

And here’s another way to get started creating (or at least, co-creating) your own music. Remember those piano accompaniments we were talking about? Well, they can be great vehicles for learning to improvise.

As I’ve said, with piano/vocal arrangements, you’re likely to be playing the chords with your right hand. And one way to get creative is to play broken rather than block chords, inventing patterns and rhythms as you go. Jamming on the chords of a song is what jazz is all about.

As you learn to improvise, you’ll eventually want to do more than just stick to the “safest” notes (chord members, for example). You’ll want to be able to range farther afield and play precisely what you hear or imagine. And for that, you need “big ears.”

Ear Training

Remember how I said that when you sing, you’re “playing” your voice by ear? Well, one way to start transferring this ability to the piano, is to jump right in and practice with simple melodies like Are You Sleeping and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

These tunes, as well as other childrens’ songs, folk songs, and many Christmas carols, use only the notes of the major scale (do re mi fa so la ti do). That makes them good choices to start with because instead of twelve tones to choose from, you have only seven.

At first, it’s trial and error. But if you keep doing it–and I mean if you play by ear a lot, day after day–you start getting quicker and more confident. (As we saw with the young Richard Rodgers.)

As your ear becomes more practiced, you begin to notice that one note has a special feel or quality to it: it’s at rest.

For example, if you play a melody in the key of C (in other words, use the notes of C scale), you’ll notice that, C, unlike the other six notes in the scale, doesn’t “need” to resolve to any other tone. It’s tension-free.

We call this note the keynote or do (as in do re mi). Since the keynote feels like home, it’s almost always the last note of a tune. And learning to hear how other tones gravitate towards the keynote is an important part of being able to play by ear.

The ability to recognize tones in this way is called relative pitch. If you have perfect pitch, on the other hand, you can recognize tones without needing to compare them to others. That’s why it’s also called absolute pitch. And contrary to popular belief, it’s possible to develop absolute pitch as an adult, at least to some extent.

Playing songs by ear

Here’s Paul Shaffer, long-time keyboardist and bandleader for David Letterman, talking about his musical beginnings (as quoted in John Novellos’s Contemporary Keyboardist):

. . . right away I started playing by ear. First I played the songs I heard that had only three chords; once I knew the three chords, I could play a lot of songs. . . Although I had started taking private classical lessons at the same time, playing and expanding my repertoire of chords by ear were really the most important things to me.

Notice the reference to “three chords?” They’re the ones I was talking about in the section about accompanying–the three chords that make up the entire harmonic vocabulary (or close to it) of Hey Jude, Imagine, and countless other songs.

We call them the I, IV, and V chords, because they’re built on the first, fourth, and fifth notes (do, fa, so) of the major scale.

And my point is this: to an extent, playing by ear means playing by understanding–knowing what chords, and chord sequences, are used again and again in styles like folk, jazz, classical, and so forth.

Here’s a project for you. Once you can play (or accompany) a few songs that use I, IV, and V, listen to recordings of other songs that use the same three chords, and learn them by ear.

One way to do this is to listen to the bass line (the lowest notes you hear), because those are likely to be the roots of the chords. Once you know the root, you can find the chord.

If you find it difficult to hear and identify the bass notes–it can be tricky!–you can find the chords by trial and error. Just use your ear to guide you as you sing the melody and play different chord combinations to see what sounds best. Your task is simplified by the fact that songs usually begin and end with the I chord.

Songs that use only, or mostly, I, IV, V, include:

• Knocking on Heaven’s Door (the Dylan version)
• The Lion Sleeps Tonight
• The Gambler
• Jambalaya
• Hey Jude (coda, or ending, adds another chord)
• Imagine (bridge adds another chord)
• Amazing Grace
• Silent Night
• Koom Bah Yah
• Michael Row the Boat Ashore

And many, many, more.

Learning to play songs and pieces off of recordings is a powerful form of ear training. If you then go a step further and notate the music, it’s called transcribing, and Chick Corea (also in Novello’s book) says:

From very early on. . . I would listen to the record through and pick out a very simple thing to begin to transcribe, and pick at it until I got it. . . And through that process I actually learned almost everything I know about notating and reading music and recognizing sounds.

Now that’s a way to learn to read that trains your ear.

Getting past the “reading myth”

Are you just getting started at the piano? If so, you now know why it might be wise to delay reading, or at least de-emphasize it at first. And you’re also beginning to understand your options.

On the other hand, if you’re an experienced pianist who enjoys reading but also wishes to be more spontaneous and creative, take another look at the possibilities I’ve outlined. Find ones that appeal to you, and explore them on your own or with a teacher.

In your efforts to break free of the page, you may be surprised at how rewarding even the smallest steps can be.

MYTH #2 “It’s all about the fingers.”

Are you playing the piano with your fingers when you should be using your arms?

If that sounds like a silly question, think of it this way: you can either push keys down using your own power, or, you can relax, and allow the weight of your arms to do the same thing.

In other words, you can let gravity do the work.

So which of these two approaches do you think will help you play with an easy flow while avoiding strain or even injury? In the first, your brain keeps sending the message “push, press, work.” In the second, it whispers “release, relax, let go.”

Ahhh—doesn’t that last sentence make you feel good just thinking about it?

The experts weigh in on arm weight

If you’ve never given much thought to how gravity can be the pianist’s friend, you’re not alone. But many top players and educators have.

Take Paul Wirth, for example, a renowned teacher of prize-winning young pianists. He stresses the importance of using a gravity-based approach from the first lessons.

You can hear some of his students by clicking the link in the previous paragraph, though you’ll gain even more by actually seeing their seemingly effortless playing. (Which you can do on his Gravi-DVD.)

Also advocating the use of arm weight are, to name just a few other pianists and educators, Madeline Bruser, author of The Art of Practicing, and Nancy and Randall Faber, creators of the highly regarded Piano Adventures piano method.

Better control; more exciting rhythm

Besides keeping you relaxed, using arm weight gives you a more precise way to control dynamics (loudness and softness). And one student was excited about this approach for an entirely different reason: with his arms in motion, his playing suddenly became more rhythmic.

“This feels wonderful,” he said. “It’s like dancing.”

An arm-weight exercise to get you started

Ideally, you’ll be using a gravity-based approach from the start. But for those of you who’ve been playing for years with technique that’s less efficient, it’s never too late to change. One caveat, though: don’t try to master the use of arm weight by practicing music you already know–the complex sequence of habits you’ve already built up for that piece will get in the way.

Instead, start with a simple arm-drop exercise. Seated on the bench away from the piano, raise your right arm to shoulder level, wrist limp, concentrating entirely on feeling the weight of your arm. Then, let it drop on to your lap.

Make sure you’re not putting or placing your arm down, but rather, allowing it to fall freely. If the release is genuine and complete, your hand will hit your thigh with a loud slap.

Repeat several times, then do the same with your left arm.

A 5-note scale and beyond

Then, slide the bench back to the keyboard, and with your fingers curved (as they usually are for playing), play a 5-note scale with one hand by “walking” your arm weight from one fingertip to the next. Do it slowly, focusing on the sensation of the entire weight of your arm resting on the keyboard, supported only by a single, curved, finger. (The thumb, of course, plays on its side, instead.)

Pay special attention to your wrist, which should be loose and flexing. For each note, it starts from a slightly elevated position, and drops down until the back of the hand forms roughly a straight line with your arm, a line that’s about parallel with the floor.

If you drop your full arm weight onto each key, the tone that results will be loud (but not harsh), and exactly the same from note to note. This effortless evenness is one of the exciting benefits of this way of playing.

To play softly, the motions remain the same–the only difference is that you release less weight into each key. (But use full arm weight for a while, until the exercise becomes second nature.)

Gradually, you can apply this technique as you practice other exercises and pieces. It’s best not to play music that requires you to read at this early stage, because reading will only distract you from your prime focus: feeling and releasing weight.

Playing the piano with your whole body

Obviously, a lot more goes into great technique than simply taking advantage of gravity. That’s just one aspect of our real subject–a whole-body approach to the piano. In lifting your arm so you can drop weight down into the keys, you’re using big, strong muscles, instead of relying on the more vulnerable fingers to do all the work.

Teamwork between muscle groups–that’s the key. Don’t try to solve problems with fingers alone that are best handled with the help of wrists, arms, and upper body. For example, your teacher may point out passages that work best with these (non-gravity-based) techniques:

• A gentle lifting of the wrist, ideal for playing the final note of a phrase more softly, and then releasing it.
• A quick upwards flip of the wrist for playing rapid staccato (short) notes.
• Forearm rotation–a rolling of the hand from side to side, useful for trills and various other situations.
• A swaying or dance-like movement of the upper torso, often an integral part of playing rhythmically and emotionally.

Movements like these can be easy to see, or they can be nearly invisible. Often you’ll want to combine them with each other, or with the use of arm weight.

But whatever the specifics, it pays to remember Thomas Mark’s words in What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body: “Saying that we play the piano with our fingers is like saying that we run with our feet”.

A final thought: getting past “one-note-at-a-time”

As a pianist, your fingers have important work to do. There’s no question about it.

But each finger strikes just one note at a time, whereas when you play with your entire upper body, you operate from a different mindset. You begin to play groups of notes, rather than single, isolated ones.

And that’s one of the secrets to effortless control, and rhythm that never falters.

One student who was introduced to this way of playing after years of struggling with a more finger-oriented approach, was amazed, after a period of adjustment, at how natural it felt.

“Now I know how it feels to be one with the piano,” she said.

MYTH #3: “Practicing means playing a piece over and over.”

When you’re learning a new song or piece, do you spend most of your time going through it from first note to last?

If so, you’re not really practicing, at least not efficiently.

What you’re actually doing is trying to play the piece. You’re trying to express yourself through the music before you’ve laid the necessary groundwork.

And that’s understandable. You’re excited by the music. And boy, do you ever want to play it now, not weeks or months down the road.

But at some point you need to be clear about whether you’re playing or practicing. Because the fact is, they’re two different ways of being at the piano.

(If your problem is the opposite–if you never play your music all the way through but always seem to end up with bits and pieces of a performance–we’ll talk about that, too.)

Playing vs. practicing

Playing is all about ease and flow. When you play, thinking takes a back seat and your emotions take over. You might even say that to the extent you’re still thinking, you’re not yet playing.

And practicing? Well, that’s what gets you to that special place where you don’t have to think. That’s what makes playing possible.

So let’s talk about an approach to practicing you can live with.

Don’t struggle, simplify

At the heart of practicing is repetition. Everyone knows that.

But what we often forget is exactly what it is we need to repeat: only the right notes, rhythms, and motions. That way, we’re spending our time building good habits, instead of good habits mixed in with bad ones.

And believe it or not, there really is a way to practice without making mistakes.

Three ways to make the difficult easy

You can:

• Practice one hand at a time.
• Practice slowly (or very, very slowly).
• Practice only a little bit–a measure perhaps, or even less.

Usually you’ll combine these options, two or three at a time, to get exactly the degree of difficulty you need.

At that point, you can practice without struggling. You can relax, and focus all your attention on getting the job done. (Rather than feeling discouraged about what you can’t yet do.)

When you want to practice slowly, it’s a good idea to use the metronome. Otherwise you’re likely to get faster and faster, drawn by the gravity-like pull of the actual performance tempo–the tempo you keep hearing in your head.

But keep this in mind: while slow practice may be the default mode, sometimes you need to work on a passage up to tempo. Otherwise, you might be using motions and fingerings that work perfectly in slow motion, but can hold you back when playing faster.

To use the up-to-tempo approach, you might start by playing just a single beat, then add another, and so on.

But let’s backtrack for a moment. Just as important as how to practice, is what you need to do before you begin.

Getting ready to practice

Memorize first. Students often assume that committing a piece to memory is the final step in learning it. But think of it this way: when you memorize right away, you’re reinforcing your memorization of the music every time you practice it.

Then too, if your eyes aren’t glued to the page, you can give all your attention to overcoming technical challenges. Many difficult passages simply can’t be played up to tempo under any circumstances, while reading.

So let’s look at the single most helpful step you can take in memorizing music.

Learn the chords. In myth #1, we saw that a musical composition can be looked at as a series of chords. So it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that identifying and memorizing the chords in a piece can go a long ways towards helping you play it by heart.

Obviously, if you’re using a lead sheet to work on a song, the chords are already labelled for you. But for classical music, you’ll need to write in the chord symbols yourself. Using a numbering system (Roman numerals) to label the chord progression is an especially powerful way to understand and remember it.

(See Myth #1 for classical pieces and pop songs that may come in handy for getting started with chord study.)

Work out the fingering. Here’s an all-too-common scenario: a student spends days or weeks trying to master a technical difficulty, only to discover, down the road, that with the right fingering, the passage is actually pretty easy.

Clearly, good fingering can make a huge difference. But even when the benefits are more subtle, many small improvements can really add up.

So take the time to explore fingering before you start to practice, and jot down your tentative choices. Even where fingering is already indicated, don’t assume that the editor’s suggestions are necessarily right for you.

Listen to recordings. Can you learn to speak a foreign language convincingly without hearing it spoken?

Well it’s like that with music, too: symbols go only so far in conveying its actual sound. This is certainly true of pop songs because so much depends on the rhythmic groove or feel, which is virtually impossible to capture on paper (and is not even hinted at on a lead sheet.)

But it applies equally to classical compositions, even though every aspect of the music is supposedly right there on the page.

I say “supposedly” because if your only exposure to a piece has been through the score, and you then listen to a recording, you may be surprised at the range of interpretive decisions a performer will bring to the music.

A small accent here, an almost imperceptible silence there, a slowing, a rising and falling (crescendo and decrescendo), pedaling (or its absence)–these are the sorts of details that bring music to life, and that often don’t show up in the score, or are only hinted at.

So listen to recordings of your song or piece and be inspired by the magic a creative player can bring to it.

Pure playing mode

OK. Let’s jump ahead in the process. You’ve done your preparation. You’ve practiced well.

So what’s next?

Of course–it’s time to play. The question is, will you actually do it?

Here’s my point. Remember I said earlier that people who are supposedly practicing are often actually playing (or trying to)? Well, the reverse is also true: some students can’t play without stopping to practice–to make corrections.

And that’s ironic, because pausing is 100% fatal to the spell you’re trying to create, worse than any wrong note could ever be.

So the message is, you need to spend plenty of time in pure playing mode. Just say, “OK. Whatever happens, I do not stop. I keep going.”

Psychologically, this can be tricky. Up to now, you’ve been listening critically to every possible weakness in your performance. Your focus has been on working and improving.

But now you need to let go of all that. It’s time to let yourself be carried away by the spirit of the music and enjoy your emotional response to it.

One way to get comfortable with this free-flowing, non-judgmental state is to improvise. (See how to get started in myth #1). You don’t have to be a jazz master. But until you make improvising part of your routine, you’ll never know what a difference it can make in how you play.

The three piano myths: a final thought

In this three-part article we’ve talked about:

• Developing your ear (rather than just your ability to read).
• Using your whole body (not just your fingers).
• Knowing the difference between playing and practicing.

As you begin to apply these principles, the key to success is starting simply. And this time, I’m not talking about breaking your practice down into manageable tasks. I’m encouraging you to choose songs and pieces appropriate to where you are and what you’re trying to accomplish. (Or if you’re improvising, to start with a very basic vocabulary of notes, chords, and rhythms, as in the improv steps outlined in Myth #1.)

Which brings up an important point. While beginners may be thrilled to play anything at all, you more advanced players may be less excited about playing children’s songs by ear, or practicing easy pieces to learn how to use arm weight, or choosing repertoire with chords simple enough to grasp and memorize.

But remember, this is a big moment in your musical life. In some ways, you’re building, or re-building, your foundation, a task worthy of taking (what may seem like) a few steps backwards.

And the payoff may come sooner than you think. Living in a culture obsessed with the flashy and the difficult, it’s good to remember that simplicity can be a beautiful thing. Especially when you find yourself, more than ever before, playing straight from the heart.

—-

Bruce Siegel is a musician and teacher in the Los Angeles area, and the creator of DoctorKeys Piano Tutorials.

26 Comments
  1. Marie permalink

    Wow, this is a great post! Playing by ear is such a useful skill once you start to develop it, and it’s a lot of fun to pick out various songs. I wish more piano teachers would encourage this early on.

  2. Bruce Siegel permalink

    Thanks, Marie!

    Yeah–I sure wish my own teachers had done more ear- and improv-based stuff with me. I think it’s my own struggles in those areas that makes me want to write about them.

  3. Thank you for sharing with us this article. It is refreshing! You have mentioned the big picture of music learning. Most players were exposed to a portion of music learning; whether it is by ear, by sight reading, or etc.

    I enjoyed reading your blog post. Please keep them coming!

  4. Bruce Siegel permalink

    Thanks, Yoke! It’s a special pleasure to get a comment like that from such a fine teacher as yourself.

  5. Bill Gathen permalink

    Very inspiring post! I have all the links you referred to open in other tabs to peruse next, as well as the Kinney’s “Pattern Play” site, here: http://www.patternplay.com/index.php

    I’ve been working through a reading-based program at home, but this charges me up to turn on my ears and start learning/improvising as well.

    Thanks!

  6. Bruce Siegel permalink

    Thanks, Bill. Nice to hear that my words had their intended effect. :)

  7. Greg L permalink

    Great post, Bruce. I took lessons as a kid, and it was all reading music and Hanons. I never understood the structure and method behind the melodies I was struggling to read and play off a page. Just now I am beginning to “backfill” my music knowledge with theory about chords and lead sheets–what a difference it makes! I have children now starting piano and other music lessons and I will definately use your advice to help them in their lessons, and guide the type of instruction they receive.

    Wish my kids and I could take lessons from you!

  8. Bruce Siegel permalink

    Thanks so much Greg. And I only wish my parents had been as actively involved in my education as you are with yours!

  9. I have been teaching piano for two years. For the first three months, I taught my students sheet music, but then I realized something: I started playing piano at age 11 and began with sheet music, but my skills (and my love for piano) never took off until I began using chord leadsheets in a band. So I threw the sheet music out and brought in chord sheets, and the results were outstanding. All of my students can now read sheet music, but they only learned it after I taught them the chords.

    You don’t need to teach a child the alphabet for them to know how to speak their thoughts.

  10. Bruce Siegel permalink

    Thanks for the comment, Trevor. You sound like a great teacher!

  11. David-Jean permalink

    Your teachings and videos + blog has brought me back to the True desire to play Piano/organ.
    I have cried, because my Mom spent earnst monies to have me learn…(7 years)
    And I don’t remember a thing !
    With You in a few hours I have the pleasure to be able to play and FEEL the music she wanted me so much to express.
    She would have been sooo happy if only she was here to hear it !
    Thankyou very much !
    And even more than that !
    Keep up your work, efforts and path !
    All the Best!
    David-Jean
    P.S.: I live in France and am French.

  12. Bruce Siegel permalink

    Thanks, David-Jean! That means a lot to me. I especially like that you said you’re feeling the music now. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

  13. Sayan B permalink

    Great post! I am teaching piano for a while now, and have tried dispelling some of these myths, often with very little success. Reading your post encourages me to try again, with renewed vigor. :)

  14. Don Walker permalink

    I began piano lessons at age 52, and will be 83 in July. I have had two good and caring teachers I can’t say enough good about them. Reading your introduction reveals insights for the most part they did not have access to, or, I am sure they would have offered them. I have not had a teacher since 1990; but have read and tried sources along the way, with the objective to be able to play hymns at worship when not having a pianist. (I am a retired clergy) Now with partial success, but with some shakes and nervous). Your insights and overview offer me new excitement and hope to play better and with less anxiety. . . and more fun. I am pleased and happy to step back and learn whatever I can while still able.
    I look forward and am honored to have you as my teacher after reading the above! – Don Walker

  15. Don Walker permalink

    I began piano lessons at age 52, and will be 83 in July. I have had two good and caring teachers I can’t say enough good about them. I have not had a teacher since 1990; but read and tried sources, with the objective to play hymns when not having a pianist. (I am a retired clergy) Now with partial success, but with some shakes and nervous). Your insights offer me new hope to play better with more fun and with less anxiety. I am pleased and happy to step back and learn whatever I can.
    I look forward and am honored to have you as my teacher after reading above! – Don Walker

  16. Bruce Siegel permalink

    Don, thanks for that beautiful comment! I am equally honored to have you as a student. Let me know if I can be of help in any way.

  17. Bruce, I love your number one. The most talented pianist I have ever seen learned on a player piano. He learned to read music 2 years after he learned to play. You definitely do not need to know to read music to learn to play the piano.

  18. Heather Graham permalink

    Hello!

    I absolutely love your blog; it is so helpful! I was wondering if you could show some tips for audition and what is expected when going to an audition. Thanks again for all of the piano wisdom! (:

    Heather

  19. Bruce Siegel permalink

    Thanks, Heather! Gotta be honest with you–I’m not much involved in the audition scene these days. My focus is simply on helping people do what they love to do.

    But if pressed, I’d say that succeeding in an audition starts with your fundamentals. You need to build the sort of musical foundation that makes you feel truly at home at the piano, regardless of what or where you’re playing. And that’s what I talk about in this post, and in my videos.

  20. Paul permalink

    Bruce, I’ll be frank…Traditional teaching bypasses the ear because it makes learning too easy and too natural, which disturbs teachers who fear for their tradition and their livelihood. Make playing a physical discipline – importantly, one which occupies the mind so the ear isn’t much use – and the teacher is necessary and must be relied upon.

  21. Bruce Siegel permalink

    Paul, thanks for your really interesting comment. I think it oversimplifies the matter, though.

    My guess is that most piano teachers truly want to be of service as best they can. Sure, we teachers are human, and I agree that we’re not always completely honest with ourselves and our students. But what group of professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc) can be considered perfect in that respect?

    The great majority of piano teachers do stress reading in the early stages, but to say they’re all acting purely in their own self-interest seems a bit harsh.

    On the other hand, what’s true and important about your comment is this: a way of teaching/learning music has been built up over the centuries that is in key ways problematic. In many respects, it’s just plain silly. I won’t deny that.

    But you have to remember that today’s teachers were once students themselves, taught by teachers who were themselves better readers than ear-players. So these things get passed along from generation to generation, and it takes real understanding, desire, and commitment to break free.

    To some small extent I’ve managed to do that myself, and really, that’s what this blog and my course are all about.

    But you knew that plug was coming, right?

    Thanks again for commenting, Paul!

  22. Great stuff Bruce. I’m also a piano teacher in the Netherlands. I definitly agree with your points, especially myth1. I will inspirare my students with this knowledge. Great job.

  23. Bruce Siegel permalink

    Thanks, Christoph! Always good to hear from other teachers.

  24. Wow! This is so comprehensive and right on the money in so many ways. I don’t think you left anything out. I think so many people get a mental block about learning something new, and it prevents them from discovering a new joy. Thanks for the post!

  25. Gary permalink

    Wow. So many “right on the money” statements in the 3 myths portion. Had a guy teach me the C Blues cord while stationed in France in 1965. I’ve gotten good at tinkering with Blues (only in C, LOL), but just for my own enjoyment while alone. I never let anyone know I even play piano (Blues anyway), because I’d be afraid they would ask me to play something else. I simply want to be able to play something people recognize. I think this course is going to free the beast to play something that doesn’t have a walking bass……..thanks.

  26. Bruce Siegel permalink

    Thanks for subscribing, Gary! Enjoy the course.

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