Tips For Adults Who Want To Learn Piano
by Jenny Leigh Hodgins
In my quest to see if what I’ve learned in 30+ years as a pianist and piano teacher is in sync with other piano teachers and pianists, I’ve checked out Facebook piano groups. This is where I engaged in a thread on piano practice with hobbyist piano player, Tommy Doyle, of Manchester, United Kingdom.
Doyle’s website, https://tommyspianocorner.com is where he shares his journey as someone who studied piano in his youth, left it behind for many years due to ‘adulting,’ then returned to the piano as a hobby. His blog offers his insights on how to approach learning piano while juggling the working adult’s non-music-related daily responsibilities.
Although not a piano teacher, hearing from Doyle’s personal journey with striving to fit in his love for piano minus the hyper-ambition of a classical piano career gets at the heart of what many aspiring pianists want to know.
I asked Doyle five questions that are useful for those wanting to progress at piano playing. The first sentence of his first answer hit the essence of my philosophy and teaching strategy for effective piano progress.
YCC: What are your top piano practice tips for beginners?
DOYLE: My top tip for anybody wanting to learn to play piano is to learn how to practice piano.
This might seem a self-evident thing to say, however, the reality seems to be that many of us never learn the art of practicing. In my experience, we often find intuitive ways of doing things and in these cases if we just repeat a few times, we soon acquire a new skill. However, when we don’t find that intuitive means, we have to find a way to learn a new skill. This is where practice techniques play a big part. If you’re unable to do something, then just repeating it incorrectly isn’t going to help. I found a couple of really useful resources in this respect that I’ve talked about numerous times on my blog.
YCC: Doyle specifically recommends the Practicing The Piano ebook series by pianist/educator, Graham Fitch. Fitch is highly qualified as a graduate of London’s Royal College Of Music who continued his piano studies in the USA on a Fulbright Scholarship, and travels as a performing pianist and lecturer on piano and music.
I haven’t personally used Fitch’s series, but on first glance at the preview on Amazon, some of his top tips for practicing include; choosing a specific fingering, attention to practice only correct notes or rhythms, isolating hands separately before playing hands together, choosing a slow tempo for new repertoire, and using soft dynamics for a loud section.
Each of these methods is something I’ve used myself and in teaching others, and resonates with my teaching and practicing approach to focus on mastering one goal at a time, and to eliminate practicing mistakes robotically.
Doyle especially likes the ebooks for their direct links to audio and video demonstrations as part of the piano learning process. This is in sync with both how my piano teachers taught me, and my approach as a piano teacher to model for students so they may grasp concepts aurally, physically and visually. Today’s online capabilities can be a useful source of help for piano students.
For more information on the series, Doyle himself reviewed it here.
YCC: What are the basics you recommend for someone who wants to begin learning piano?
DOYLE: I highly recommend that anybody start by getting a teacher. I’m not saying you can’t teach yourself with sufficient research and trial and error, with the myriad of resources now available online. It’s definitely possible.
However, I think there’s an absolutely massive learning curve at the beginning (depending on your starting point). Not only is there the issue of actually playing the instrument, there’s also the question of learning to read music. Finding a good teacher to get you over these two massive initial hurdles is to my mind a well worthwhile investment.
A teacher is there to help you master the very basics - how to sit at the piano, how to hold your hands, how to play the notes. You teacher can also explain what those odd dots on the page actually mean and give strategies for absorbing the ability to translate these into notes at the piano.
A good teacher will also help you get to grips with lots of the basics you need; Scales, Arpeggios, 5-finger exercises and the like. Learning how to do these well gives you the absolute essential building blocks for the rest. Your teacher will also help you with choices of pieces (music repertoire) to learn that are both within your grasp but also in terms of styles of music you enjoy.
YCC: What are your thoughts on online learning for piano?
DOYLE: I’m a firm believer that we should embrace the possibilities that the new online world offers us. Starting with YouTube, there is an enormous wealth of quality tutorials for people of all levels.
YCC: Doyle has his favorite channels, but mentions the importance of checking into the background experience of videos to confirm credentials of expertise. He recommends Josh Wright, who is both well known on YouTube, has a doctorate in piano, and is an experienced teacher.
Doyle doesn’t use apps himself, but “as a supplement to a proper teacher, I’d imagine they’re a great extra source of learning and certainly a very fun way to approach piano. Of course, claims that you can go from ‘beginner to pro in no time’ are total nonsense.”
Doyle quotes Vladimir Horowitz (considered the king of classical piano) the piano is “the easiest instrument to learn in the beginning and the hardest to master in the end.”
YCC: Do you have any technology you’d recommend for piano students?
DOYLE: Technology is one of my pet subjects. I even created a category on my blog for this. What I find amazing even now is the absolutely amazing ways technology can be used by pianists now.
I have an iPad Pro that I use as an integral part of my piano routine. This one piece of technology has replaced my need for sheet music (I download directly to my iPad), for a metronome (I use a free a metronome app).
I keep my practice diary on it. I use it to record my practice so I can self critique. It’s pretty much always on my piano music stand. You can use it for things such as streaming music services, watching YouTube videos, reading magazines, the list goes on. You can even record your own orchestra into your computer and play along.
I think that sometimes we more ‘mature’ learners fail to embrace what technology makes possible and stick with the ‘old way’. It’s a bit like my dad, who refuses to use a SatNav (GPS), just because he’s never used one and, on that basis, would never need one.
It’s not about whether we need something, but about whether it makes what we’re trying to do easier. If technology can make things easier, then why not embrace it?
When I used to play piano publicly, I needed to carry two massive plastic bags of music around with me with all sorts of photocopies and creased and wrinkled books. Now, on my iPad, I have all of my music organised, with the added advantage that I can search and find a piece in seconds rather than needing to sift through a lot of paper.
YCC: What are your thoughts on time and schedule routine for piano practice?
Doyle shares that reading Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible by Alan Rusbridger inspired him to create his weekday before-work practice routine. He says he gets up an hour earlier in the morning so he can practice.
DOYLE: I found that before I started doing this I had two major problems. The first was that it was always in the back of my mind that I still needed to fit in my practice at some point. Secondly, work would frequently take over, and by the time I actually got home from work I was too tired to sit down at the piano.
My practice routine before was pretty much sitting and randomly working through things, which quite often was not actually making me any better.
YCC: Doyle says his research into piano practice taught him the importance of having a proper plan. He says having defined goals and strategies for every practice session is a “real game changer.”
Doyle emphasizes that “piano is an amazing hobby open to anybody. It’s definitely a lot of hard work, but the rewards are more than worth it.”
Click here to read more about Doyle’s approach to piano practice.
CLICK HERE for a list of piano and music-making resources I use and recommend.
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By Jenny Leigh Hodgins
Today’s Piano blog features the ideas provided by Veteran Piano Teacher, Dawn Ivers, of Kansas, in her blog, Broken Arms & Sprained Wrists. Ivers runs a successful piano studio in Kansas and was recently featured in her local newspaper, McPherson Sentinel.
See Iver's article on tips for handling stage-fright (featuring ideas from my blog, How To Turn Your Nerves Into Good Energy.)
Yikes! What do you do about piano lessons when you (or your child) have an injury like a broken wrist, a sprain, or jammed fingers? Is it best to take a break until the injury has healed? Or would it be best to press on with piano practice and lessons?
Piano Teacher Recommendation
I recently came across Kansas Piano Teacher, Dawn Ivers’ blog about this on her website, dawnspiano.com. Of course, performances would obviously need to be postponed, unless the program consists solely of one-handed repertoire.
But I wholeheartedly agree with Ivers’ recommendation to press forward with both practice and lessons. Why and how are the important questions to ask.
Why Should You Continue Piano When You Have An Injury
Stopping piano practice when you have an injury risks the loss of momentum with your piano progress. It’s challenging to get your groove back if you’ve sat it out for more than a week. Our muscle memory, not to mention our brain’s recall, suffers from inactivity during gaps in time.
Absence Makes Learning Harder
This issue was never more apparent to me than during my years as a public school music educator. Students returning to music class after winter, spring or summer break had glaringly forgotten large chunks of information, musical and even social skills.
This is why the first several weeks of public school music classes were spent on review and hands-on immersive practice. Moving forward without these refresher activities caused more frustration for students and decreased successful learning in the music classroom.
Fortunately, with piano lessons, the student or parent of the student has the option of moving forward despite an injury. The critical point is how you focus your piano practice to accommodate the injury.
How To Practice Piano Is Key
If you’re dealing with an injury, fortunately, there are lots of ways to move forward while working around it. In her blog, Ivers offers no less than eight piano practice strategies for continuing musical progress while accommodating an injury.
Often, budding pianists get in the habit of relying on two-handed playing, leaving other weaknesses unattended. The healing period for an injury provides a great opportunity to strengthen those areas.
Ideas For One-Handed Piano Practice
In her blog, Kansas-based piano teacher, Dawn Ivers suggests practicing sight-reading, one-handed duet practice with a partner, pedal practice, technic and solo pieces for one-hand, and honing scale and musical theory while building improvisation skills through one-handed practice.
Duet Practice Helps Sight-Reading & Rhythmic Skills
I agree with Ivers focus on using the opportunity for duo playing. In my piano studio, I often honed in on a piano student’s sight-reading, rhythmic, or technical skills by having them play one hand while I played the opposite part. This is a great way to have the student focus on developing better notation reading skills, or to provide more practice for those struggling with maintaining fluency with rhythm.
By playing duets with the piano teacher and only having to play with one-hand, the student’s technical skills may be addressed. This works particularly well when the teacher guides the student with a slower practice tempo.
One-Handed Improvisation Opens Creative Expression
I often found students more engaged when providing the chance to improvise in a duet. One strategy is for the piano teacher to provide a simple, harmonic progression while the student is assigned an allotted key signature and a specific range of notes and/or fingering.
The student practices improvising in this manner, learning from limitations with the use of specific form, fingering, rhythmic or melodic phrasing. The restriction of having only one hand to practice takes the pressure off the student. I have found that many students open up more creatively with this type of stress-reduced activity.
Forging Musical Comprehension Through Music Theory
Ivers also recommends more time spent on games and exercises to develop musical theory expertise. Often, time runs out during a piano lesson before the piano teacher can fully address the student’s musical theory needs. Using the injury healing period to work on those music theory topics is time well spent toward greater piano mastery.
Assigning music theory worksheets or other theory-based work throughout the week gives the student the chance to build their musical understanding. As the student grasps theoretical aspects, he or she expands musical comprehension on multiple levels, contributing to a greater performance mastery, and a deepening confidence.
Students Tap Self-Expression Through New Approach
Ivers also points out the opportunity to develop musical composition abilities while a student’s injury heals. This is a great way to encourage students to try something new, engage their personal interests and encourage self-expression.
Lessons could be spent teaching compositional aspects and allowing the injured student time to learn more about notation, intervals, chords, scales, fingering, form, key analysis, melodic phrasing and rhythmic patterns.
Lastly, Ivers suggests taking time to work on rhythm and sight-reading. This is one of my favorite ideas, as students can solidify understanding and better grasp rhythmic and meter issues when the focus is narrowed to the use of only one hand.
If you or your child has an injury prohibiting piano practice with one hand, consider these suggestions as encouragement to continue musical progress throughout the healing period. For more information from our featured piano teacher, Dawn Ivers, her piano studio and informative blog, click here.
Let me know in the comments below if you found this blog helpful or if you have more piano practice tips!
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More tips on effective piano practice can be found in my blog on left and right hand coordination here.
CLICK HERE for a list of piano and music-making resources I use and recommend.
In my PIANO blogs, you'll find ways to overcome boredom, get past musical and mental blocks, explore the creative process with piano, and improve musical progress through piano teacher recommended best practices and effective piano practice tips.