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 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.
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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.