10 Things I Wish My Piano Teacher Had Told Me

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1. There’s only one reason to play piano: for fun

Every day I hear myself telling my students to remember the reason that they’re having piano lessons: because playing piano is supposed to be a thoroughly enjoyable way of enhancing your life! Playing piano should not become an extra job to squeeze into your day, a chore or something to stress about. As your next piano lesson approaches you should feel excited about the prospect of working on some music with your teacher, not concerned that you haven’t done enough practise.

When I was a teenager my piano teacher often openly expressed disappointment in me because, in his eyes, I hadn’t worked hard enough on my pieces. In the short term this made me feel stressed and deflated, and in the longer term led to feelings of low self-confidence. His confrontational tactic of guilt-tripping me into practising more often backfired because it just made me feel bad about myself. And feeling low is not the way to begin fruitful work on anything.

If he’d have asked I might have told him about all the wonderful musical things I’d been doing above and beyond the pieces he wanted me to learn for my grade exam. I loved playing songs that I knew from the pop charts at the time, and spent most weekends at Woods Music Shop in Bradford, if not buying more music to play then certainly lusting over the shiny covers of rock and pop songbooks and fingering my way through future purchases. And, actually, I also taught myself to play lots of classical music too when not pressured into getting every bar perfect.

2. Music is personal

Of course there’s nothing wrong per se about going through the piano grade system, especially nowadays because there’s so much more variety in terms of the different routes you can choose. The traditional ABRSM grades that I sat as a child are still going strong, but there are other options too such as gaining your piano certification by playing jazz and blues music through the excellent Rockschool syllabus.

But what really matters when you’re learning to play piano is that the pieces you choose speak to you in some way. When the young people I teach decide to go down the piano grades route the first thing I do is play the pieces from their selected syllabus for them, getting them to score each piece based on how much they enjoy listening to it, not on how difficult they think it sounds to play. The more that they connect to a piece, the more likely they are to engage with it and persevere if they come across a sticky bit.

And if you’re not bothered about working towards grades then all the better. Simply consider the styles of music that bring you bliss, and project into the future an image of yourself playing. Ask yourself this – if I could play any music, what would I really love to perform?

3. When you engage with music it belongs to you

When you play music in an exam a big part of the challenge is to be able to interpret the written score in the most accurate way you can. But outside of that arena things are very different indeed. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t even have to try to play a piece in the way you’ve heard it being performed by others. Quite the opposite in fact – as you gain confidence as a musician you realise that what the composer has written down on the manuscript is only one part of the puzzle. Another big part is you!

When you sit down to play, think about how you understand the music, what you would like to express through these sounds and how they make you feel. It doesn’t matter if you play the piece at an entirely different tempo or change the dynamics along the way to suit your interpretation. When you’re playing it you can do whatever you like with it.

There is no right or wrong in music.. not even about technique, let alone about interpretation of the text. You can take from the score what you wish and discard any parts that don’t work for you. I even encourage my students to entirely rewrite sections of music if they see fit.

4. Your rate of progress depends on HOW you practise..

.. not necessarily how often you practise.

If I could tell my younger self one thing while he was struggling to keep up with piano practise it would be that it’s not how long you spend doing it that matters, but how you go about it. Here are a few guidelines to help him to use his limited time much more efficiently:

  1. Always have a warm-up. Play something easy or run a few exercises. Relax into it.
  2. When grappling with a piece, go straight to the most challenging passages first.
  3. Don’t expect to play through everything you’ve learned so far every session. You might spend your whole practise session just looking at 5 seconds worth of music.
  4. Think in phrases, not in bars.
  5. When you’re first getting to grips with a piece, begin by learning the final phrase and work backwards from there.
  6. Once you’ve nailed a difficult phrase you can start working on the transitions in and out of the phrase. But don’t expect it to go perfectly the first time!
  7. Split your practise between working on the ‘nuts and bolts’ – getting the pitches, fingerings and rhythms correctly – and on performance practise, i.e. learning to play through mistakes.
  8. If you play a bum note when running the piece, don’t go back to the beginning and start again. This is a recipe for learning errors. Instead, make a mental note of what went wrong and come back to that phrase later.
  9. It can be all too easy to gradually speed up while you practise. Bear this in mind and check your tempo now and again to make sure you’re still where you started.
  10. Even after many, many hours of practise things can still go wrong. You’re human. Accept it and keep smiling!

5. Listening is everything

When you’re playing piano it’s sometimes difficult to see the woods for the trees. What I mean by that is that your brain can be so busy reading the sheet music, thinking about the rhythm and the key signature, making sure that the fingering is correct and the left hand isn’t too loud etc etc that you don’t stop to actually listen to what you’re playing.

But the beauty of music is not so much in the notes themselves but in the way that they’re performed. This is why computers generally do a terrible job of playing music. To our ears a computerised rendition of Fur Elise sounds perfectly accurate but entirely misses a crucial element – the humanity of the piece. Look for this in your own playing. It could be a delicateness in the way you depress the keys, a terrifying, electrifying moment as you suddenly bring a chord to life with brightness and effervescence, or it could simply be a serendipitous mistake that turns into something exquisite and impossible to recreate. Don’t miss that moment – listen as you play.

Hands playing piano

6. Scales are really useful and they can be enjoyable

Playing scales (and their related exercises, arpeggios) teaches you so many things about the piano and about music theory. For a start, the term “This piece is in the key of…” refers to the scale upon which that piece is structured. Having an awareness of key (technically known as ‘tonality’) sets up certain expectations and helps musicians navigate their way through even the most complex of compositions. It’s a way of shortcutting some of the mental processes required to play, making it quicker to get to the correct notes and less likely to hit a key that sounds ‘off’.

In addition, playing scales helps pianists to develop the physical mechanisms they require to be able to pull off demanding passages. Nearly all so-called Western music going back centuries is based on a few scale patterns. These occur in abundance in everything from baroque fugues to the pop music of today, and knowing these patterns allows contemporary musicians to be able to improvise melodies and melodic fragments.

Plus, playing scales can be very relaxing indeed, if you approach them in the right way. As with your pieces, listen carefully as you play. Is every note the same duration and volume? Do they run smoothly from one to the next? Are you scales mechanical sounding or more fluid in tone? Try playing them with eyes closed for even greater awareness of how they sound.

7. The metronome is your friend

When I was young the metronome was a pyramidic affair sitting on the piano lid. These days students are more likely to use one on their mobile phone or even the little applet that appears when you run a Google search for the word. But, however you access a metronome, make sure you use it regularly when working on rhythm. Even now if I have to learn a complex rhythmic pattern I will put on a steady click at the rate of the underlying musical pulse and repeat the fragment or phrase as many times as I need to be able to play it in the larger context of the piece without hesitation or error.

Playing through your whole piece along to a metronome can also be a helpful exercise in maintaining a constant pace, with the possible caveat that playing to a click can make your music sound more robotic than you might desire. But, it’s a useful endeavour nonetheless.

8. Knowing a few things about chords helps with every other aspect of playing

Chords must be one of the most misunderstood phenomenon in all music, which is a shame because, like their cousins the scales, they underpin 99% of Western musical repertoire from Bach and Beethoven to Mary J Blige and Madonna.

To begin with you might find out about how major and minor triads (chords containing three notes) are structured – there are just a few very simple rules that can be picked up in minutes and used to conjugate every single chord, and then to play more music than I would have time list. The next step is to understand how chords relate to keys (scales), and so how the little numbers that appear at the end of the names of certain chords can be understood simply by counting up the notes in the appropriate scale.

Once you have a grasp on chords and keys you start to see them everywhere! And, yes, even in the piano music you find in the ABRSM classical music syllabus. To me, seeing and recognising chords is another step towards mentally automating some aspects of playing so that I can be freer to fully express myself through my playing.

9. You don’t have to be a concert pianist to get a lifetime of pleasure from playing piano

Every piano teacher knows that the majority of their students are beginners, and from there the graph slides downwards showing a decreasing population of students as the ability level rises. There are lots of reasons for this but key among them is that most of us simply don’t have enough time in our lives to ever get more than competent at a musical instrument. To be fully proficient and play at the standard of the professionals we see on TV would mean dedicating far more hours than most of us have available.

The good news is that you can gain a vast amount of satisfaction from playing an instrument no matter what level you are at, as long as you approach it with the right attitude. And for me this comes back to the very first point on this blog: that learning and instrument is supposed to be a fun thing to do. If you find you can amuse yourself by sitting down at your piano then that’s what matters. Furthermore, if you get confident enough to play for other people to listen then all the better, but that’s not really what it’s about. If you’re going to play, play for yourself.

10. Doing it with others makes it twice as fun

The final point I wish my piano tutor had made clear to me back when I was a teenager is that ensemble playing, whether in a band, an orchestra or just with a mate in your bedroom, is one of the most wonderful – and educational – things you can do with a musical instrument. At school I made some of my best friends through music and these have also been some of the most enduring friendships of my life. After orchestra rehearsal (in which we both played violin), Joseph and I would go to one another’s houses and get the guitars out. We would arrange, play and sing folk songs together, and sometimes record them on old fashioned tape recorders. I can honestly say that 30 years later these are still some of my favourite musical memories.

On that note, I do hope that all you aspiring musicians reading this find one another and make musical memories of your own.

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