The best way to learn piano? Sorry, no such thing.
At Piano Motivator, our solution is to discuss options — we will offer three — and then leave it up to you to choose, to wit:
You Might Start With Chords
Chords are what you get when you play at least two notes at the same time.
The most fundamental chords are built with three notes and called “triads.”
Of the three options discussed here, chord-centric playing requires you to learn the most music theory. If you believe that music is ultimately mathematical, then think of music theory as its algebra. Piano Motivator will discuss music theory more extensively in at least one later post.
For now, let’s start by dividing a piano’s 88 keys into seven groups of 12, with four tones remaining at the bottom. Each tone is the starting point for a handful of chords and scales (groups of seven notes positioned closely together). They are assigned names that correspond to letters in the alphabet (A, B, C, etc.).
A triad, played with its identifying note at the bottom, is said to be in “root position.” The other two possibilities are called “inversions.” Each tone can be the starting point for four kinds of chords/triads: major, minor, augmented and diminished. These chords — 12 tones, each with 12 variations, form a system that allows you to play a piano alone or in some group situations without the need for sheet music.
If you had a chance to read our earlier post on whether to play piano at all, you may have already figured out that those who play while singing usually play chords. self-taught playing is also most common for those who are self taught or might be unable to sightread comfortably due to reading or vision issues.
You Might Start With Exercises
On a certain level, practicing piano can be thought of as taking your hands to the gym.
Finger agility starts with finger strength and stamina. These, in turn, start with repetition of exercise patterns that don’t necessarily sound musical (i.e. something you might hum to yourself while walking), but they create the kind of temporary digital muscle fatigue that, down the road, enables your fingers to play dazzling sheet music passages and improvised solo ideas.
An old, popular book to help you develop finger strength and agility entitled Hanon Virtuoso Exercises, was written by 19th century French pianist/composer Charles-Louis Hanon. It can be purchased as a whole book or divided into three parts Many libraries carry it.
When performing piano exercises, it is essential that you begin very slowly and keep your fingers curved Start by placing your hand over a baseball or tennis ball. See how your fingers curve downward around the ball? That’s roughly how your fingers should look while you are practicing.
It should be noted that, although exercises such as Hanon require some reading at the onset, their repetitive patterns make reading unnecessary once you figure out the pattern. To that extent, they are not the same as “real” sightreading.
Additionally, Hanon exercises will eventually lead you to scales and broken-up chords called arpeggios. These will be presented in the aforementioned 12 keys, which will expand your knowledge of music theory.
You Might Start With Sheet Music
This is where you become both a player and a transcriptionist. The transcription process is called sightreading. Every dot on a chart of lines and spaces corresponds to a specific note on the piano, while other symbols (“rests”) tell you to wait until you see more dots.
At first, the process is clumsy. The two reasons you gradually get better are: (1) You become more adept at
matching printed dots with piano notes; or (2) Repetitive practice causes you to memorize the sequence of notes and rests so you can play it without reading at all. Over time you will likely begin to accumulate an inventory of learned tunes.
You may even develop a fondness for the kind of hollow piano benches that contain an assortment of books and “sheet music” that you can just rummage through on a rainy afternoon. Such a sentimental journey can be especially fun if you have older relatives, neighbors or church friends who harken back to an era when individual sheet music pieces cost less than a dollar apiece and piano players would accumulate them the way younger folks would accumulate vinyl records, cassettes, CD’s and computer downloads. In fact, sightr eading allows you to communicate with musical minds going back hundreds of years.
As you encounter more sheet music, you will discover that some pieces are more difficult than others, including some that, even if you can read them, you lack the necessary technical skill to play.
Each “Best Way to Learn” is a Mixed Blessing
With beginner sheet music, you learn to play an “actual piece of music,” and become a “real” piano player in the eyes of many.
As word of your transcription skill spreads, you may receive more invitations or even requests to play for others. As with owning a pickup truck, it is not uncommon to discover that you are suddenly very popular — and useful. Perhaps you will want to charge money for this service, or just basque in the warm, fuzzy feeling of belonging.
In a worst case scenario, you may want to change your phone number.
Sight reading and sheet music have another drawback — they can be addictive and limiting, like training wheels on a bicycle. They create a comfort zone that can be very difficult to leave.
Piano exercises are just like any exercises and drills — unless you learn specific applications for them, you can end up just spinning your wheels. While piano exercises are not a bad place to start one’s piano journey, it is essential that you either start sight reading or start learning music theory so that you will have “someplace to go” with all of that physical agility.
Self-taught playing is, in many respects, the most flexible and versatile approach. This is particularly true in group situations where you don’t have music for each part (or players who cannot sightread), and with vocalists, where they just can’t sing in the sheet music’s chosen key.
On the flip side, a chord-centric player can be rudely shoved out of the way in group settings where there are individual sheets — and specific instructions — for each instrument. Even when you have more contemporary sheet music that includes letters written above to identify chords, in many instances, those chords are altogether wrong (or at least poorly chosen) and provide no rhythmic guidance.
The Best Way to Determine Which Method is Best is Trial and Error
This is where “what you bring with you” comes in. Everybody learns differently. Experienced educators frequently distinguish between visual, auditory and “kinesthetic” (i.e. what you can touch and handle) learning preferences, cautioning difficult parents (and pesky “inner critics”) not to give up hope when learning one way proves difficult.
Sometimes, learning preferences can be identified by familiar cliches someone is most likely to use, such as: “I just can’t get my arms around it,” or “getting the big picture.”
Since all of our “big three” piano approaches include elements of all three common learning methods, you will need to be patient with yourself as you try each or, ideally, include a little of all three at the beginning.
A Quick Word on Playing by Ear
Playing by ear, the idea that you just hear something and start playing it, is a combination of memorization and rudimentary music theory. For many people, it starts with being able to sing/play songs you have heard others perform. Sometimes, repetition just grinds a tune into you — and not always with your consent. Over time, you can develop an ability to puzzle out how a tune “should” go even if your memory is vague. This is music theory under a different name.
Sight reading and playing by ear often clash. Tonal memory obviates the need to actually read. The frequent result is weak reading skills. No one wants to grind through sight reading when its easier to just hear and play.
And a Quick Word on Improvisation
Improvisation — otherwise called jazz or soloing — is, ideally, put off until some future point when: (1) You are familiar with scales and arpeggios in at least two or three keys; and (2) you have played at least 20 songs or music pieces (using chords or sight reading) and have a beginning sense of music structure.
One exception to this suggestion involves learning the blues. Piano Motivator will include future posts discussing the blues and a relatively easy approach to playing blues. Blues might be the ultimate folk music, because it requires the least amount of prior training, can take all kinds of different directions and give you an opportunity to play with a wide variety of people.
Now you have an overview of piano learning methods. All three approaches are useful and “valid,” although combinations are probably better than trying to use one exclusively. It will be up to you to formulate your ideal “recipe,” knowing it will keep changing as you age and evolve. At Piano Motivator, we are here to help you on your way.
I hope I have helped you and that you have enjoyed what you have read here. Please use the comment section below to ask me any questions or tell me about your own piano journey.