Learning the piano is such an easy thing to say but it covers such a vast array of different areas and skills that it makes hearing this statement almost cliche. I remember telling the first teacher I ever had a lesson with that I was wanting to learn the piano and his response was something like, “Okay, well what exactly would you like to learn?” This gentleman was a very successful jazz piano student at the local university of which I was hoping to attend in the coming months. The truth is, I had no clue what exactly it was that I was trying to accomplish. My goal, initially, was to learn the piano so that I could write better music. I had already learned how to play all sorts of different chords that I thought were “cool”, but the fact of the matter was that I truly didn’t know what I was really trying to accomplish with the piano besides that. Let me just say: if you are in this same (or a similar) situation, that is ok! My hope is that this article will help show you some of the important aspects that I have learned over the past five years that I didn’t initially set out to learn and how those changed my understanding of what it means to really study the piano.
One of the first things that I ever heard once I got into college music classes was that “I was playing all the right notes and rhythms, but I wasn’t playing like a pianist”. This is an especially easy trap to fall into when you are first picking up the piano and was present in my life because I was trying to play music that was far above my level. While practicing, I was trying so hard to play the correct notes and rhythms at the right speed that I was leaving little to zero brainpower to focus on everything actually sounding good. This is something that should be held to the same importance - if not more - than just playing the right notes! Here’s an example where I play a very familiar tune that we all have probably heard: “Mary Had A Little Lamb”. The first time around, I will focus on just playing the notes and rhythms with no focus on how loud I am hitting them and with a complete disregard for the sound that is coming out of the piano. The second time I will attempt to play this majestic piece as beautifully as I can. My hope is that you can hear a very clear distinction between the two. The second is what I hope we can all agree is better. The reason why is because of its more musical performance...
Before I get further into explaining what “musicality” is, I’d like to say that musicality is a vast word in-and-of-itself. Many different pianistic skills and techniques can get thrown into this word such as phrasing, voicing, and rubato. Basically, they all boil down to one main point and goal: the more musical you make something, the better it will sound. Sounds simple enough, right? When you start studying the piano more, you will start to learn that people scrupulously study and break down individual lines of music with the goal of making the melody line rise and fall in volume while keeping the left hand ever so quiet as to not interfere with the right-hand melody they are shaping. Simply put, just playing the correct notes and rhythms isn’t going to cut it; music really is an art form and should be treated as such. (Feel free to check out the video below of Bob Ross painting if you haven't already seen him paint before or would just like to watch him paint an Island in the Wilderness).
Lots of work goes into the details of Bob's paintings and when all those individual details add up they really make the most amazing picture. Bob doesn’t just take phthalo green and throw it up on the canvas. He mixes his colors, chooses his stroke and is methodical when he's painting. This is similar to being musical when playing the piano. One shouldn't just hit the keys without a thought or care for how it sounds - the goal is to be strategic about it, kind of like Bob Ross! By now I am hoping that you are starting to understand just how important being musical really is. Without it, there’s a serious risk that the music you are spending hours practicing just won’t sound as good as it could and this is exactly why I wanted to cover this topic first.
Now there’s no denying that there are lots of different skills that can be studied and practiced when it comes to the piano. Many of you have probably heard of some of them, there are scales, arpeggios, chords, inversions, cadences, modes, sight-reading, technical exercises, etc, etc. How do we know where to start with learning all of this? That’s an excellent question and is something that I thought about when I first started tickling the ivories. Not too many months ago, I actually made a Livestream where I discussed what I believe to be the best things one can do when wanting to learn the piano. I wouldn’t say that I am even close to being the next Beethoven, but I think that I have a pretty good grasp on what can help people progress with the piano. I’d recommend giving it a listen if this is something you’d like to hear more about:
To quickly summarize, here’s a list of the items that have been extremely helpful for me:
I can say very confidently that all 6 of these items have immensely shaped and helped better develop my understanding of music and playing the piano. Practicing scales (as well as other crucial technical skills like chords and arpeggios) help you to gain a better kinesthetic understanding of the piano and prepare you for being able to rip them off at sight, which especially helps you when sight-reading. Sight-reading is the golden ticket to allow you to play lots of music as well as learn new music faster. Without it, you could end up being a “one-trick pony”. Learning about music theory builds up your understanding of what to expect in music. Essentially you are learning about “the rules”. As with anything, those rules tend to eventually get broken. It is by breaking those rules that we have gotten to where we are today, musically speaking of course. Now, I could probably talk for hours about why practicing efficiently is so important but let me rather introduce you to the person that first got me thinking about efficient piano practice: Dr. Josh Wright. If you haven’t heard of Josh Wright or seen one of his amazing Youtube videos, here’s one of my favorites that I’d highly recommend giving a watch:
As Dr. Wright says, efficiency is something that every pianist needs, regardless of their skill level. Personally, I didn’t start learning this until just about two years ago. At one point in Piano Marvel’s Method, I wasn’t able to get 100’s anymore from just playing a song over and over again. The song I was trying to learn was “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” arranged as a duet by Aaron Garner. I had never played a duet before and reading those two treble clefs was really difficult for me. After trying to get 100% many times with no success I finally said, “well, I don’t think I am ever going to get a 100% doing it this way, so let’s give this Practice Mode thing a try”. I had heard about Practice Mode from my internship supervisor at the time, Sean Slade. He had told me some truly amazing statistics about how using Minced slicing helps students to learn a song up to 10x faster. I’m not sure why but for whatever reason I had never listened to him and given it a try; I’m one of those “resisting” personality types I guess. But, on this day I realized that doing it my way was never going to work. So, I finally gave Practice Mode a try. Here’s my reaction to my choice to try Minced Practice Mode back in March 2018. (Yes, I’m the guy that sometimes make voice memos on my iPhone, don’t judge me!)
Now, at this point I was about 3 months into my internship with Piano Marvel. I might have even just given my first college recital which was somewhat of a flop due to my practicing/efficiency problems. I would like to stress that I was by no means a Piano Marvel employee - though I secretly really wanted to be! As you hear me say, I was absolutely dreading the duets because I knew that they were going to be hard. Quick sidebar: up until then I had relatively FLOWN through PM’s Method and Technique mostly because I had studied scales and harder music before. I had also just recently started to “put my pride aside” when it came to selecting piano music and was finally starting to learn music that was more my level. I struggled for a while with trying to play music that was too hard for me. I think I wanted to prove that I was some type of prodigy who was just now realizing it in my mid-to-late 20’s. (Newsflash, I’m not.) My teacher was super helpful in helping me realize this though. He didn’t say, “you can’t play this, why bother!” or anything of the sort. Rather he said, “you can play anything that you want”. He let me struggle and I’m so glad he did! I finally got to my breaking point with a little piece called “Fabel” by Robert Schumann.
This piece is brutal. It sounds so happy and light and that’s half the reason it’s hard! Trying to play fast and light is super hard. Also, the second half of the piece is ridiculous technically. There are crazy arpeggios that are harmonized in thirds and sixths, it’s nuts! Anyways, I finally hit my breaking point when about a month into learning the piece I had only learned a measly 10-20 bars of the piece! I had hardly anything to show for all the time and practice that I had been putting into trying to learn it. The good news is that when I finally did realize that learning it wasn’t going to happen my teacher was right there to suggest better-suited music for me. In my case, it was actually an Urtext edition of Schubert’s Dances. Here’s a picture of the exact book:
This book holds a kind of special place in my heart. Why? Because getting this book was probably one of the best things that could ever happen to me in my music career. Learning music from this book compared to what I had been doing was a million times easier! I literally took the book home that day, listened to someone on Spotify play through the entire collection, and then picked out a couple of pieces that I thought sounded cool. Learning those took days instead of months. It was life-changing. It was like I had been swinging a baseball bat with had a thousand-pound weight on it and it had finally been taken off. I was free!!!
So getting back to my initial point, I was fresh off this high of learning pieces that were more my level when I stumbled onto Piano Marvel. This is a big part of how I believe that I flew through the Method and Technique. Now, it’s important to know how I thought "good practicing" looked like at this point in time. I actually did have a couple of good habits. When I tried to tackle that beast of a song “Fabel” I started trying to learn what sounded and looked like the hardest part of the piece first. I didn’t learn the easier parts and then get stumped halfway through when it got too hard. This helped me see that playing it just wasn’t going to happen and helped me not waste any more of my time.
I did have some bad habits though... I had definitely heard people say that practicing hands separate was a good way to learn music but I don’t know if I ever really gave that a "fair shake" up to that point. Remember that recital I talked about? The way that I practiced for one of those pieces is not something I’m particularly proud of. I distinctly remember sitting in a practice room with headphones on, listening to loud electronic music and letting my fingers just play through the piece. As you can see, I was barely engaged with my practice sessions and I wasn't doing what was necessary to really learn and perform this piece. As I learned more pieces like Schubert’s dances, things got better. I was getting into a better routine but I still don’t think I was where I should have been. It wasn’t until I got to those Piano Marvel duets in 6C that I finally found the way to methodically learn a piece. Instead of playing a piece from beginning to end a thousand times over (which was my “go-to” routine), I was now getting a deep dive into the piece and really learning it inside and out. I was also putting more of an emphasis on reading instead of just memorizing patterns and forcing it into my muscle memory. If you listened to my voice memo from that day you probably heard me say that I was able to start making quick progress on that piece almost immediately. I got 36 percent of the way through it in 30 minutes and in checking my trophy case it looks like I was able to actually get 100% on the slow version that same day!!!!
This was the real start of me learning about efficiency. It’s how I think I really started to place an emphasis on the quality of my piano practice. Learning that piece was still pretty difficult for me but having it split up into smaller learning chunks, along with a nifty little progress bar, made it much more manageable. This is what made all the difference for me that day.
With all that being said, I hope that this has been a helpful article! Feel free to email me if you have any questions or would just like to say hey! I'd be happy to help however I can. My email is [email protected] Thank you and have a great day!