Many people will say that they wish they could play the piano but think they’ve left it too late. The level you reach will depend on many factors but if you really want to learn to play the piano and are prepared to devote the time to it then you can.
Traditional Piano Lessons
A traditional route has always been to go to a piano teacher for weekly lessons but many successful pianists taught themselves. Typically, piano teachers teach a classical style of playing by teaching you how to read music and entering you for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music exams from Grade 1 to 8, with Grade 1 being entry level and Grade 8 being required for entry to higher study in a music college.
Some piano teachers insist on entering you for the exams but if you don’t want to just keep looking till you find one that will just teach you how to read. The joy of going to a traditional piano teacher is that they will teach you how to play the best of the classical pieces, such as the beautiful waltzes of Chopin and the clever Sonatas of Beethoven. Don’t worry about not being good enough, there are many simple arrangements of these pieces that have been created especially for beginners.
Alternative Piano Lessons
These days you can also find piano teachers that will teach jazz, blues, soul or pop styles of playing the piano. This can be on a copycat basis by showing you examples of chord progressions or solos that you then learn by heart. These teachers will also be able to show you how to improvise in your own playing. You will still need a basic understanding of music theory, i.e. scales, but you don’t necessarily need to know how to read music to learn piano this way. In fact, many self-taught pianists will work from the same chord sheets that guitarists use rather than reading sheet music.
Learning How to Read Music
Being able to read sheet music is a good skill to have as it means you can play any tune that you have the sheet music for, whether you’re familiar with the tune or not and as such you can teach yourself. Sheet music, or scores, where the individual notes and symbols are written on staves i.e. groups of five horizontal lines, are a simple physical representation of the piano keyboard on paper. It is just a matter of regular and consistent practice for your brain to be able to interpret the patterns on the paper and repeat them on the keyboard in the same way you learn any language.
How to go about learning a new tune
When starting to learn a new piece of music a good method is to start with one hand only, usually the right hand, and to play the notes slowly in a short phrase or part of the melody. Once you are confident with being able to play the right-hand melody accurately at a slow speed then you would start to add in the left hand, one small phrase at a time. When you are able to play the notes in both hands accurately at a slow speed, then you would learn the next phrase in the same way and gradually work your way from the start to the end of the song in small achievable chunks.
When you can accurately play the notes from the beginning to the end of the song, with both hands, at a slow pace only then would you gradually start to speed up your playing towards the final performance speed of the song. You can see that this will take a regular and consistent investment of your time, concentration and perseverance but when you realise you are able to play the whole song through and it sounds good, the reward is priceless and will give you joy for the rest of your life.
Learning a tune by ear
Many people are able to sit at a keyboard and copy a song by listening to it over and over again, and working out how to play it by trial and error. This is called ‘playing by ear’. It would be best to choose a favourite song that is just an instrumental piano piece or a simple voice and piano combination to learn this way. There are many songs in a variety of music styles that do this so there is plenty of choice.
This will take quite a bit of time and can be quite frustrating when you come across a section that you just cannot work out on your own. This is when being able to read music would come in handy. You could of course seek out another piano player and ask them for help and these days there will most probably be a helpful video tutorial on how to play that song on YouTube.
Teach Yourself Piano
There are many ‘How to teach yourself Piano’ books available and you may have to try a few before you find one that works for you. There are also many ‘Learn the Piano’ courses available online where you have the advantage of being able to watch the tutor demonstrate the techniques they are teaching you. Again, you may need to try a few different courses before you come across the one where you and the tutor seem to click.
How long does it take to learn the piano?
Some people will ask “how long will it take me to learn to play the piano?” Well, you know the answer all ready, it will depend on the amount time you spend learning and practicing and different people learn at different speeds. Of course, once you have learned the basics then you can keep on learning and improving for the rest of your life as long as you put in the time.
As with most things if you are not consistent, or if you leave long gaps when you do not play you will get rusty and it will take a certain amount of dedicated practice to get back to the standard that you were at before you stopped playing. If you develop a love of playing the piano, then have a break, then realise you have become rusty, it is a great sorrow so it’s better to be consistent.
If you search for a piano teacher who is happy to help you learn one particular simple song that you both know; you may well be able to learn how to play that song in a few lessons. This is the same way that guitar tutors will teach you three or four chords that enable you to play several basic tunes almost straight away. This could be all you want to do! It may even be enough to enable you to join a local band, if that’s what you want to do.
Learn Piano to play in a Band
There are many local bands who play a set of about 18 – 20 songs and if there is a vocalist and a lead instrument, usually guitar or sax, then the piano parts would be mostly chords. It’s totally acceptable to have the chord charts in front of you as you play, either written on paper or on your iPad, so you don’t even have to learn the songs by heart. Each time you play them you’ll have ideas on how to make improvements to your own playing and in relation to the arrangement that suits the band and this is a great way to start.
Writing your own songs on the piano
Even more rewarding is the realisation that you can write and play your own original tunes on the piano. All it takes is to sit down at the keyboard and doodle until a tune takes shape. If you have a melody already formed in your head then working out how to play that on the keyboard is fairly easy. Just have a go!
Many famous composers do it this way. Doodle first, with the right hand, settle on a melody, find some nice notes to accompany it in the left hand, then write it down as music, chord charts or any way you want so as not to forget it! Many musicians have a recording device handy, so they can record the tune as soon as the inspiration arises. You could also use your phone to video your right hand playing the notes!
Choosing a Piano or Keyboard
Of course, the important thing in all of this is having access to a piano or keyboard. There are several things to consider if you want to buy a piano or keyboard for yourself. Cheaper models will have small keys that feel light to play and just produce one note in the same way every time you strike it.
More expensive models will have larger keys that are responsive to touch, called ‘weighted’ keys. These mimic traditional piano keyboards where the note you play will sound as different as the way that you play it. You can strike the key in a hard or gentle way, or anything in between and hear the same difference in the quality of the note produced. Weighted pianos and keyboards are the best if you want to play solo whereas you may find that an unweighted or half-weighted keyboard is good enough for the parts you play in a band.
You need to try out a lot of different keyboards to see which ones you prefer to play and the best way to do that is to head to a music shop. The staff are usually musicians themselves and will to provide you with headphones so you can try the instruments in private. Just ask. Music shop staff are usually very helpful and understanding and, if they are not too busy, will gladly answer your questions with extra tips and hints thrown in. There is a great bond between musicians and it is a very supportive community so be brave and jump in!