STARTING OUT: First steps in learning the piano
Expert teacher Tim Stein offers up valuable advice for those taking their first steps towards learning the piano
As a teacher of all different types of students, from aspiring beginners of all ages to fire-cracking prodigies (or at least those who think they are), I find that it’s always really useful to help a new student with some pre-learning tips and advice. With over 25 years’ teaching experience, I am still amazed by the kinds of questions I get asked by new students. Do I need a piano? How soon can I become a concert pianist? The list is both funny and endless. Here, however, are the things you should be asking yourself, even before you’ve started looking for a teacher…
Define your goal
Save yourself the time and address the following: what do I really want to get out of playing the piano? Is it for professional reasons, retirement, relaxation or fun? Do I have an idea of the kind of repertoire I would like to play? Jazz piano or the classics? Boogie-woogie, a Chopin waltz or Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata? Do I want to take exams? Do I want an opportunity to show off a party piece in front of friends? Whether you’re a complete novice or re-starter, try to have some kind of a goal in mind, however unrealistic this may seem at first (you can always refine the enthusiasm later on).
Talk to other students
Talk to people who have taken up the piano recently and people who have been playing for a long time. Ask them what they get out of playing, and ask them about the pros and cons. Pros could be anything from reducing stress levels to being able to play that piece you’ve loved since you were the age of nine. Cons could be anything from the time commitment required to not being able to practise whenever you like in the comfort of your own home.
Find an instrument
Once you’ve made up your mind that you want to play, take on seriously the practicalities of accommodating a piano or keyboard. Don’t just rush out and buy the first thing you see, like that nine-foot concert grand in the music shop window, momentarily forgetting you live on the 12th floor of a residential block that forbids the playing of any kind of musical instrument. There are plenty of options available out there, from buying (or renting) an upright or grand acoustic piano or digital instrument, which doesn’t require tuning and you can get a set of headphones for silent practising.
Organise your time
Even before you start, it’s important to consider how much time you will have to practise. Can you practise at home or at your workplace? The essence of good practising, whether you’re an advanced musician or someone who has just started out, is all about successfully managing time. Quality is far more important than quantity. Think about how you might be able to organise your time effectively. How much time will you be able to devote to practising for lessons, and how often do you need a lesson in order to maximise what you get out of them (this is something to discuss with your teacher).
Listen to lots of music
Listen to as much music, live or recorded, as you can, to get some idea of the kind of music you like and the kind of repertoire you would like to play, if you don’t already know. With the wonders of digital technology at your fingertips, you can find fantastic performances on YouTube from great musicians from all over the world. And don’t just limit this to piano music, however.
Prepare for the first lesson
OK, you’ve booked your first consultation lesson with your teacher, so what can you do to prepare? If you’ve got something to play already, that’s great, even if you haven’t looked at it for 20 years! Don’t panic and imagine you have to give the world’s best performance. A good teacher will be perfectly understanding and should be able to put you at ease right away. If you don’t have anything to play, go armed with a reasonable list of questions that should enable you to get some idea from the teacher of the progress you can make and the route to getting there. Ask the teacher questions like: What’s your teaching style? How do you teach technique? Can you suggest suitable repertoire? Do you have a music lending library?
If you can’t play the piano at all, why not take a look at the Apple app video on learning to play. If you can already play a bit, or even if you can play reasonably well, take some music you are struggling with now or some pieces you have ambitions to play. At a basic level, old ABRSM Grade 1 exam pieces are a good place to start, while at a higher level there is a great range of choice from the odd Chopin waltz and mazurka, to some of the 15 Two-Part Inventions by Bach. Look also at the similarly titled Schumann and Tchaikovsky pieces from their Albums for the Young (opus 68 and opus 39 respectively). Schirmer publishes a Performance Edition for both, giving useful fingering advice and the benefit of a proper performance on an accompanying CD. If your sight-reading is good enough, give it an extra boost by playing through some of the pieces, and perhaps choose some things you like and start to work on these. The Trinity Repertoire Library series (edited by Christine Brown), also has some wonderfully rewarding pieces by the likes of major composers (plus lesser know ones too) from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods, including Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. These are really excellent books, carefully edited with useful performance instructions and intelligent fingerings.
Good piano playing, as any good piano teacher will tell you, is all about the correct use of the whole body. Some teachers use Alexander Technique and yoga when teaching, so you might be interested in this kind of approach. Or you can always get your body into gear straight away by taking up some kind of gentle exercise right now.
Tim Stein is a renowned London piano teacher and journalist. See his new website
WATCH TIM'S BEGINNER PIANO LESSONS ON THE PIANIST TV CHANNEL!