Piano Tips On Lesson Just At Home

Piano lesson myths are so ingrained into our culture and our consciousness that it almost seems silly to counter them. But on close examination, even the most “obvious” beliefs about piano study and piano practice are not only wrong, they are damaging to the individual who is bound by their chains. This material is an attempt to help pianists of all levels be liberated from such mental constraints, attitudes and assumptions regarding piano lessons, so that they might truly reach their goals.

“My teacher will drop me if I make a lot of mistakes.”

Reality: Most teachers enjoy teaching and are inspired when they see someone who really tries and is diligent with their practice. In fact, good teachers PREFER to witness your mistakes so they can help you not only fix the problem, but learn how to avoid the problem in the future. This could be in the realms of practicing suggestions, fingering, hand position, eye movements and more. If you have latent mistakes that you somehow are able to hide for the lesson, the teacher may not be able to help you fix these hidden problems, which means that they may appear later when you are performing. Also, fear of making mistakes tends to distract you from the music and will actually CAUSE the very mistakes you were trying to avoid! So, never be afraid to make mistakes for your teacher.

“I have to study classical music before I can play pop or jazz.”

Reality: If a student’s ultimate goal is to play popular music, or even to do it with classical on an equal footing, this idea that you must study classical music first is incorrect. In fact, even if one’s goal is to focus strictly on classical literature, there is great value in studying popular chord technique and improvisation. The best way to study music theory is through POPULAR music! This is because chords are presented in a straightforward manner, as chord symbols, without even having to read music! (These are sometimes called “guitar chords” and are printed above the music staff.) Theory knowledge can make you a better performer, a better sight-reader, a better memorizer, a better interpreter and a better overall musician! And, of course, these attributes are applicable to playing classical music. The easiest way to start a path towards music theory is to study popular music, with a teacher who knows how to explain chord-reading (not notation). So, one could study classical first and then popular, but considering that these are different skills that take time to master, why not do them concurrently? To avoid popular music till classical music is mastered will make it much harder to learn music theory and in turn to derive the benefits of this knowledge.

“Children learn faster than adults.”

Realty: There is no difference. From my own personal experience of teaching both children and adults since 1975, this idea that a child’s brain is more receptive is incorrect. What may be true is that the child is less encumbered by the busy-ness of life and tends to have less mental clutter. This state results in a naturally-better focusing ability which creates the illusion that the child may be able to absorb new material faster than the adult. However, what the child often doesn’t have is desire. The adult really wants to study piano. And this great desire creates the same type of focus that is needed for quick learning. In fact, adults who have this intention, often from wanting to make up “for lost time,” often learn faster than children! The adult who is just a dabbler who doesn’t have the great desire is a typical hectic, frazzled adult. This type of adult is the adult who will tend to learn slower — not because they don’t practice enough, but because their energy is so distracted. Another cause of distraction is self-judgement and stress and impatience that is associated with learning. Adults have had their lifetimes to become familiar with music so they know how it is “supposed” to sound, whereas children usually have never heard the piece they are learning. As a result, adults do tend to become easily frustrated by comparing their current ability to play a piece with the way they know it should sound — and THIS comparison can cause enough stress and anxiety that the adult student will often lose interest or stop playing altogether. So adult students need to take caution about this unnecessary temptation to think they “should” sound like a professional pianist after only playing for three weeks. The adult student must learn to embrace his or her current ability with grace and appreciation. From this point improvement will occur.

“Since I didn’t begin studying piano as a child it I’ll never be able to play well as an adult.”

Reality: It’s never too late. Early neural stimulation as a child DOES help with musical intelligence as an adult, but it need not be from the piano. For example, kids who are great at sports or gymnastics or dance are often the best at piano, when they eventually try it. That’s not a surprise to most people. But what is a surprise is that adults show the same parallel! An adult who had been athletic as a child will find it easier to learn piano as an adult, because the advanced neurological stimulation lasts one’s whole life. It is simply a new application. If you’re had a nurturing, stimulating environment as a child, you will definitely have an advantage when you begin piano studies as an adult. If you had limited exposure to physical experiences as a child, this would tend to make it more difficult to learn the piano whether you are a child or an adult.

“I should study finger technique before playing actual music.”

Reality: Is physical technique and accuracy more important than interpretation and expression? No. Does physical technique and accuracy take more time to master than interpretation and expression? No. It’s like comparing apples and oranges, but both require a lot of time. The best way to develop interpretation and expression is through the repertoire. In some countries, it is common to have a student just do drills for 5 years before they are allowed to play any music. Then the student is allowed to play repertoire. It’s no surprise that these performers play accurately and fast, with very little expression. The best thing to do is to study music along with finger technique. Ideally, the difficulty of the technique level should always be slightly ahead of the requirements of the repertoire.

“I must practice every day.”

Reality: Taking two or three guilt-free days off from practicing each week will help you progress faster than if you practiced everyday! Think body building. People who work out or who lift weights are always told to rest the day after a workout. Why? Because the workout tears down the muscle tissue and the day off is when it is rejuvenated and built up stronger than before. Our brains are similar to this. The rest periods are when your brain assimilates your effort. Also, the reason it must be guilt-free is so that you get the complete benefit of the day of rest. If you intend to practice seven days a week and you miss a day, you will be inclined to be stressed about it during the inadvertent day off. So instead of relaxing from the piano on that day, you are more stressed. In fact, with this more typical approach, you may be inclined to practice more the next day with the hopes of “making up” for the missed day. This approach never works. You can’t cram the piano. All you will get is more and more errors and more and more frustrated because your poor brain is never given a rest it desperately needs. For best results, just practice only 4 days a week. This allows you to plan-in 3 days a week of guilt-free rest. (These days do not have to be in a row.) This is realistic and supportive because things often come up for us in our busy lives anyway. By making 4 days a week 100% of the requirement, if you do more, you feel great.

“Long sessions of practice time are best.”

Reality: Shorter times are optimal. After about 15 minutes of an activity, the average person becomes mentally fatigued. Short bursts of concentration repeated frequently are much more effective than one long session. So, even if you only have 10 minutes, DO IT. Do another 10 minutes later in the day or the next day. By the end of the week, you might have 16 micro practice sessions, yet only practiced on 4 days. This is highly efficient. Instead, if you have the goal of practicing an hour or practicing a half hour, another day goes by with ZERO practice. Why is this? Because our life gets so busy and that half hour or hour just doesn’t materialize. The result is that you miss practicing ALTOGETHER. If you could sneak in five minutes here or 10 minutes there, you would miraculously accrue that half hour or hour that you had intended to practice! In fact, even if you had the luxury of sitting for six hours at the piano and didn’t have other typical competing issues that life brings, it would STILL be preferable to break up your practice into smaller segments. Also, do not practice if you are tired, angry, distracted, or in a hurry or you will “learn-in” these feelings. On a professional level, if you find yourself seated at the piano for an extended period of time, you can still observe these principles by rotating the activity while still remaining at the piano. For example, you can spend 20 minutes learning a new passage of one piece. Then switch to practicing some finger technique. This way, your mind is resting while your fingers are getting a workout. Then GO BACK to the same passage and you will be mentally refreshed. Then work on a section of a different piece. Then do a little sight-reading. Then back to the first piece. And so on. Keep it in rotation.