How to Teach Yourself Piano: Tools and Tactics

So you’ve decided to go it alone, have you? If you want to learn piano, the ideal first step is generally to find yourself a teacher. That being said, there are lots of reasons why you might have decided to learn on your own. Luckily, there are tons of resources available to the self-directed music learner.

It’s definitely possible to teach yourself piano, but here’s a note of caution: if you want to succeed, you must have a plan. Why? Because learning an instrument is challenging, and it’s easy to become frustrated and give up. If you’re serious about learning, you’ll want to make sure that you’re setting yourself up for an enjoyable and productive experience.

In this article, we want to discuss the key tools you’ll need, and also explore some of the best tactics for building your piano skills. If you want to make meaningful progress and avoid frustration, it’s important to understand what the challenges are and how to tackle them.

Tactics For Teaching Yourself Piano

Let’s be realistic: it’s a long road from zero-beginner to playing like a pro. To avoid frustration, it’s important to figure out what progress is going to look like. If your ultimate goal is to play your favourite Beethoven sonata or Regina Spektor song, what are the small, graspable skills that will eventually get you there?

In other words, how should you practice?

Drill your music theory. 

Most piano methods start by teaching you the names of notes, what they look like on the page, and how they correspond to piano keys. This lays the foundation for the ability to read notes. While there are excellent musicians who cannot read music, the ability to translate written notes into sound can really help you learn new pieces quickly. Reading music is also the foundation of music theory, and as we explained in our last blog post, music theory is important if you want to be able to talk about music in detail.

Reading music well relies on your ability to immediately recognize each note, and where it is on the piano. Use flashcards, apps or games to drill your music theory knowledge until it becomes second nature.

It's all about the patterns. 

If you want to play fluently, your fingers need to learn the basic patterns. A good piano method system will take you through these step by step, but here’s what you’re working up to:

 

Okay, so that was fast. Even so, in the first few moments of that video, you saw the two basic patterns that your fingers will need to learn: the scale and the arpeggio.

A scale is a series of notes moving up and down by step - if you play each white note on the piano from left to right, you’ll get the idea. Arpeggios are chords, only you play each note one after the other, rather than all at once.

As children, we often find scales and arpeggios somewhat tedious to practice. Older students, however, may be in a better position to recognize their importance: these patterns are everywhere in Western classical and popular music. The better you get at playing them, the more music you’ll be able to master.

Break music into smaller sections. 

We like to play pieces from beginning to end, because that’s how we’re used to hearing them. However, repeatedly playing a whole piece is often not the most efficient way to master it.

Is there one place where your fingers always get tangled? Isolate those few notes, and play them over and over. If coordinating your left hand and your right hand is challenging, practice each hand separately until it becomes second nature, then try putting the parts together again.

Listen to the music you’re playing, and play the music you enjoy. 

The last two tactics deal with technical skills, and technical skills are important. However, you don’t want to lose sight of the music you really want to play.

Find easy piano arrangements of pieces you enjoy. Sure, you may find that “easy piano” is still pretty challenging for you. Maybe you’ll only work on the melody for now. Either way, start by slowly reading the notes and practicing the patterns. Then go back and listen to a performance that inspires you. Then play the piece again. You may find it easier to play musically if you’ve just heard a great performance of the same song.

Experiment and have fun.

Technical skills are important, reading music is important, and playing music you love as it was meant to be played is important. But don’t forget to include exploration and invention in your piano practice routine!

Set aside a few minutes for experimenting. Remember all those scales and arpeggios you’ve been practicing? Why not play with those patterns? Use different rhythms. Introduce random notes. Find sounds that are interesting to you.

TOOLS FOR TEACHING YOURSELF PIANO

Of course, it's not just about how you approach learning piano - it's having the right tools for the job. Here are some must-haves:

A piano or keyboard. 

Obviously, you need an instrument to practice on. The ideal is to have a decent, in-tune piano, or an electronic piano whose keys mimic the touch of a regular piano. If you have to make do with a less-than-ideal instrument, you’ll still be able to learn. A couple things to keep in mind though:

  • If you have an older piano, it may be worth hiring a professional tuner (no, we do not recommend trying to do this yourself). However, very old pianos may be un-tuneable. You can still play them, but they’ll never sound amazing.
  • If you have an inexpensive synthesizer, it’s possible that the keys will not respond to your touch in the same way a piano’s would. Try hitting a key hard. Now try pressing down gently. If your instrument has a weighted or semi-weighted keyboard, you’ll hear a difference. If not, there will be limits on how expressively you can play, and how easily you can carry your technical skills over to a weighted keyboard. Try to get your hands on an instrument with a weighted keyboard if at all possible.

A partner in piano-learning. 

There is one thing that piano learners can’t get from any app or method book, and that is a real human being who cares about your progress. A good piano teacher motivates you by recognizing and appreciating all the hard work you’ve been putting into your practicing. 

The next best thing is getting someone else to fill this role. Do you have a friend who plays piano, or is learning to play? Why not schedule some informal meetings where you can each play what you’ve been working on? Even if your friend doesn’t have the experience of a professional teacher, it’s often useful to talk things over with another piano learner. Not only do you get a fresh perspective, you’ll also work harder knowing that you’ll be able to show off your progress at the next meeting!

If you don’t already have piano-playing friends, check out sites like meetup.com to see if there’s a piano learner’s group near you. If there are no piano meetups yet, why not start one yourself?

A method book. Electronic or otherwise. 

The great thing about piano method books is that they offer you a well-worn, well-tested path to learning technical skills. You start at book 1, work on the first thing until you can do it, then move on to the next thing. Popular method book series include FaberBastien, and Alfred. Each of these publishers offer versions of their books for adults - look for “all-in-one” method books that include theory, exercises and songs.

If you have a tablet (or a way to get your keyboard in front of a computer), you should probably be investigating online resources as well. A number of website fill the role of traditional method books, leading you step-by-step through the early stages of learning. Often, the advantage to these is that they're free! Piano Nanny is a nice, cleanly presented series of lessons with accompanying audio files, and displays easily on your tablet so you can easily use it at your piano. Zebra Keys is another free lesson series with good content, though it's a bit more cluttered and less tablet-friendly.

Apps are another way to supplement your method books. We think our own Singspiel app is worth checking out if you're looking for ways to make your music practice smarter and more fun. Our app "listens" to you play and gives you instant feedback (think about guitar hero, only you're learning skills for real piano playing!) This instant feedback is exactly what self-taught piano learners are usually missing, and is one reason why our app is worth checking out.

With the right tools and a good plan, learning piano without a teacher is well within your reach.

You Have the Plan. Now Get the Tools.


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