Is It Hard To Learn The Piano? (2022)


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Here’s what I tell my students whether they are old or young:  You Can Do This!

Is it hard to learn the piano? Well, if you can ride a bike, drive a car, read a book, learn simple math, figure out how to change a tire or generally function in life, you can learn the piano.  Here’s the GOOD news: learning piano will make you smarter. I tell my students there’s no such thing as a stupid piano player, not because you have to be smart to do it, but because doing it improves your brain – especially if you push yourself to learn a little more each week!

Here’s the thing though:

It takes time to acquire fluency.

It’s just one of those things in life that can’t be grasped in a cursory scroll through an online blog. It’s a language, a mode of communication and a fine motor body movement that has to all be learned incrementally and sequentially.  If you are willing to do the ‘long haul’ approach and take the time needed over time, then YES, you can learn to play the piano!

Kids learn it as they grow because they are used to learning hard stuff life math and reading a little bit at a time.  They expect it to be tedious and slow going.   Adults and teens have impatience added onto their plates.

Here’s what I tell my adult piano students: You’re going to live three or four years from now anyway, and that time is going to pass by, so what if you added piano into those years also and at the end those few years you could play Fur Elise by Beethoven or Piano Man by Billy Joel, or Queen or whatever you love?   Wouldn’t that be awesome??

Styles of learning

Not everyone learns the same way at the same rate.  The trick is to find a teacher or a method that suits your personal learning mode, or one that will assist you in delving into new territory at the rate that is the best for you.  I’ve found that, at a minimum,  if you can spare 20 minutes a day (30 is ideal) five days a week, you’ll be a pianist before you know it. It’s not about slugging through two hours, it is about many, many days of short time intervals (if that’s all you can spare) that wins the race.

Rote learning

Rote learning is hearing or seeing how someone else is playing a song and then copying it on your keyboard bit by bit in an experimental manner until the song is memorized in its entirety.  For people with dyslexia,  it is a good way to learn to play songs on the piano.

It gets you making music right from the start and helps you learn ‘by ear’ and develop an exploratory way to play piano.  There are many rote song tutorials on youtube you can watch for free.  

There are some severe limitations though.  Learning by rote means you can not read music and you are utterly dependent on your memory to store the songs you’ve learned.  It also means you are limited to finding songs to learn because you will need ones you can find audio clips of, in order to try and mimic.   In my studio, I do not teach rote.

People who learn by rote often are frustrated by the complexities of reading notes and give up after a few discouraging attempts because we play very, very simple songs when we first learn to read. It feels very elementary for a while, which can be discouraging if you are used to more powerful sounds from copying what you hear.  Those who play by ear have to overcome their dislike of engaging a different side of their brain to play music. It is less instinct and experimental (rote), and more thinking and analysis (read).

It is my least favorite way to learn to play the piano and I rarely recommend it.

Reading on the staff

If you start right off learning to read music on the staff, you will discover that it is very doable and rewarding. At first, it seems like hieroglyphics, and in reality, that is just what it is!  It is a way to visually communicate something as complex as musical sounds.  The trick is to find a method that introduces concepts slow enough to be thoroughly and fairly easily learned.  All too often teachers or methods will throw the whole enchilada at a student too soon.  It’s like being hit with higher calculus when all you need to get started is simple addition and subtraction!

young boy playing the piano by reading music

When I teach beginners of ANY age, I always start off the first lesson with just two or three notes on the staff.  It feels baby-ish to adults and I tell them that for three weeks we WILL be babyish, but the reading will go into their brains easily and permanently.  Each week we will add one to three notes and master the total thus far.  After four for five weeks they should know all the notes on the staff fairly well from Bass Clef Low C to Treble High C…that’s 15 stink’n notes!!  Then I can start teaching them sight-reading tricks for faster reading because they have familiarity and a certain level of competence over so many single notes on the staff.

I start ALL my students in this book, even the adults.  Kids will take two months or more to finish the book.  Adults can be as short as three weeks and the last few pages take to all the way to those 15 notes! A used copy is fine! And you DON’T need the CD or the online audio.

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I highly advise learning to read music over other methods.  In addition, a packet of music flashcards either to hold in your hand, print off free from the internet or on a phone game or app to memorize notes is really beneficial!  After the above book is mastered, there are a whole plethora of books that you can choose to graduate into.

The sooner you can do all 15 notes individually with a fair amount of fluency, the faster you can learn to read music well!

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Combination of chords and reading on the staff

In my studio I start teaching chords after the first couple of months of lessons.  There are tons of chord and other music theory books out there honestly, people just get LOST. Once again, books jump right into the deep end and it is beyond confusing!

I start with C major, G major and F major because they are all white key notes and on the piano super easy under the hand.

For adults who want a full two-hand sound to their music or for kids who are struggling to be fluent in Bass Clef AND Treble Clef note reading, I teach lead sheets along with their regular materials.  Lead sheets have the melody printed on the staff and the chord name written above the staff and lyrics to the song. That’s it. No left-hand notes to read.  Instead, pianists play the chords in the left hand while reading the melody note in the right hand.

Students progress to learning left-hand accompaniment patterns in the left hand to make it sound impressive and full.  If students are overwhelmed with learning to process multiple notes in each hand, learning lead sheets is a great way to progress.

You’ll have to call around and find teachers who know how to read and teach lead sheets, however, as many classically trained pianists can’t do it!

The hybrid between chords (lead sheets) and traditional method books of notes on the staff is my preferred method of teaching.  This gets people of all ages to read and play music on the piano the fastest and the most thorough.

Digital Pianos

Man, digital pianos have come a looooong way in the last five years!  I wasn’t impressed by then but I recently had to buy one to start doing some composing and incorporate more digital options into my teaching.

Roland Fp 30

I freak’n LOVE this piano! I highly recommend it to beginners because of the life-like action of the keys.  The keys are textured like real ivory of a Grand Piano, which is a big selling feature for me because touch becomes really important when you  are milking a piano for different sound nuances.  The black keys are about 1/3 inch LONGER than most electric pianos, which once again, brings it closer to a Grand.    It is as close to a Grand Piano as I’ve ever seen on a digital instrument. The sound is quite impressive too.  It doesn’t come with zillions of goofy voices, but I am focusing on piano in all it’s iterations: honkey tonk, cool jazz 1960’s organ, Grand Piano etc. I haven’t begun to explore all this keyboard can do! I like that the dashboard doesn’t have so much complexity that it looks like the inside of the cockpit on a jet aircraft. You’ll need touch-sensitive keys in order to learn well, and these keys have all the sensitivity of my Grand Piano.

Coming in under $800, it’s all the keyboard you should ever need until you go pro or want to do some major sound mixing for recordings.

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Yamaha P-125

My second choice for a digital piano is this great Yamaha series P-125.  It was a very, very close second to the Roland.  This piano comes with lots more voices, which would have been fun for mixing songs and layering different sounds, but in the end I opted for clearer, full tones of the Roland and the ideal touch of the keys. It has USB connectivity for music writing software and recording.  This is a great piano and a great price and once you figure in the package with the stand, bench, foot pedal, and dust cover, it’s a bargain.

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Extras that are helpful

You’ll need a stand for your piano so that you can get your knees under the keyboard to use the pedal. You can probably find a bundle with the keyboard a save a few dollars.   I have an x-shaped stand which is super sturdy, but takes up a lot of room in my floor space and is heavy.  I keep this one in storage in case I ever have to travel with my keyboard. This combo has a bench, which is great because those things are spendy!

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For my studio, I prefer this smaller profile stand by Neewer.  It is made in the USA and folds up to a small size tote able with one hand.  I have to maximize my floor space and this stand doesn’t trip me up when I walk by.  However, if you have large rambunctious dog or kids running around, your better choice might be the X stand.

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Steps of learning to read piano music progression

  1. The first step is single notes in each hand, then
  2. Two notes played simultaneously in either or both hands, then
  3. Chord patterns (three notes played simultaneously) in either or both hands. 
  4. Then Katy-Barr-The Door, (I’m dating myself here with that little saying) it accelerates rapidly from there into much faster learning with scales, finger gymnastics, techniques for different sounds and touches and a wider style of playing options from swing to rock, to classical to jazz to blues to worship music!  How fast you learn will depend on how much effort you put into learning this new language and how consistent your practicing will be!  It is as simple as that.  

I think it is fair to say that playing the piano can be accomplished by just about anyone who has a teacher who uses an ideal method suited to your personal learning.  The hardest part is the consistency on the student’s end.  Parents can ensure their children have consistency, but adults have to be self-directed.

 

Conclusion

I truly believe 99% of people can learn the piano.  Finding the right teacher: now that’s harder.

Some teachers are too married to conservatory teaching and learning classical music because that’s what they had to master in college.  Just because you are a rock’n performer or have a college degree (or two or three) doesn’t mean you can analyze, relate to a beginner and teach piano so that the learner can master it.

That’s why sometimes the very best teachers may be the little old lady who lives two houses down from you, not the whiz-bang college grad who has lots of letters after their name and professional group memberships in their resume, or that snazzy musician who plays at the local bar whom you love to listen to.

Finding the right balance between using chords and reading notes straight on the staff is the ideal combination for the first year or so.  Then, if learning by ear or rote is something you want to accomplish, then you will have a strong enough foundation in note reading to never fall back on a ‘crutch’ or shortcut because of the inability to read piano music.

 

So, call around, ask for recommendations and interview a few teachers to hear of their teaching methods.  An in-person meeting to see how you fit with your teacher’s abilities is a great first step.  The first step is up to you!

Be sure to check out our other articles about learning piano here, here and here.

Anita HC

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