It’s 2014, and You Want to Learn Piano: An FAQ

It’s January, which means that many take up new life goals and resolutions for the year.  Perhaps you’re thinking about learning an instrument, or having your child take up music lessons in the spirit of enrichment.

Congratulations, and welcome to the world of music!  We music teachers are more than happy to show you the ropes.   Every teacher has their own set of rules when it comes to lesson structure, repertoire, and at home practice. While you may find differing opinions on technique and artistry in music, many of us agree on the following questions asked by prospective students and parents.   Here’s an FAQ I’ve compiled after 22 years of teaching piano.

Q: Can my child or I learn music?   

A: If you have the desire to learn and the time to practice, you can learn music.

Q: What ages do you teach?   Do you teach adults?

A: I teach students ages 4 to 104.  Not all teachers work with such a broad age range.  It is never too late to start learning, or to return to music.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Q: Why won’t you teach my 3 year old? 

A:  While there are methods suitable for preschoolers, those methods are geared toward small group sessions. I generally teach one on one for regular lessons, and group sessions only for master class work.  I would highly recommend Kindermusik if you are eager to start your child prior to age 4.

Q: How long and how often are lessons? 

A:  Lessons generally start at 30 minutes, and I recommend no less than once a week for a lesson.  My lesson lengths are 30, 45, 60 and 90 minutes.

Q: Do I need an instrument? 

A:  As a piano student, an instrument would be most helpful.  Not just any instrument, however.   Ideally, the instrument should have a full compliment of keys (88 keys).  Acoustic pianos are the best, provided they are in good shape and tuned regularly.  Keyboards like the Yamaha Clavinova are acceptable, particularly if you can get one with piano weight keys.  Keep in mind that the feel and sound will differ from that of an acoustic piano.

Yes, instruments are expensive, but think of this as an investment.  If it’s too costly to buy, consider renting.  Or keep your eyes peeled for estate sales.  Just make sure to keep your instrument properly maintained when you do get one.

Q: What kind of materials do I need? 

A: In addition to your own piano or keyboard, you will need a notebook, music, a pencil, and a metronome.

Notebooks are useful for not just showing your weekly assignment list.  They are also useful for writing down any questions you have, writing compositions (many musical notebooks include staff lines for just that), jotting down exercises for home practice, and just keeping track of specifics on your literature.   Which leads to…

…Literature is a good thing to have for your music lessons.  Whether you or your child are in method books learning the basics of music, or you’re working on a piano concerto, you’re going to need some music.  Regardless of whether you want to work on Brahms or Justin Bieber, having the written score will help.  Especially in my studio, where musical literacy is important.

All aspiring pianists and students need a pencil for making annotations in the music.  Sometimes, the notes are for fingering, sometimes, just a gentle reminder that you’re playing an F, not an E.  Not to mention, if you need to compose a short song for your next lesson, that pencil will come in very handy.

Finally, you need a metronome.   The metronome is a musician’s best friend.  You can download a metronome app for your iPhone, or you can buy a little box that takes batteries.  The metronome will keep time and tempo (speed, or BPM) for you while you’re practicing your scales, exercises, and songs. It’s the type of best friend that keeps your rhythm in check whether you want it to or not.   During the early stages, you may wish to throw your metronome across the room.  Don’t.  It’s merely helping you keep precise time.   Every musician worth their salt keeps a metronome or two.  I have four, if you count the app on my phone.

Q: Can I just drop my child off at their lesson and come back later?

A:  You can, that is perfectly fine.  However, I have found that if a parent is serious about their kid learning piano, the kids really benefit with a parent in the room.  Many parents are more than welcome to stay at lessons.  Many parents do.  The younger the student, the more helpful it is to have a parent there.  This is particularly true if the child is studying Suzuki, one of many piano methods available.

Q: What kind of music will my child or I work on? 

A:  For the beginner student, it will depend on their learning style.  Some students are avid readers, while others might be more aurally inclined, or kinesthetic learners.  There are many different methods to choose from.   Each student is unique.

For students that are out of the method books, the sky is the limit on what kind of music there is to study.  Speaking for myself, I allow many different styles. I only ask that you are willing to learn, and that you are also willing to work on technique to make those songs more enjoyable.

It’s important to note that some teachers do specialize in classical or pop only, so this is a very good question to ask while interviewing prospective teachers.

Q: How often do I need to practice?

A: You should practice every day that you breathe.   Keep in mind that music is a language. You read, you write, sing, play.  Not all practice is done at the piano.  You might find yourself working on listening assignments with your iPod, or trying fingering out on your steering wheel while sitting at a red light.  You may have music theory assignments, which can be done away from the piano.  Perhaps you have a piece that you’re learning to sing as well as play.  Singing can happen anywhere, anytime.   You practice every day that you breathe, because music is part of everyday life.

PianissAmma Practice Guide- a series devoted to the art of musical storytelling

As a musician, it is important to paint a vivid picture, or tell a compelling story to the listener.  Musicians are essentially storytellers to anyone who will stop and listen.  We have rhythms, pitches, and articulations galore- all at our fingertips, or on the tip of our tongue.  One somber note can reduce many to tears, while a simple phrase performed quickly may cause the listener to dance.  This is the beauty of music.

To become a master storyteller, it is important to lay the foundation in the practice room- a step that many might prefer to skip.  When working to hone the craft, the time and effort involved is constant, but worthwhile.  It is not unlike training for a race, or preparing for a test.  The question is how do we get to the finish line, or the stage.

Many find musicianship far too daunting to even give it a try.  Is it the idea of devoting hours a day to the art of the craft that deters prospective musicians? Are hours upon hours necessary? They certainly can be, but that is not always the case.  There is the argument of quality practice versus quantity.   The trick is to practice efficiently.  Efficient practice is necessary in sports, so should it be in music.

Over the next several weeks, PianissAmma blog will explore the benefits to good musical practice for musicians and students of all levels.   We will also touch on how establishing good habits can benefit outside of practice and in everyday life.