18. How to Start Learning Piano: Youngest Children to Old Adults

a. Do You Need a Teacher?

Many beginners would like to start learning piano on their own, and there are valid reasons for this. There are very few good teachers and the poor teachers can teach you more bad habits than you can acquire on our own. However, there is no question that, for the first 6 months (and probably longer), there is no faster way to start than taking lessons from a qualified teacher. The only teachers to avoid completely are those who cannot teach what you want (you may want pop, jazz, and blues while the teacher teaches only classical), or those who teach strict, inflexible methods not appropriate for the student (one method might be designed for very young children but you may be an older beginner). Why are teachers so helpful in the beginning? Firstly, the most fundamental things that you do every time you play, such as hand position, sitting position, hand movements, etc., are difficult to explain in a textbook, whereas a teacher can show you instantly, what is right and what is wrong. You don’t want to pick up these wrong habits and have to live with them all your life. Secondly, a beginner sitting down at the piano and playing for the first time is usually making at least 20 mistakes at the same time (left-right coordination, volume control, rhythm, arm and body movements, speed, timing, fingering, trying to learn the wrong things first, total neglect of musicality, etc., etc.). It is the teacher’s job to identify all the mistakes and make a priority list of which ones must be corrected first; for example, can you look at your hands while playing? (yes!). Most teachers know which basic skills you need. Teachers are also helpful in finding the appropriate teaching material. Teachers provide a structured learning environment, without which the student can end up doing the wrong things and not realize that they are not making any progress. In short, teachers are definitely cost effective for beginners.

b. Starter Books and Keyboards

The first order of business is to decide which lesson books to use. For general technique (not specialties such as jazz or gospel), you can use any of a number of beginner books such as Michael Aaron, Alfred, Bastien, Faber and Faber, Schaum, or Thompson; most have books for children or adults. Of these, many people prefer Faber and Faber; also some older classics: Bach, First Lessons, Book I & II, Selections from Anna Magdalena’s NB, Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. There is an excellent piano site <http://www.amsinternational.org/piano_pedagogy.htm> which lists most of these teaching books and reviews many of them. Pick one book and skip through it quickly by skipping material you already know. These starter books will teach you the fundamentals: reading music, common fingerings such as scales, arpeggios, accompaniments, time signature, etc.

As soon as you are familiar with most of the fundamentals, you can start learning pieces that you want to play. Here again, teachers are invaluable because they know most of the pieces that you might want to play and can tell you whether they are at the level that you can handle. They can point out the difficult sections and show you how to overcome those difficulties. They can play the lesson pieces to demonstrate what you are trying to achieve; obviously, avoid teachers who cannot or refuse to play for you. After a few months of such study, you will be ready to continue by following the material of this book. In order to avoid the numerous pitfalls that await you, it is a good idea to read this book, at least quickly once through, before you begin your first lesson.

At the very beginning, perhaps up to a year, it is possible to start learning using keyboards, even the smaller ones with less than the 88 keys of the standard piano. If you plan to play electronic keyboards all your life, it is certainly permissible to practice only on keyboards. However, practically all keyboards have actions that are too light to truly simulate an acoustic piano. As soon as possible, you will want to transition to a 88-key digital piano with weighted keys (or an acoustic), see 17. Upright, Grand & Electronic Pianos; Purchasing and Care above.

c. Beginners: Age 0 to 65+

Many parents ask: “At what age can our children start piano?”, while older beginners ask: “Am I too old to learn piano? How proficient can I expect to be? How long will it take?” We are increasingly beginning to recognize that what we had attributed to “talent” was in reality a result of our education. This relatively recent “discovery” is radically changing the landscape of piano pedagogy. Therefore, we can legitimately question whether talent is such an important factor in how quickly you can learn to play. So then, what IS an important factor? Age is one, because learning piano is a process of developing nerve cells, especially in the brain. The process of nerve growth slows down with age. So let’s examine categories of beginners according to their ages, and the consequences of slowing cell growth with age.

Ages 0-6: Babies can hear as soon as they are born, and most maternity wards test babies for hearing immediately after birth. Brains of deaf babies develop slowly because of a lack of auditory stimuli, and such babies need to have their auditory stimuli restored (if possible) or have other procedures instituted, in order to encourage normal brain development. Thus early musical stimuli will accelerate brain development in normal babies, not only for music but also generally. By the age of 6-10 months, most babies have heard enough sounds and languages to stimulate sufficient brain development to start talking. They can cry and communicate to us within minutes after birth. Music can provide additional stimulation to give babies a tremendous head start in brain development by one year after birth. All parents should have a good collection of piano music, orchestral music, piano and violin concertos, operas, etc., and play them in the baby room, or somewhere in the house where the baby can still hear the music. Many parents whisper and walk softly while the baby is asleep, but this is bad training. Babies can be trained to sleep in a (normal) noisy environment, and this is the healthy alternative.

Up to about age 6, they acquire new skills in stepwise fashion; that is, they suddenly acquire a new skill such as walking and rapidly become good at it. But each individual acquires these skills at different times and in a different order. Most parents make the mistake of giving the baby only baby music. Remember: no babies ever composed baby music; adults did – baby music only slows down brain development. It is not a good idea to expose them to loud trumpets and drum rolls that can startle the baby, but babies can understand Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, etc. Music is an acquired taste; therefore, how the babies’ brains develop musically will depend on the type of music they hear. Older classical music contain more basic chord structures and harmonies that are naturally recognized by the brain. Then more complex chords and dissonances were added later on as we became accustomed to them over the ages. Therefore, the older classical music is more appropriate for babies because they contain more stimulative logic and less dissonances and stresses introduced later to reflect on “modern civilization”. Piano music is especially appropriate because, if they eventually take piano lessons, they will have a higher level of understanding of music they heard as a baby.

Ages 3-12: Below age 3, most children’s hands are too small to play the piano, the fingers cannot bend or move independently, and the brain and body (vocal chords, muscles, etc.) may not be sufficiently developed to deal with concepts in music. Above age 4 (2 for those with early training), most children are ready to receive music education, especially if they had been exposed to music since birth; thus they should be constantly tested for their sense of pitch (relative and absolute pitch; can they “carry a tune?”), rhythm, loud-soft, fast-slow, and reading music, which is easier than any alphabet. This group can take advantage of the enormous brain growth that takes place during this age interval; learning is effortless and limited more by the ability of the teacher to provide the appropriate material than by the student’s ability to absorb it. One remarkable aspect of this age group (there are many!) is their “malleability”; their “talents” can be molded. Thus, even if they would not have become musicians if left alone, they can be made into musicians by proper training. This is the ideal age group for starting piano. Mental play is nothing special – it comes naturally to this age group. Many adults consider mental play a rare skill because, like absolute pitch, they lost it during their teen ages from a lack of use. Therefore, make sure that they are taught mental play, in all its many forms. They can also quickly forget what they learn.

Ages 13-19: This group still has an excellent chance of becoming concert level pianists. However, they may have lost the chance to become those super stars that the younger beginners can become. Although brain development has slowed down, the body is still growing rapidly until about age 16, and at a slower rate thereafter. This age group can achieve practically anything they want to, as long as they have an intense interest in music or piano. However, they are not malleable any more; encouraging them to learn piano does not work if they are more interested in cello or soccer, and the parents’ role changes from giving direction to giving support for whatever the teens want to do. This is the age interval in which the teens learn what it means to take responsibility and what it means to become an adult – all lessons that can be learned from the piano experience. In order to influence them, you need to use more advanced methods, such as logic, knowledge, and psychology. They will probably never forget anything they memorized at these ages or slightly younger, unlike the 3-12 group. Above this age group, age classifications become difficult because there is so much variation among individuals.

Ages 20-35: Some individuals in this age group still have a chance of becoming concert level pianists. They can use the experience they learned in life to acquire piano skills more efficiently than younger students. Those who decide to learn piano in this age group generally have greater motivation and a clearer understanding of what they want. But they will have to work very hard, because progress will come only after a sufficient amount of work. At this age group, nervousness can start to become a major problem for some. Although younger students can become nervous, nervousness seems to increase with age. This happens because severe nervousness arises from fear of failure, and fear arises from mental associations with memories of terrible events, whether imagined or real. These terrifying memories/ideas tend to accumulate with age. Therefore, if you want to perform, you should do some research into controlling nervousness, by becoming more confident, or by practicing public performance at every opportunity, acquiring mental play, etc. Nervousness can arise from both the conscious and subconscious brain; therefore, you will need to deal with both in order to learn to control it. For those who just want to become sufficiently technically proficient to enjoy playing major piano compositions, starting in this age group should not present any problems. Although some maintenance will be required, you can keep anything you memorized in this age group, for life.

Ages 35-45: This age group cannot develop into concert level pianists, but can still perform adequately for simpler material such as easy classics and cocktail music (fake books, jazz). They can acquire enough skill to play most famous compositions for personal enjoyment and informal performances. The most demanding material will probably be out of reach. Nervousness reaches a maximum somewhere between the ages of 40 and 60 and then often declines slowly. This might explain why many famous pianists stopped performing somewhere in this age interval. Memorizing starts to become a problem in the sense that, although it is possible to memorize practically anything, you will tend to forget it, almost completely, if not properly maintained. Reading the music can start to become a problem for some who require strong corrective lenses. This is because the distance from the eyes to the keyboard or music stand is intermediate between reading and distant vision. Thus you may want a set of eye glasses for intermediate vision. Progressive lenses might solve this problem, but some find them bothersome because of their small field of focus.

Ages 45-65: This is the age range in which, depending on the person, there will be increasing limitations on what you can learn to play. You can probably get up to the level of the Beethoven Sonatas, although the most difficult ones will be a huge challenge that will take many years to learn. Acquiring a sufficiently large repertoire will be difficult, and at any time, you will be able to perform only a few pieces. But for personal enjoyment, there is still a limitless number of compositions that you can play. Because there are more wonderful compositions to learn than you have time to learn them, you may not necessarily feel a limit to what you can play. There is still no major problems in learning new pieces, but they will require constant maintenance if you want to keep them in your repertoire. This will greatly limit your playable repertoire, because as you learn new pieces, you will completely forget the old ones, unless you had learned them at much younger ages. In addition, your learning rate will definitely start to slow down. By re-memorizing and re-forgetting several times, you can still memorize a significant amount of material. It is best to concentrate on a few pieces and learn to play them well. There is little time for beginner’s books and exercises – these are not harmful, but you should start learning pieces you want to play within a few months after starting lessons.

Ages 65+: There is no reason why you can’t start learning piano at any age. Those who start at these ages are realistic about what they can learn to play and generally do not have unattainable expectations. There are plenty of simple but wonderful music to play and the joy of playing remains as high as at younger ages. As long as you are not terribly handicapped, you can learn piano and make satisfactory progress at any age. Memorizing a composition is not a problem for most. The greatest difficulty in memorizing will come from the fact that it will take you a long time to get up to speed for difficult material, and memorizing slow play is the most difficult memory work. Therefore, if you choose easy pieces that can be brought up to speed quickly, you will memorize those more quickly. Stretching the hands to reach wide chords or arpeggios, and fast runs will become more difficult, and relaxation will also be more difficult. If you concentrate on one composition at a time, you can always have one or two compositions that can be performed. There is no reason to modify your practice methods – they are the same as those used for the youngsters. And you may not feel as much nervousness as you might have in the middle ages when stage fright reaches is maximum. Learning piano, especially memory work, is one of the best exercises for the brain; therefore, serious efforts at learning piano should delay the aging process, just as proper exercise is necessary to maintain physical health. Don’t get a teacher that treats you like a young beginner and give you only exercises and drills – you don’t have time for that. Start playing music right away.