Why learn now?

Other posts on my blog highlight the small theme of me very, very slowly trying to get better at making music. When you're a novice, it's natural to ask what's the best way to improve? Some common advice I've found on music production forums goes like this: focus on develop piano playing skills first, and less on learning software or production itself.

I think that's for two big reasons. An analogy is that being unable to touch type would be a hindrance for writing and coding. You can still do these things regardless, but the lack of being able to express yourself quickly does slow your progress. Likewise with music, yes, you can painstakingly draw notes in software,1 but being able to play a melody or chord progression means that you can transcribe something in your head much more quickly and directly, as well as improvise effectively.

Being able to play also gives you hard fought experience of both picking up music theory as you learn and seeing it constantly applied. When playing pieces of music that "work" while seeing how they are made, it's surprising sometimes just how some melodies can be pleasing, whether in spite of, or indeed, because of their simplicity.

With that motivation in mind, I've been taking piano lessons since the start of this year. And as I've just this week played a very small part in a concert, albeit a very simple accompaniment, it seemed as good a point as any to document how I've found this as an adult learner.

Tuition or self-taught?

Lessons can be expensive for what is a relatively short time with a teacher, so why would you bother paying? You're doing most of the learning by yourself.

Very true, but lessons have a lot to offer.

It makes a commitment to sit down and learn something for the next week, which is very important. Aside from the odd day when I've been ill or away, I've usually managed to get in at least a daily half-hour practice session. Having a scheduled lesson with a teacher really does act as a promise to ensure you keep time aside for practice. At times, I'd have the idea in my head that I'd not yet got enough done for the next lesson. That's usually enough motivation for me to sit down and work on piano. You have a deadline to meet.

Teachers can provide guidance of specific pointers, on technique, on how to play tricky sections, or on explaining notation. Particularly with piano, at least to me, it doesn't always seem obvious whether what I'm doing is "correct" or most efficient. If I was learning in isolation, things I find difficult could well contribute to me giving up. Knowing I can go and get advice at the next lesson is a really positive and powerful resource to have.

Having someone capable of competently observing and listening to you play, assessing that and pointing out things you're doing wrong (even when you think you've mastered something) is also a boon. Likewise, this means you should be encouraged with reasonably good habits, e.g. posture and finger positioning, instead of getting by for now, and struggling later.

A teacher can also tell you when you've got the most out of learning a piece. You could spend a long time playing something to near perfection, but is that practice time most usefully spent doing that? Importantly, it's not just having that feedback from someone else, but one who has taught others and knows what's reasonable to expect too. It also, again, takes this decision out of your hands.

Removing some of the decision making of learning is another benefit. Instead of having to figure out what books to get and which pieces to try next — is this too difficult? too easy? — they can set tasks for you. Again, a teacher should know what works well for other learners, and it means you don't have to concern yourself with that at all.

That said, for me, lessons work best with a two-way involvement. As time is short, I've found a good strategy is going in with a clear idea of things I've been struggling with or don't quite understand, to discuss and work on in the lesson.

Disregarding all those benefits, could you teach yourself? It's not impossible. There are musicians that have successfully done just that. But, it requires a lot of discipline and the persistence to battle through the tricky skills you'll need to learn. The only downside I can think of taking lessons is their financial cost.

Starter books

The first book I was using was The Classic Piano Course Book 1 by Carol Barratt. Beginning from basics, it introduces new ideas throughout every couple of pages, moving briskly, without being overwhelming. Progress feels regular and positive. Certainly, except towards the last third or so of the book, with a little practice each day, it was possible to get most of the simple pieces to a decent standard in a week or so.

Going back to tuition versus being self-taught, you could use it for self-teaching as it is mostly self-explanatory, although at times it's a light on details. For instance, it provides an exercise on hand extending and contracting, which, in the absence of helpful pictures, I had to check with my teacher that I'd understood it correctly.

From completing about three-quarters of that book, I've moved on to 2017 & 2018 ABRSM Grade 1 assessment pieces. Not necessarily with a view to taking the exams, but to get to that standard. These are challenging, probably taking me maybe a couple of weeks to be able to play through from start to finish at all (i.e. stumbling through them with hands together), with another week or two to refine them. Even then, I'm aware of shortcomings that I could still improve on.

Popular books, such as these, are a good choice. You'll easily find competent performances on YouTube as a useful reference for what the music you're playing should sound like.

How is learning?

I usually enjoy practice. It can be frustrating, particularly when you first start out on something and struggle, which can be demoralising. What you have to do is retain the faith that you'll improve just like you have on previous pieces when you first encountered them.

Once you're a bit more comfortable that most new things you play could be the most difficult that you have tackled, the process starts to feel less daunting. Once you begin to get to grips with a piece, playing becomes a lot more fun to work on as it comes together, and you make fewer mistakes.

Picking out the correct notes, adding the correct rhythm, introducing dynamics and accents, and pedalling all feel almost like separate layers of complexity. This can feel overwhelming at times, although focusing on tackling a subset of these and adding the others on later does help.

Coordinating two hands is definitely a tricky aspect of piano. It takes considerable practice to be able to play two different things with your hands independently. That's very different from guitar (where I have a little past experience),2 where left and right hand perform very different tasks, and it's easier to isolate their movements. That said, as much as I find certain aspects of piano tricky, I found barre chords on guitar a real barrier (sorry) to cross.3 Piano feels difficult generally, but I've not yet encountered any single thing that is a comparable obstacle.

On the whole, learning piano been an enjoyable and rewarding experience. To go from almost no experience to being able to stumble through Grade 1 pieces, which sound pleasant (if played well), and really feel like you're playing piano, has been an interesting journey.

I'm now feeling a bit more confident when I'm attempting to make music. Knowing that my hands are likely in the correct position, or being able to noodle around on the keyboard with a more decisive feeling of what I'm doing as being musical, are some of the early benefits I've gained from studying piano. Recalling little melodies or chord progressions also seems a simpler task, since I'm more familiar with keyboard layout.

As a late starter, there's no way I'm going to be ever as good as if I'd begun when much younger. I think it's important to keep your possible achievements realistic, so as not to stretch too far and give up in frustration. Nonetheless, for what I really want to do, create music,4 the skills being developed are valuable, and, importantly, I've found learning piano enjoyable enough in itself to continue with it.

  1. Some take this to extremes too, treating a musical score as a canvas that must be filled and painting in an inhuman number of notes. 

  2. One notable thing from learning guitar is that I only ever read treble clef, but not bass clef (although I did see it and struggle through with it a while back in a Coursera music theory course). Because of that, I'm much less comfortable reading the bass clef. The best way I can describe this feeling is: imagine the confusion if you were reading a book where a mischievous publisher had turned every second line upside down. 

  3. If you've not picked up a guitar, barre chords are difficult because they require clamping some or all of the strings down at one fret position, usually with the index finger. Here, you need to strengthen and toughen up your finger to do this, as well as placing it correctly so the strings ring cleanly, instead of with an unsatisfying dull thunk. It can be tricky. 

  4. It's certainly worthwhile and enjoyable to play other people's music well. But I think there's something about the possibility of being able to create something as an individual. There's no-one else that is you, or can ever be you. Therefore it is possible to create something that's really your own and couldn't be made by anyone else, even if your technical prowess is a hindrance. And sometimes that lack of competency, to a degree, can be a key part of what marks out what you create as distinct and unique