THE VALUE OF PIANO LESSONS
Sometimes it’s hard to believe the number of years I’ve actually been playing the piano, which is well over twenty because I started when I was just four and a half years old. While I don’t remember the exact reason I wanted to learn the piano, I know it had to do with attending one of my sister’s piano recitals and the fact that my babysitter at the time also taught lessons. We had an old beat-up spinet piano in our basement and I used to bang around on it. I guess that was enough “natural inclination” for my mother to enroll me in lessons.
My first lessons are a hazy memory of not really knowing what I was doing, but I remember loving the little dancing elf illustrations that accompanied the notes in my vintage secondhand John Thompson “Easiest Piano Course” book. I remember that I was supposed to curve my fingers when I played and I wasn’t supposed to look at them, but I always did. A lot of times I guessed at the notes and there was always a lot of going back to the beginning of a song and starting over. For most of my lessons, I barely practiced and my poor, patient teacher, Linda, was a saint for continuing to teach me.
The summer before I started third grade was the first my parents allowed my sister and me to stay home alone. We spent a lot of time watching daytime television hosts, eating air-popped popcorn because we weren’t allowed to use the stove and swimming in our above-ground pool. Out of sheer boredom I started playing the piano more. One day I went through all of my old piano books and pretended to have a “recital.” I acted out different characters and had them announce their songs before playing them. I even got up and bowed to a fake audience. My sister must have been outside and not heard me talking to myself or I’m sure she would have accused me of being a weirdo. But it was on that afternoon after almost five years of lessons that everything finally clicked.Suddenly, I knew what the notes were and how the songs were supposed to sound! In just a few short years after that, I was playing actual classic music compositions and not the adaptations of these classical pieces that were often in the music lesson books I used. When I graduated from high school, on a whim, I decided to take some music classes and eventually declared music as one of my majors.
WHY TAKE PIANO LESSONS
In my case, the advantages of taking piano lessons are obvious, since I went on to become a singer-songwriter, but there are countless advantages to taking lessons at a young age. In fact, there are countless advantages to learning the piano at any ageand before you say, you’re too old, I can give you several examples of individuals I know who started learning in their thirties, forties and fifties who went on to become very good piano players!
While there are various instruments one can learn, I think piano is the easiest because it does not require complex coordination the way learning guitar or a wind instrument does. All it takes is getting your fingers to do what you ask them to, without having to worry about breath or developing callouses too!
The obvious advantage is that when you learn to play the piano in a classical setting, you learn basic music theory. This includes how to read musical notes, including their letter names and rhythm types. Music theory is also how notes are put together to make up chords and encompasses the actual structure of songs (verses, choruses, bridges, etc.). All of these are transferable when a person goes to learn another instrument and for many major artists, piano was their first instrument. Learning piano can also help with learning how to sing because it trains the ear to hear how notes are put together.
Besides the obvious advantage of learning music theory, learning music offers the following benefits:
- Improved small hand eye coordination
- Pattern recognition
- Counting and math skills
- Helps with language development and expression
- Goal setting
- How to practice
- Dedication and commitment to a craft
Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have awesome teachers as I did who will let you explore different musical genres as you learn to play, you will develop a lifelong love of many different types of music too!
HOW TO PRACTICE
As we all know, nothing comes easy. Learning anything takes time and patience and it takes practice. Full disclosure: as a former piano teacher, I have to say there is nothing more annoying than students who show up week after week with bare minimum practice or no practice at all. One simply can’t move forward if the proper steps aren’t taken and the proper foundations aren’t built.
Perhaps the ancient Latin statement Repetitio set mater studiorum (repetition is the mother of all learning) says it best. If you want to get good at the piano (or anything for that matter), you have to continually show up, make the mistakes, correct those mistakes and build on your strengths.
What are the best ways to practice? While there is no one-size-fits-all method to practice, these are my general guidelines to help make rehearsals go smoothly:
- Make it a point to work on the piano every day - even if it’s just for ten to fifteen minutes at a time (a great way to accomplish this is by setting a timer before you sit down to practice). This helps to build consistency and prevents the feeling of starting all over every time you sit down to the piano
- Eliminate distractions - shut off televisions and radios, place cell phones on silent, ask others to leave the room if possible
- Always start slow and then work up to playing fast
- If you make a mistake in a certain spot in a piece of music, don’t go all the way back to the beginning of the song and start over - really focus on that part of the song where the mistake happened and fix that. Otherwise, you’re going to get really good at the parts you’re really good at and never get good at the parts with which you’re struggling. If you’re really struggling, take a short break and come back to it. When you can do that hard part really well several times in a row, call it quits for the day so that you end on a good note (pun intended).
- Lastly, Have FUN! If you or your child are just starting to learn, don’t him expect him or you to be Mozart overnight. Just enjoy the journey and all of the little steps. Also, look for an enthusiastic teacher who is strict on the fundaments (i.e. doesn’t let anyone move on until they’re truly ready), but has an enjoyable, supportive teaching style that incorporates a spirit of play into the lessons.
A LIFELONG LOVE
For me, learning to play the piano has been one of the most influential experiences in my life. Not only is piano a major part of my career, it has become part of my spiritual practice as well. I am grateful that on a bad day (or a good day), I can sit down at the keyboard, open myself up and just play and write music in way that for me sometimes actually feels divine. I hope that you’ll consider learning the piano or encourage your children to do so!
I’d love to hear your thoughts on learning the piano - did you take lessons as a child? What was your favorite part about it. With what did you struggle? What questions do you have about your child starting lessons? Are you scared to learn and why? Be sure to leave a COMMENT!