Beginner’s Piano Lessons – What You Need to Know

If you are thinking about starting piano lessons for the first time, you may be wondering what to expect in your lessons. The first few piano lessons, regardless if they are in a traditional private lesson, a group piano class, or even a method of self-study, usually focus on a few simple concepts and exercises to get the absolutely new piano player started.

You will first learn about some of the essential parts of the piano: the keyboard or manual, the strings, the soundboard, and the pedals, and how these parts work together. The keyboard consists of eighty-eight keys that sound from left to right the instrument’s lowest note to its highest one. When a key is pressed, a hammer strikes one or more strings that are strung tightly across a brass harp inside the piano’s body. A soundboard amplifies the sound of the vibrating string producing the tone that we hear. When a key is released, felt dampeners stop the strings from sounding. The piano’s three foot-pedals affect the sound of the instrument in different ways. The most frequently used pedal is the right-most one called the sustain pedal. The sustain pedal inhibits the dampeners from stopping the vibrating strings until the pedal is released.

Now that you have some basic understanding of the piano’s workings, you will then probably spend some time learning how to sit at the piano, and how to place your hands on the keys. These two lessons are extremely important, especially for adult students. Piano players need to learn a sitting position and hand position that efficiently allows them access to all the keys, as well as not put any undue strain on their body.

The acoustic piano, unlike an electronic keyboard, actually takes quite a bit of strength and flexibility to play. Professional classical pianists share much in common with athletes: fine motor skills, highly trained muscles, and the ability for a great deal of concentration. Like athletes, if pianists over practice or use incorrect technique, they risk injury.

Once you learn how to sit and place your hands, you usually learn the fingering system, and the middle C hand position. Middle C refers to the note and piano key that is literally in the middle of the keyboard. The fingers of both hands are simply numbered from one through five starting with the thumb. You will also learn some rudimentary music theory in the first or second lesson, typically the musical alphabet and how it relates to the repeating pattern of black and white keys of the keyboard.

Students learn to play their first notes with an emphasis on producing a clear tone, while moving the fingers of the two hands in parallel and contrary motion. You also begin learning to read music at this point, with an introduction to the piano staff, simple rhythms, and how they relate to the middle C hand position.

Once you understand these basics, you will learn about other hand positions, and will probably begin to play simple songs or pieces. It is at this point different methodologies, learning curves, and repertoire will be introduced. Which direction your piano lessons will take will depend on your needs and desires, as well as those methods that the instructor favors.

If we are learning classical piano, your lessons will focus on learning pieces and studies from different style periods at a graduated level of difficulty. Lessons will be complimented with the study of technical exercises such as scales, and possibly even more music theory.

If you are studying popular musical styles, you will begin to learn some written out arrangements of familiar tunes, as well as how to build and play different chords, common chord progressions, and typical song forms. Jazz piano lessons will add in the dimension of improvisation techniques.

How To Play Piano Without Sheet Music

Looking for tips on how to memorize music? Playing without sheet music is possible. Here are my own challenges and triumphs.

A group of us musicians were asked to play for an outdoor event at an amphitheater right by the ocean. The morning began with a huge downpour and we were frantically drying wet music scores with a hair dryer. Needless to say, it was quite challenging. What did I personally learn from the experience? Memorize your music! Yes, you can insert sheet music in plastic sleeves and that would be one way to succeed. However, it’s fun just to go to Guitar Center and play a few memorized tunes in front of anyone who will listen.

1. So, why memorize music?

Playing without sheet music is very liberating.

Of course there’s no need to memorize music if you don’t want to. As a musician, I choose to memorize to avoid uncomfortable situations like music blowing off my stand when playing outdoors. Especially performing a night gig and the light bulb goes out on your music stand, surrounded by total darkness in the orchestra pit.

If you have been doing your homework during your practice sessions and you are familiar with the set of music, then you’re not locked in to reading just the music notes with having to turn pages as well.

You will soon discover new ways of music flowing since you’re eager to play without music.

2. Steps to help you memorize music.

If you’re playing boogie blues or rock and roll, learn the various left hand patterns in the 12 bar blues form. Notice a couple of phrases and see if the second phrase answers the first.

When I’m reviewing a song, let’s say it’s a ballad, I first determine the keynote and play around and find the melody in that particular key.

If you’re given a lead sheet, remembering chord progressions is the key to memorizing the song that is built on recalling the theory that you understand. Analyze the structure of the piece.

Now memorizing note for note is another ball game. Honestly, it can be more difficult for others than a youngster playing a memorized piece at a recital. In my opinion, the key to memorizing sheet music is through repetition. Also, try to remember if your hands are going in opposite directions or playing separately. Note tricky fingering as well.

I suggest taking small sections of music and repeatedly going over a few lines. We call this chunking and chaining. Please be patient. You may find recording or using flash cards to quiz yourself helps boost confidence in playing licks to a certain measure.

Laying down a rhythm pattern, programming drums, jamming in garage band or just using a metronome for a classical piece can keep you on track with skills to remember a song. Listening to a phrase of music indeed works the brain for short-term memory. Keep at it daily. In the beginning, I would open my music, then close it and try to play what I pictured.

3. Why these steps will help.

Practice, repetition and patience, a win-win formula, but truly there is no magic pill to take in memorizing music. Playing with other musicians for years and having that experience helps in knowing how to play certain songs well without sheet music. I’m thinking the biggest factor of all is choosing to memorize a song that you know and love will make it much easier for you to learn. You’re on your way!

Developing a Classical Piano Repertoire and Building a Music Library

One need not be a concert pianist to take the time and effort to develop a substantial repertoire. What does “repertoire” mean anyway? In short, repertoire is a body of works or songs that forms the pianist’s core or foundation. (Technically, a “song” has lyrics while a “work” or “piece” has no lyrics. The word “song” is often misused.) Many pianists believe that one must keep all pieces “under the fingers” or readily playable at all times and that this constitutes one’s repertoire. I believe, however, that repertoire implies something more all-encompassing. Let us now examine the term and explore the most efficient ways to develop, expand, and nurture it:

Five Golden Rules of Building a Substantial Piano Repertoire

1. Practice, practice, practice

2. Micro-cycle works you are currently practicing

3. Macro-cycle works throughout your life

4. Consider that no work is ever “finished”

5. Constantly add books and sheet music to your library

The first rule of practicing hardly needs explaining. To become better and more proficient at anything, one must do it, do it often, and love doing it with all one’s heart and soul. Tiger Woods did not become a great golfer by nibbling on snacks and watching TV. The world’s best surgeons did not get there by hanging out in bars and drinking beer. Likewise, an aspiring pianist wishing to have fun and success playing hundreds of songs or works will never get there by neglecting to practice on a regular basis. Ideally, one should practice not out of obligation, but rather out of the love of music and heart-burning desire to improve.

The second rule of micro-cycling works constitutes the pianist’s short-term plan, which may range anywhere from a few weeks to several months or perhaps a year at the most. This is what most people imply with the word “repertoire”, since it is the timeframe in which one could sit down at any time and play (preferably from memory) a set number of works. I have found the best results for micro-cycling by focusing on about five works at a time. For example, I will often spend an entire week practicing exclusively one work (like a Joplin rag), the next week exclusively another work (like a Mozart sonata), and the next week exclusively another work (like a Liszt ├ętude). Then, I may not even touch them at all for two months and, upon returning to one of them, it feels like “meeting an old friend” which accelerates its re-learning phase. What once took a week to accomplish now takes only a couple days. Ideally, the pianist should strive to learn, forget, and then relearn works in monthly, weekly, and daily cycles. This is the eternal and never-ending plan I follow when practicing and preparing for my YouTube videos.

The third rule of macro-cycling works constitutes the pianist’s long-term plan, which may range anywhere from one to ten years. A thirteen-year-old just starting out usually does not realize that what is learned in these formative years sets his/her musical foundation for life. Writing this article at the age of 47 and having begun piano at the young age of 6, I am constantly amazed at just how resilient and powerful the human brain really is. For example, I began practicing Mendelssohn’s “Rondo Capriccioso” this week after it had lain dormant and totally untouched for 27 years, and I was shocked when it came back to me memorized again in only three days. What took as long as three months to learn well at the age of 20 took me only three days to relearn as well or better at the age of 47. This is one of the intriguingly satisfying aspects about music and piano repertoire. All music ultimately remains in your conscience and forms your “musical identity” until the day you leave this earth. It is never too late to learn piano, develop a repertoire, and tap into the power of one’s musical memories. After I work on the “Rondo Capriccioso” for a week and record it for YouTube, I will most likely not touch it again for several years.

The logical successor to the third rule of macro-cycling is the fourth rule of considering a work to never be finished. When I was a freshman music major in college at the young age of 18, I thought works became “finished” after performing them in a recital or concert. My usual plan of action was to work on a set number of pieces for a semester or year, “finish” them, and then move on to the next pieces my professor assigned. Now at 47 I can’t help but smirk at my youthful innocence. As demonstrated with my “Rondo Capriccioso” experience, I have learned through time that no work will ever be finished. Never. Micro- and macro-cycling piano repertoire is the bread of the pianist’s musical life. These cycles continue until the end just like food and water. I am constantly resurrecting works once thought to be finished, and never have I been more content with my musical evolution and progress.

While the first four rules constitute the mental or immaterial components of developing a large piano repertoire, the fifth rule of constantly adding books and sheet music to one’s library constitutes the physical or material component. Just as one cannot wash dishes without first buying or acquiring plates, cups, and utensils, a pianist will never succeed in developing a large repertoire without buying or acquiring printed music. Most people refer to all printed music as “sheet music”, however, this is really a misnomer. Technically, “sheet music” refers to single works of up to about four pages at the most. For example, I recently ordered “My Heart Will Go On” from my preferred music company, Sheet Music Plus. (Although I am primarily a classical pianist, I also enjoy practicing pop music from time to time.) Being a single title, it is correctly referred to as sheet music. On the other hand, William Bolcom’s “Complete Rags For Piano”, which I also ordered from Sheet Music Plus, is not sheet music at all but rather a “music book” or “music volume” because it is thick and contains 21 titles. (Please excuse me for this clarification, but the term “sheet music” is often misused.)

I love my music library and still play from books I have had since the age of 10. I always find new books and sheets to buy, cherish, and add to my library. I am constantly branching out and exploring new repertoire. In the age of the internet, the use of free PDFs has become far too rampant in my opinion. PDF printouts often last only a few weeks at the most because they get lost or torn so easily. I do rely on free PDFs sometimes, however, 98% of my music library consists of sheet music and books I paid for. Although any music published before 1922 is in the public domain, and thus legally free to everyone, one is cheating oneself by relying too heavily on free PDFs. Books last a lifetime and can be used and reused until the end of one’s life. Refusing to buy music and trying so desperately to get it all for free is like eating from paper plates and plastic utensils. A pianist will never formidably expand his/her repertoire without acquiring the physical accessories (i.e. books) along the way. Let us conclude with a story.

Once when I taught piano at a college, a student came to his lesson with the first movement of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” copied on twelve thin sheets of fax paper. They did not stay on the music rack and constantly fell onto the floor. This went on for a whole semester until I almost ripped out all my hair and suffered a coronary. Forever thereafter, I forbade the use of PDF printouts in my studio and began encouraging students to buy the music from a store like I did when I was in college (pre-internet days, imagine that!). Had my student invested a little money in a volume of Beethoven’s sonatas (as much as it costs to go to a movie and order popcorn), he would have had the “Appassionata” as well as thirty more great sonatas for the rest of his life. However, instead of investing in his future he chose the cheap way. The moral of the story is that quality and longevity prevail and that it is in one’s own best interest to develop and nurture one’s music library throughout the course of one’s life. The immaterial and material work in unison. Physical and non-physical. Yin and Yang. (In Chinese philosophy, the “yin” or “feminine” equates to the immaterial or ephemeral aspect of practice and cycling while the “yang” or “masculine” equates to the material accessories like music books and sheets.)

So there it is in a nutshell: practice, micro-cycle, macro-cycle, no work is ever finished, constantly add music to one’s library. These are the five golden rules of building a substantial piano repertoire. Thank you for your time, and happy practicing!