Ask the old fart learning to play piano!

When I was growing up, I always wanted to learn how to play the piano. Unfortunately, we grew up dirt poor. I mean, can’t-buy-dirt-when-its-on-sale poor. So getting a piano was completely out of the question, let alone piano lessons. As I got older, I started seeing a glacierly slow yet steady increase in disposable income. But everytime I started thinking about taking piano lessons, I’d end up moving across the ocean. This happened literally four times in the past 10 years.

As it turns out, my wife is an amazing piano player - she could have been accepted into a music university back home. When we moved to London, one thing she hated giving up was her piano. So a few months ago I surprised her by getting a piano rental - a beautiful upright at a very reasonable price. Having a piano in the home is truly a wonderful thing; I love nothing more than going home in the evening, and being just outside my door and I can faintly hear Chopin or Beethoven coming from the living room.

Well, now that I had a piano at home I was eager to learn myself. Plus, I have a new baby in the house, and I hope he decides to learn how to play, and I figure the best way for him to be interested is if both his parents play! I don’t really have the free time to committ to lessons at the moment, so I’ve been teaching myself. I have two initial goals. First, to give a bit of structure to what I’m doing and to measure progress, my intial goal is to pass the ‘Grade 1’ piano exam here in the UK given by ABRSM.

I’ve subscribed to the Pianist magazine, which is fantastic - 40 pages of sheet music, with selections for pure beginners like myself and advanced pieces for my wife.

Since I can’t read music very well, my routine is to pick one or two short songs to learn - going slowly, one note at a time. I end up memorizing it, so it doesn’t help with sight-reading. So instead I pick a beginner song from the magazine at random to practice sight-reading. And I’ve been learning some of the scales needed for the Grade 1 exam.

My second goal is to learn to play Moonlight Sonata. I think I might die a happy man if I could play that all the way through. I can play about the first quarter of it or so, and with (mostly) no mistakes if I play slowly.

So come on all you adult piano learners out there! Share your practice methods and secrets! Anyone else out there learning a new instrument somewhat later in life?

Well done!

I’m just picking up the piano again, after not really doing anything with it the last decade or so. As a child I got to grade 3, but couldn’t make myself get any further than that (in part the “all classical all the time” bent of my piano lessons didn’t help there - Bo-Ring! My current aim is to be able to play some decent jazz pieces)

Here’s a motivating story - my dad (who is, admittedly, pretty musical in general, and an ok piano player) took up the oboe when he retired, an instrument he’d never touched before. His scheme was half an hour of practise every day (no exceptions). That enabled him to go through a grade a year, and he’s now up to Grade 7.

Kid-level music courses claim that just 5 minutes a day is enough to make progress. Whether that applies to adults too, I don’t know. But slow and steady is the way to go.

Aspidistra - wow, your dad’s story is indeed inspirational - makes me almost look forward to retirement.

I won’t be tackling anything like jazz for a while - well beyond my current abilities when it comes to rhythm; anything other than 4/4 with the accents on the 2 and 4 leave me :confused: . A friend did recommend trying piano versions of popular songs I like, which is a pretty good idea; most of my guitar playing is doing my favorite guitar solos.

I just want to say that reference the Thread title,I am NOT learning to play the piano.

playing pop music is easy enough for the guitar, but for the piano it gets a little hairy. the chords are numerous and varying, and impossible for a beginner to read. i say buy a beginners’ song book that has 10-15 abridged classics in it and master each one of those. also, practice your scales. by the time you muck your way through learning 10-15 songs on your own, you should have no problem learning moonlight sonata, fur elise, entertainer, etc.

oh yeah, practice your scales.

How’s it going, DragonAsh?

I was at a camp last week and they had a Yamaha digital piano. It sounded awesome…not “keyboardy” at all. I looked up reviews, and I think I want one. I’ve always wanted to learn how to play piano.

I play guitar, but I can’t read music.

Yeah, I’m 44 and just started learning the guitar about a year ago. My practicing slacks off a bit, now and then, but I’m still enjoying it seeing good progress. Got lots of help and encouragement from the Dope.

I’m a very methodical learner. I played viola in junior high and high school, so I know rhythms, notation, and such. (And thank God for whoever invented frets.) I’m still amazed at people who learn guitar informally, without reading music.

Hmm, interesting. I tried poking around that site to see where I was on the guitar curriculum, but it sends me in circles. I click on the guitar grades, it asks what country I’m in, then syllabuses and regulations, then guitar, and it asks what country again.

My grandparents had an organ in their living room, and every time we went to visit them, my brothers and I had to have our turns playing it. Grandma had some beginning books of music, one of which had a matching tent thingie to put on the keyboard so you would see where each note was, and each note was color coded so if you saw, say, a green note on the staff, you matched it up with the green spot on the keyboard thingie (does anyone have any idea what to call that? I feel I should know a better word for it, but none is coming to mind).

But that’s not how I learned to read music, really. Starting when I was eight, I took clarinet lessons from my public elementary school. I continued on through sixth grade (age 12), which was as long as the school system gave them, and also started to play in the school band (practices occurred during recess one or two days a week). Then in seventh grade, I was put into one of the school bands, which was an actual class. And so I learned that I wasn’t really all that keen on playing clarinet, because when I practiced my pieces at home, they didn’t sound like much; I wish someone had told me that clarinets rarely had the melody, I might have chosen a different instrument to play. I wanted to quit band, but my parents wouldn’t let me until my sophomore year in high school, when band class conflicted with honors chemistry, and chemistry won out. Anyway, all this time, I wished I’d been learning piano. I actually asked my mother once, maybe when I was in college, if she’d ever considered piano lessons for any us (my brothers and me), seeing as we’d all shown some interest in playing at Grandma’s house. She told me that she and my father had actually discussed it once, but they couldn’t agree on whether to get a piano or an organ, and so got nothing.

So I went through most of my adult life wishing I knew how to play piano. When I mentioned this to people, they invariably told me that it wasn’t too late to learn. True, I would agree, but I haven’t got a piano to practice on, and there are other things that have financial priority over getting one. And so this went on for years, until one day Dorothea, the woman who taught an exercise class I was taking, asked me if I remembered the piano in an upstairs studio (class was in a dance school). I said yes, and she told me it had belonged to her sister-in-law, and when the s-i-l had passed away, Dorothea’s husband had inherited it. Since they already had a piano of their own, they donated the s-i-l’s to the dance school. In all the years the school had it, it had only been played once. Dorothea said if I was interested, she thought she could get the director of the school to let me have it. And so it came to pass that I acquired a used piano for only the cost of transporting it from the school to my home. Starting at the age of 49, I finally began taking piano lessons, and I am about to finish my third year.

When I told the story of getting the piano to my father, he asked why I hadn’t just bought an electronic keyboard. You know, I don’t really know why. I did briefly considered it once, but I think I figured they probably cost more than I cared to spend at the time. Perhaps I had misjudged their cost; my older brother had bought one shortly after he finished college and was earning some money.

I’m afraid I have no practice secrets to share, but congrats on finally getting to realize a dream.

Really? I always figured if I was going to take up a wind instrument, it would be the clarinet. (Violas never get the melody.) Maybe I’ve been overly influenced by Rhapsody in Blue and Benny Goodman.

Does any instrument among the winds get the melody, or is it always those attention-whore brasses?

  1. How on Earth can you play chords with your left hand and dance around with individual notes with your right hand. My brain cannot do this. I have learned some rudimentary guitar work, but the hands seem to work in unison. Not so with the piano.

  2. Paul McCartney and John Lennon were self-taught on the piano. They couldn’t read music, and they had absolutely no training. How in the world is this possible?

Well, clarinets do get the melody sometimes, but when they do it is primarily the first clarinets (in my experience, anyway). I did manage to make it to first clarinet first chair in the “B” band (not as good as “A” band) when I was in 8th grade, and to hold off a couple of challenges for first chair. But when I got to ninth grade, I was back to third clarinet in the Concert Band (not as good as the Symphonic Band). I think the flutes got the melody more than the clarinets did (at least in the pieces our band directors picked for us).

If I were to do it over again, I might choose flute. I almost did way back when, but most girls picked the flute, and I didn’t want to do the obvious thing. Also, we had a clarinet sitting at home unused because my older brother had tried it two years previously and had given it up. He must have been pretty bad at it since my parents let him quit lessons. My younger brother chose the trumpet. When he got into ninth grade, he was put in the Concert Band as well. He asked the band director what it would take to make the other band, and was told that at his current rate he might make it his senior year. He was also told that he would make it a lot sooner if he switched to tuba, as there was a shortage of tuba players. He agreed, so he was given a sousaphone to practice on at home, and he made the Symphonic Band (probably his sophomore year, I think it might have meant switching around too many classes to do it his freshman year).

Complex guitar work can be even harder - at least pianists have the advantage of telling one hand to be louder than the other. It’s really hard to tell your right thumb to play louder than your right fingers when they all play at the same time.

Assuming you’re learning from a teacher who is using a progressive method - you often start with both hands playing in unison. Then you progress to one hand plays four notes, then the other hand plays four notes. Then two hands together but playing in opposite directions - you’d think it would be easy to go ‘L&R thumbs, L&R index fingers, L&R middle fingers, etc.’, but it takes learning. You develop independence of hands and ultimately, independence of fingers over time, working in small increments.

Depending on your repertoire, you may get into things like Chopin Nocturnes, where the left hand is playing the harmony and (loosely) keeping time, while the right hand (99% of the time) is playing a free, romantic melody. At the Royal Conservatory of Music, you play the easiest Chopin Nocturnes at about Grade 9 (out of 11 grades - 1 through 10 plus Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto.).

If you play Bach, you start with 2 part inventions in Grades 7 and 8. These involve playing two distinct melodic lines, one in each hand. There’s usually a canon-like relationship between them - for instance, the 2nd invention in c minor is a canon an octave apart and two bars apart from each other. The day that the student realizes that Bach constructed a melody that would harmonize with itself 32 notes down the road is an occasion for a major brain melt. Later, Bach fugues demand 4 or sometimes 5 distinct voices - often the middle voices involve having to bring out the thumbs and index fingers of alternating hands while continuing to play quieter with the remaining 6 fingers. 3 voice Bach fugues are in the Grade 9 RCM rep.; 4 voices in Grade 10 and 5 voice fugues at the ARCT level.

Jazz players are also capable of amazing feats, keeping rock solid time with the left hand while playing freely syncopated improvisation with the right. Or playing a distinct bass line in the left hand, chords in the left hand on the off beats and playing the melody in octaves with the right using thumb and pinky and throwing in other harmony notes with RH index, middle and ring fingers.

But the people who can do these sorts of things have developed that independence one step at a time. It is incredible, it is impressive, but it is as much a tribute to their discipline and passion for music as anything else. Steve Nash earned his basketball skills by practicing for days on end in the gym, and Glenn Gould, Earl Hines, Oscar Peterson all earned their chops in hours of sweat, too.

By the time someone is playing that well, their fingers ‘know’ where to go without any visual cue and without any conscious effort. Think about eating with a fork - when was the last time you missed your mouth and speared your cheek? Think of a Bach fugue the next time you drive a standard - your feet and hands all have their independent tasks and their interdependent timing.

I’ll leave the specifics of Paul and John to some of the others on the Board who are much more knowledgeable about The Beatles. Quick and dirty version - the notes that make up the chords on the guitar are the same notes on the piano, just spread differently. Even if no one told them anything about the piano, if you play a C chord on a guitar and use your ear to find those notes on the piano, you can do it. Especially if you’re determined, and especially if your ear is good enough that you’re learning Elvis Presley songs from the record.

For that matter, Errol Garner, the great jazz pianist, claimed to be entirely self-taught…

That. Is. One. Fantastic. Response.
Thank. You!

The musical pedant in me needs to point out that the Moonlight Sonata is three movements, and the third movement is ridiculously advanced. You need to be a seriously accomplished player to play the third movement.

At any rate, as a professional musician and music teacher, I really need to take some piano lessons, which I haven’t had since graduate school (2003). I’m a pretty good reader, but my technique is atrocious.

See if you can find The Piano Guy on your local PBS or cable access station. It’s a series of over 100 half-hour shows by Scott Houston for piano beginners. It emphasizes “have fun” and learn to play by ear and using lead sheets, not commercial piano/vocal sheet music. Scott shows some simple tricks each episode, then has a professional player as a guest and they go over the basics for a simple pop tune that everyone knows. Of course the professional gets to show off, but that’s part of the fun.

I thought I should forward this article from today’s Toronto Star - The keys to aging well. I love it that for this piano teacher, the ‘big kids’ outnumber the ‘little kids’…

Way to go! Isn’t it thrilling!!

I play the piano and finally got rid of my funky sounding upright and got a pretty good sounding electronic that was a pedal, weighted keys that I can adjust, and sounds that are much better than my old clunker. I can also play it with earphones on while my husband watches TV or sleeps.

He gave me an harmonica from Tiffanys a couple of birthdays ago. I have bought a couple to practice on sense then and they just sit there and mock me. Maybe I will take them up. I have Harmonica for Dummies somewhere.

This is for DragonAsh. One of the reasons that it is important to practice your scales is so that you can check your technique. Be sure that your wrists are up and parallel to the piano and be sure that your fingers are curved. Don’t sit too far back on the piano bench. Notice where other pianists sit.

But above all, the WRISTS!!!

Also, when you have a chance, listen to the same two pieces of music played by Rubenstein and then by Horowitz. Notice the difference in styles. (Good to do this on short pieces.)

I heard Moonlight Sonota played on a Broadman (I think) piano which is what Beethoven would have played it on. It has a lovely soft sound. I heard it in an auditorium with large windows. They had timed the program so that as she played “that” movement, the curtains were open and the full moon was outside. It was breathtaking beyond words.

I used to play it. Again, you have inspired me. My old piano didn’t do it justice. I think I will relearn that and Clair de Lune.

Thanks for that great article. I wasn’t expecting an article on boomers learning to play piano would be touching, but it was.

I took viola all through High School then stopped after I graduated. I tried to take it up again about ten years ago, and quickly realized that I have bursitis or arthritis or something in my shoulder, so holding a viola for half an hour and playing was too painful to continue. (And that was when I was a youngster of about 40!)

I’ve always wanted to play piano since I was a kid… my parents told me time and time again when I would ask for a piano that they “used to have a really nice player piano, but moved, so put it on the street for someone to take”. That was their response every time, so eventually I gave up even bothering to ask.

This whole thread is giving me ideas on what I might do on my 50th birthday in November - I’m sensing a piano and lessons in my future… :smiley: