I’m going to level with you. I’m not a piano virtuoso. I can barely play a fourth grade level piano piece with moderate mastery, so you’re probably wondering how I can give any advice on playing the piano. I know why, after many years of fumbling at the keys I still cannot just sit down a play a beautiful piece of music, and I aim to catch you before you do what I did.
Play to Impress
I started taking group piano lessons at a public school. I had no piano at home but had ample access to the practice rooms at school. I had daily practice and lesson sessions, so after four years of public piano education, I could have been a really impressive pianist if I had focused my energy on playing well. I wanted to play the piano to impress people. I really did, but my definition of “impressing people,” fell short of what music is all about. The music should move the audience; the complexity of the piece alone will not move people. So when you play the piano to impress people, you want to impart an indelible impression on their souls through music. In Eric Clapton’s autobiography, he describes how blues music affected him. He said, “For me there is something primitively soothing about this music, and it went straight to my nervous system, making me feel ten feet tall.”
In my early days of learning the piano, I forgot that even a simple piece could and should be played to go straight to the nervous system. I stumbled through the beautiful nuances of musical pieces that were far beyond my technical abilities. So, whether you are playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata, be sure you’ve mastered the technique. Feel the music and learn the nuances of the piece so well that the music, not the difficulty of the piece, impresses your audience.
Linger in Your Lessons
Don’t push ahead. Love the music you are learning right now. It’s a Zen thing. If you’re hoping to show off some smooth skills and you want to skip all that beginner’s stuff to be finessing the ivories like Glenn Gould, you’ll miss out on the some of the greatest moments of musical growth. You have your whole life to master the piano, even if you’re starting as an adult. Don’t miss out on making the beautiful music that you can make now. Understand the theory of the music you are playing. Spend time reading scores to practice your reading skills and don’t worry about rushing into your next “impressive” piano solo. Play the scales in the keys of the pieces you play. Listen to the notes. Engage in it fully. I promise you that there will always be people who are more advanced than you are, so why miss out on the opportunity to listen and love the simple pieces you are playing. Also, if you can play “When the Saints Go Marching In” like you absolutely feel the music, your audience will surely appreciate it.
Play Pieces You Love
Robert Zatorre, a professor of neurosurgery at Montreal Neurological Institute has said that “Music is strongly associated with the brain’s reward system.” Zatorre and his colleagues have found that when people really like the sound of music, their brains release dopamine. It’s almost as if good music is a drug. With that said, if you don’t particularly care for listening to a piano piece, even if an excellent pianist is playing it, you’ll have difficulty getting into the piece. You won’t tune into the dynamics of the piece while listening to it, so you’ll have difficulty conveying the message of the piece. Don’t ever be afraid to ask your teacher if you can play something else at the same level. That is not to say you should avoid pieces you don’t like when practicing sight reading, but if you’re planning to do a recital, you should play something you really enjoy hearing.
Practice Sight Reading Daily
Kenneth Saxon, for American Music Teacher, explains that good musical sight readers share some common traits, such as looking ahead while playing and not looking at their hands while playing. As you can imagine, sight reading is one aspect of playing the piano that is integral to learning the feel and vibe of your instrument. Sight reading is a skill that I wish I had spent more time practicing in my youth. As an adult, I had taken some time to re-introduce myself to the piano by thumbing through various books of music. I found that the more I played unfamiliar pieces, the more familiar shapes and rhythms of music became to me. Eventually, I loved the surprise of reading new music; however, I realized over time that my problem of playing incorrect notes had more to do with my limited familiarity of the keyboard than with my ability to read. You can see now, the link between lingering in your lessons, playing to impress, and learning to sight read. Practicing sight reading requires the hands to automatically know where to go, and that requires you to spend time practicing playing without looking at your hands-learning your instrument fully.
Learn to Impress Quickly
I didn’t trick you. Perhaps you thought I could give you some magical insight into playing the same pieces a 20 year piano veteran virtuoso plays in just under a year. The point is not to play razzle-dazzle show-off pieces. The point is to love the music and to play with clarity so that even if you play a c-scale, you are lifting the beautiful vibrations of tonal steps from somewhere inside you. Whoever it is in the room with you, whether it is an audience in an auditorium or it is just you, will find delight in each note you’ve mastered. If you linger in the process, a single note played with control and depth is, in fact, a very impressive sound. You can make impressives sounds in a matter of weeks, though you might not be playing anything difficult at all. Take time learning. Don’t try to rush the process like I did just so you could attempt to show-boat, because it doesn’t work.