Starting Your Piano Journey: Complete Guide to Learn How to Play the Piano

man holding iphone next to piano

Are you worried about being an adult piano student? You may be thinking "It is too late for me to start out!" But really, most adults who are interested in learning how to play the piano do so as a hobby and not to change careers. There is no need to concern yourself with that 12-year old prodigy that you've been seeing on T.V. In fact, learning piano as an adult has some great benefits for muscle memory and you will likely find that you excel at it much faster than you did anything else as a younger student. As an adult, you possess the necessary problem-solving strategies and understand the disciplined dedication that it takes to obtain any skill, including the basics of the piano. As Brazilian soccer player Pelé said:

“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”

3 Tips for the Beginner Adult Student

1. THE FIRST STEP: How to Start Playing the Piano

Before starting your journey on how to play the piano, you need supplies. Below is a list of the essentials, nonessentials, and useful additions to consider, with specific items explained in greater detail.

Essentials

  • A keyboard1
  • A piano bench, or chair of a good height2
  • Deciding on a learning method or learning approach3
inside of old piano

Nonessentials (highly recommended)

  • Pedal(s)4
  • Pencil or FriXion pen5
  • A notebook or a tablet for lesson notes, practice log, or stress-relief doodling
  • A music history book6

Other useful additions

  • An audio recorder7
  • List of favorite pieces8

1 Keyboard options (features vary by brand and cost):

FeaturesElectronic KeyboardUpright/Grand Piano
Price range9$100 - $1,000$4,000
Pros- Fun features (such as changing
instrumental sounds)
- Built-in metronome
- Recording/playback
- Pre-recorded
accompaniment rhythms
- always in tune
- portability
- Real piano
- Usually comes with a bench2
- Pedals included
- Dynamic range and control capable
- Does not require electricity!
- Looks better in the living room ☺
Cons- Light keys do not mimic action of
real pianos
- No pedals or pedal add-on is
incapable of good pedaling
- Incapable of sustaining long notes
- Lack of dynamic range
- More costly
- Heavier to move
- Requires maintenance & tuning
- No “fun features”

2 The piano bench: For upright and grand pianos, a piano bench is usually included in the purchase. For electronic keyboards, a separate chair must be acquired. The chair should NOT have wheels or armrests and should allow the elbows to be at the same height as the keyboard. Alternatively, one can add pillows and books to increase the sitting height of a low chair.

3 Pedals: There are three pedals – the damper (right), the sostenuto (middle), and the una corda (left). The only pedal that is necessary at the beginning stage is the right damper pedal, which sustains the sound. Upright pianos sometimes have only two pedals, and electronic pianos require an additional pedal add-on.

4 What is a FriXion pen? This is an erasable pen. When making markings on a score, pens are clearer than pencils and can be color-coded.

5 Music history: Playing a piece by Mozart or Beethoven would be half as interesting without knowing its history. It is like walking through an art museum without knowing how to understand or appreciate art.

6 Audio recording: Students progress faster when listening to their own playback and being their own critic. A phone is adequate.

7 Favorite pieces: Having a list of piano pieces that you are absolutely dying to play will give you a goal to strive for. Always remembering your original love of music will keep you going through any obstacles that come up.

8 Pricings listed are generalized. There are also many sources to explore for used or free pianos (Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, local and online piano stores, word-of-mouth).

9 LEARNING METHOD/APPROACH - Finding the most suitable method of learning is one of the essentials in developing a new skill. It is also the most challenging part of beginning lessons. The main options include: studying with a teacher or studying on your own. Both include a wide range of variables, so here are a few questions for consideration:

1. Do you prefer to have guidelines that you and your teacher set together for the best results, or set them on your own and see how it goes?

2. Do you want to be held accountable for deadlines, or let your own interests motivate your progress with the hope of success?

3. Do you prefer to have more guidance, or to discover things on your own?

4. Are you looking for structured learning that allows you to feel and understand what you are doing, or attempt to play your favorite pieces by ear?

5. Do you want to dazzle your guests with many different pieces and styles, or would you rather stick to a few pieces that you’ve learned by heart?

2. PURPOSE OF A TEACHER: The Best Way to Learn Piano

A teacher provides a personalized approach for each student on how to play the piano. Think of it as a mentor who strives to provide the most effective teaching for YOU, like a tailored suit or dress. The immediate feedback is crucial in preventing or changing bad habits, and experienced teachers can offer tricks to fix common problems. This personalized approach means you are receiving individual attention catered to your learning style.

Having taught students from beginner to advanced and from ages five to adult, I can confidently say that no two students are the same. Every student learns and thinks differently, requiring a teacher to also teach and interact differently. A pre-recorded online course is meant to be applicable for all users, therefore addressing a minimal number of problems that arise during the learning process.

How to find the right teacher? Many piano teachers offer a free trial lesson. This is necessary for both the student and teacher to test compatibility. If you are open to online lessons, you could also study with any teacher regardless of location. Tonara Connect is a platform that enables students to find teachers regardless of location or language and to choose based on teacher profiles. Additionally, the Tonara program features an online practice platform that makes practicing motivating and fun.

3. FOR THE SELF-DIRECTED LEARNER

With the new millennia of technology and the COVID-19 crisis, the move towards online teaching and tutorials has gained staggering momentum. Online teaching includes learning from a teacher through a virtual platform, or watching pre-recorded instructional courses and following an online course created by professional teachers.

Parallel to the ABCs of the alphabet, the piano basics playing include:

  • correct sitting and hand position
  • piano topography
  • becoming acquainted with the finger labelings
  • rhythms
  • notes
  • intervals, chords, and scales

Like a checklist, the beginner piano basics are standard and can be learned from books or by watching tutorials. With the new tablet and smart-phone generation, there are also many apps that can be used to facilitate the beginning stage. Apps are engaging and a fun source of learning, but – a note to the wary: apps make the learning process like a game. You hit the correct notes at the correct time and you gain points. Reach a certain number of points and you get a prize. Piano learning is not a game. Once you begin thinking of notes as a game, the music becomes emotionless.

I have had students come to me who originally learned piano from apps. We spent twice as long undoing their wrong habits before we could continue with the correct path.

FINAL TIPS

One of the common questions I receive as a teacher is: “What is the fastest and easiest way to learn how to play the piano?” In an age when immediate results and fast achievement are coveted, everyone - including myself - look for the easiest solution.

Piano is not the same. While the piano basics can be learned fast and easily through an effective teaching method and some diligent practicing, other aspects such as technique, ear sensitivity, practice techniques, and dynamic control are things that require constant and dedicated practice, as well as focused attention.

For the adult students who pursue music for enjoyment, having a teacher to tell you what to do may be a huge turnoff. Yet, consider the following: in one lesson, a teacher can immediately fix or address your problems, while no matter how much you shout and curse, an app or video cannot answer you. A teacher will tailor assignments to your progress and to the direction you want to go, and are helping you reach your goal in a more effective manner.

As a final reminder, whatever time is being spent at the piano can be done enjoyably and with a fun attitude, even practicing! The trick is to find that joy, the fulfillment that comes with striving towards and eventually achieving a goal. Always maintain that love and joy for music throughout your piano journey!