In this post I answer 25 questions that adults frequently ask about learning piano, including questions about learning as an older adult, reading music, practicing, and creating music.

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Adults and Piano

Can adults learn to play piano? Or am I too old?

Adults can definitely learn to play piano, as evidenced by the fact that it’s the most popular instrument for adults to study.

With quality instruction and regular practicing, it’s no more difficult to learn piano as an adult than as a child. In many ways, adults learn faster than children:

  • You have a longer attention span
  • It’s easier for you to grasp complex musical concepts
  • You can draw upon helpful learning strategies acquired from past experiences
  • Compared to many (if not most) kids, you’re highly motivated to learn and practice

Regarding the “too old” question, my experience is that older (60+) adult beginners often progress slower than younger adult beginners. Rather than wondering if you’re too old, a better question might be Can I learn to play well enough to enjoy myself? The answer is almost certainly yes.

How is learning piano different for adults, compared to kids?

In some ways, piano lessons for adults are similar to those for kids. You’ll most likely have a 30-60 minute weekly lesson. You’ll play for your teacher. Your teacher will provide practicing suggestions for the following week.

But there may also be significant differences, especially if your teacher follows the Recreational Music Making (RMM) philosophy. RMM originated from the recognition that most adult music students are recreational musicians who want to play for personal enjoyment. RMM teachers realize that unlike a kid, you are self-motivated, want to establish your own learning goals, and want control and decision-making over the music that you play.

As an adult you won’t be required to perform at studio recitals (unless your teacher is very old school). You should expect your teacher to flexibly accommodate your musical goals and interests. And you’re allowed to say “I want to play this, not that.

I took piano as a kid. Will that help me as an adult?

My experience teaching hundreds of adult piano students is that “returners” (adults who have studied piano at some point in the past) typically progress faster than beginners. But not inevitably. A beginner who practices two hours a day will almost certainly progress faster than a returner who practices 30 minutes a day.

What are the first steps to take to learn piano as an adult?

First, get clear on your goals. Example: learn how to read music, learn chords, play that Joe Hisaishi song

Next, consider possible obstacles and solutions. Example: who will watch the kids while I practice? ask spouse!

After you start learning, you can boost the chances of your long-term success by:

  • Practicing consistently and smartly
  • Soliciting honest feedback from your teacher
  • Being patient and remaining steadfast through the inevitable ups and downs of the learning process

For a comprehensive list of piano success strategies, check out The Definitive Guide to Success as an Adult Piano Student.

What are realistic expectations for an adult beginner?

Realistic timelines for some popular goals are:

  • Play melodies one hand at a time (first few weeks)
  • Play simple songs with both hands (a few weeks to a few months)
  • Learn the basics of keyboard technique (first few months)
  • Learn the essentials of reading music (first few months)
  • Learn the essentials of how to practice (a few months)
  • Learn basic improvising skills (a few weeks to a few months)
  • Learn basic music theory (first year)
  • Learn advanced music theory (subsequent years)

Nearly all the “basics” that you’ll learn in the first few weeks and months are skills you’ll continue to improve as long as you play piano. For better or worse, there is no point at which you’ll be able to say, “I’ve learned it all.”

What does a model adult student look like?

From a piano teacher’s perspective, a model adult student:

  • is enthusiastic and self-motivated (this is usually a given)
  • has a good work ethic (practices regularly)
  • sets high standards (though not too high – perfectionism can be counterproductive)
  • follows their teacher’s advice and suggestions
  • is detail-oriented
  • is patient

Learn more about the skills and aptitudes for success as an adult piano student.

Reading Music

How important is learning to read music? How long does it take to read it well?

There is more sheet music available for the piano than for any other instrument – millions and millions of pages of it. If you can read music, you’ll have at your fingertips (so to speak) a treasure trove of music to explore that would take many lifetimes.

So while it’s not absolutely essential to learn to read music, it sure does help! The good news is that learning to read music isn’t difficult. You can learn the fundamentals within a few weeks to a few months. Of course, your reading skills will continue to improve as long as you continue playing.

Learn about one of the most important aspects of learning to read music well.

How do you read notes for both hands at the same time?

Reading music involves pattern recognition that allows you to read “chunks” of music rather than individual notes. The famous conductor Leonard (“Lenny”) Bernstein, played by Bradley Cooper in the 2023 film Maestro, was said to be able to play orchestral scores at the piano with ease. The typical orchestral score has 10 to 20 simultaneous musical parts to grasp … not just two!

If Lenny could read 20 musical parts simultaneously, you can certainly learn to read notes for both hands at the same time!

How can I become a better sight reader?

Sight reading is the ability to play a piece well without ever having practiced it. The best way to improve your sight reading is by doing it regularly! And it won’t hurt to keep improving your overall playing skills, your knowledge of music theory, and your musical ear.

Practicing

How can I make the most productive use of my practice time?

By learning how to practice well. Specifically, by consistently applying this practicing strategy.

How should I structure my practice sessions? What are some good practicing methods?

A time-tested way to structure piano practice is by warming up with finger exercises, scales, or (if you enjoy them) technical drills such as Hanon’s or Czerny’s (though I don’t particularly recommend them). Once you’re warmed up, focus on repertoire, creative projects, ear training, theory, or whatever else your teacher has assigned. Here are some additional useful tips:

Get to know the piece

Listen to a recording before practicing a new piece. The fine points of interpreting a piece are learned best by listening to one or more accomplished performances.

Scan the music

Take note of the time signature, tempo, starting notes and fingers, etc.

Break things down

Break a piece down into its constituent parts and focus on one at a time. Examples:

  • Rhythm only – tap and count the rhythm out loud
  • Notes and fingering only – play the correct notes and fingers without observing the rhythm
  • Hands separately – practice one hand at a time

When you’re able to successfully perform constituent parts of the music, start putting them back together.

Concentrate

You will usually accomplish more during shorter sessions of focused practicing than a longer period of less-focused practicing. Try two (or more) shorter practice sessions each day instead of a single longer one.

Observe everything

Observe everything on the music from the very first practice session (unless to break things down you’re purposely not observing everything).

Practice slower

Practicing slower will help you avoid mistakes. This is often slower than you think you need to play – or want to play! Once you can consistently play correctly, you can gradually increase the tempo. But if you start making mistakes, slow down again.

Pause to avoid mistakes

If you practice slowly enough you’ll usually know when you’re about to make a mistake, and can pause before making it. That way you won’t learn the mistake. Pauses are easily eliminated later.

Count out loud

For learning rhythms, counting out loud almost always works better than counting silently. It can also be helpful to say other components of the music out loud, such as specific note values (“1-2-3” for a dotted half note), fingering, note names (“F-D-B”), etc.

Use the metronome

The metronome’s primary functions are to (1) set the tempo and (2) help you keep a steady beat. If you find yourself practicing too fast, use the metronome to slow yourself down. If your beat is unsteady, use the metronome to keep it steady.

By itself, the metronome won’t help you learn rhythms. You must count to do that.

Give more attention to trouble spots

If you’re playing the music well except for one or two trouble spots, focus most of your practice on the trouble spots. Don’t waste time playing the whole piece over and over.

Record yourself and listen back

Recording yourself and listening back lets you give 100% of your attention to your performance, making it easier to hear what improvements are needed.

Take notes

Take notes on your music to remember or draw attention to important details.

Technique

How should I sit at my instrument?

Sit on the front half of the bench or chair. With your hands on the keys, your elbows should be slightly in front of your torso. Move the bench closer if you have to lean forward to reach the back of the keys.

The optimal bench (or seat) height should keep your forearm roughly parallel to the floor and your elbows at the same level as the tops of the white keys. Adjust it as necessary.

Sit with a straight and balanced posture, shoulders relaxed.

With your arms hanging at your side, the forearm, wrist and hand have a natural, easy alignment. The fingers curve naturally, without any effort. Bring this position to the keyboard.

Keep your feet flat on the floor. If the music requires the damper (sustain) pedal, rest your right heel on the floor and the ball of your right foot on the pedal.

What’s a good exercise for improving finger dexterity?

Your finger dexterity will improve by playing real music. In other words, special exercises aren’t necessary for improving finger dexterity. That said, improving your overall piano technique will help. The best way to improve your technique is with the help of a good teacher.

There are a few fundamental exercises (scales etc.) that are worth learning and practicing. These can also improve your dexterity. Check out the Ultimate Piano Warm-Up.

How can I make my left hand as strong as my right hand?

It’s certainly possible to improve your non-dominant hand’s coordination and dexterity. (Strength is not really the issue.) That said, in my experience it’s unlikely that your non-dominant hand will ever feel as coordinated and dexterous as your dominant hand. (After decades of playing, mine sure doesn’t!) But as long as your “weaker” hand can play the music it needs to play, that’s not a problem.

Creativity

When can I start improvising? How can I become a better improviser?

Within the first few weeks of lessons, you can learn how to improvise simple one-handed melodies with a backing track, or with your teacher accompanying you by playing a chord progression.

From there, the sky’s the limit! If you want to improvise at the level of a professional rock or jazz musician, you’ll want to continue expanding your musical vocabulary by learning scales, patterns and chords. Doing this is like learning words and phrases in a foreign language in order to speak it conversationally. Professional improvisers will intensively practice dozens of types of scales and chords in the 24 major and minor keys, along with hundreds of patterns. They will also learn great improvised solos by ear in order to assimilate the style of the greats.

How do you play sheet music that only shows a melody, chord symbols and lyrics?

This kind of sheet music is called a lead sheet. The simplest way to render a lead sheet is to play the melody with your right hand and the chords with your left hand. To create more sophisticated arrangements of a lead sheet, you’ll want to learn as much as possible about:

  • chords, including chord types, inversions, and voicings
  • how to create rhythmic grooves
  • how to compose introductions and endings
  • music theory (in order to “reharmonize” songs and/or make them more interesting and sophisticated)

Miscellaneous

What’s the first lesson like?

At Creative Keyboardist we’ll discuss your musical background, the music you want to play, and your piano goals.

If you’ve played before, we’ll ask you to briefly play so we can assess your skill level.

Your teacher will then begin formulating a practice plan for achieving your goals, and assign specific exercises and music to learn for your next lesson.

How do you learn a song by ear?

The most basic ear skill is relative pitch – the ability to hear the distance between two pitches (frequencies of sound). Relative pitch can be developed by practicing ear training exercises.

A song consists of a melody (notes separated by specific intervals, played sequentially) and chords (three or more notes separated by specific intervals, played simultaneously). Once you develop good relative pitch, you can easily learn melodies and chords by ear, allowing you to play countless songs!

Can beginners play classical music?

Yes! You can play classical or popular music from nearly the first lesson, though it will naturally be simplified. In Creative Keyboardist’s Adult Piano Course, you’ll play melodies by Beethoven, Mozart, Dvorak and other great composers in the first month or two of lessons, in addition to pop and folk songs.

I want to gain a deep understanding of the piano, and how and why notes, chords and rhythms work together. How do you learn music and not just a bunch of songs?

Good goal! Paraphrasing the famous “teach a man to fish” aphorism:

If you teach a piano student a song, she’ll be musically satisfied for a week. If you teach a piano student how to learn a song, she’ll be musically satisfied for a lifetime.

The answer to your question is by working with a teacher who understands the importance of teaching their students how to learn. These are multiple skills involved in learning music, including:

  • Reading and sight reading skills
  • Practicing skills
  • Ear training skills
  • Chords and scales
  • Rhythm skills
  • Keyboard technique
  • Music theory

Some teachers may also teach creative skills such as:

  • Improvising
  • Arranging (playing from lead sheets)
  • Composing

How long does it take to become a respectable piano player?

The main factors that determine the answer to this question are:

  • The difficulty of the music you want to play
  • The means you’ll use to learn
  • How much and how well you’ll practice

For an in-depth exploration of these factors and the average time it takes to learn both easy and difficult popular and classical pieces, check out How Long Does It Take an Adult to Learn Piano?

What separates good pianists from great ones?

In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin considered this very question. His conclusion is that great musicians practice smarter and harder. Specifically, world-class performers:

  • use a “deliberate practice regimen” designed by an expert (a great teacher or performer)
  • accept that the kind of practicing that leads to superior musicianship isn’t necessarily fun
  • are highly mentally-focused when practicing
  • are willing to engage in a tremendous amount of repetition, sometimes far past the point of tedium
  • seek immediate feedback as much as possible (one of the most valuable aspects of one-on-one lessons)

Read more about Deliberate Piano Practice.

How do you memorize music?

You’re more likely to play a piece well after you’ve memorized it and are no longer dependent on the music. Memorizing frees up your attention for important details like your interpretation of the music.

Like just about anything, memorizing becomes easier the more you do it.

There are three kinds of “musical memory”: kinesthetic, aural, and analytical.

Kinesthetic memory (also called muscle memory) is fundamental for memorizing music. After playing a piece many times, your body will start “knowing” which notes to play. Kinesthetic memory is enhanced by practicing with as few mistakes as possible.

Aural memory means knowing the music by ear. Sometimes aural memory is all that’s needed to memorize a song, especially if it’s simple. But it’s also useful for memorizing longer and more complex pieces. Your aural memory can be facilitated by doing ear training exercises to improve your musical ear.

Analytical memory means knowing the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic structure of a piece, including the details of dynamics, articulations, phrasing and pedaling. This kind of memory is especially important for memorizing long classical pieces, like a sonata or concerto. Analytical memory generally requires an extensive understanding of music theory, especially harmony.

How can I learn to better appreciate music (especially classical)?

It’s easier to appreciate just about anything by learning more about it. A good guide is Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works by Phil G. Goulding.

Learning about music history specifically can be surprisingly entertaining and illuminating. A timeless book is The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg, who was chief music critic of the the New York Times.

A useful strategy for appreciating pieces that aren’t immediately appealing is to engage in active (purposeful) listening. I also recommend listening to a new piece several times before deciding whether you like it. The greatest music, which is often quite sophisticated, can take repeated hearings to appreciate.

As a beginner, when will I be ready to study music theory?

While there are many ways to define music theory, I like to be as inclusive as possible. In my definition, music theory includes everything from the most basic musical symbols to the most arcane and mathematically-involved concepts such as tuning and temperament. This means that as a beginner, you’ll be studying music theory from the start – and you’ll probably never stop!

That said, I’m guessing your question is more along the lines of “When will I be ready to learn about chord types and chord progressions?” In my experience, most adult beginners are ready to study chords intensively by their second year of lessons, and sometimes sooner.

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