Over many years of teaching piano, I’ve identified a number of action steps, skills and routines that distinguish the highest-achieving adult piano students from others. Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned player, if you’ve been wondering how you can maximize your progress as an adult piano learner, keep reading.
Wanted to learn piano for years, but never felt ready?
To learn piano (or anything, for that matter), the best time to start is now.
James Clear, author of the best seller Atomic Habits, says successful people start before they feel ready.
After all, the sooner you begin, the longer you will be playing, and the more time you’ll have to become the best player you can be.
You may not be able to see the path yet. That’s okay. Just take the first step.
Negatively comparing yourself to your sibling who took lessons for years, or your teacher, or your favorite pianist – isn’t terribly productive.
I’m as guilty as anyone of this. I recently took up pickleball, and noticed myself comparing my skills to my partners and competitors. Am I good enough? Will they want to play with me again?
Who knows, really? These future-oriented thoughts just cause anxiety, and distract me from appreciating how well I can play today.
Appreciate the piano skills you have today. Enjoy the music you make today. You’ll be a better player tomorrow, but you’re already a better player than you were yesterday!
Get the Best Instrument You Can Afford
Buy or rent an acoustic piano or high-quality digital piano.
If you go digital, get the most realistic instrument. This means an instrument that feels and sounds as similar to an acoustic piano as possible.
Learn more about the best digital pianos for adult beginners.
Don’t Teach Yourself
Don’t teach yourself, at least not for long. Whether piano, karate, or Spanish, few people become proficient at a complex skill, let alone acquire mastery of it, without studying with a first-rate teacher.
Sure, you can learn some of the basics on your own (with the help of a method book or online app), but to develop true proficiency as a player and learner, studying with a skilled teacher is imperative. Disclaimer: Yes, Creative Keyboardist offers 1-on-1 private virtual lessons for adults, so this may seem like an ever-so-slightly biased claim. Yet consider that the vast majority of good-to-great musicians have taken years of private lessons…
If you’re new to learning piano, seek out an adult-centered teacher who is enthusiastic about teaching beginners. The best teacher for you may also possess specialized knowledge and skills related to your particular musical goals.
Become a Self-Learner
Becoming a self-learner isn’t the same as trying to teach yourself from square one.
The goal of a good piano teacher is to guide their students to become self-sufficient as learners and players, i.e. independent musicians.
This typically takes years.
The best teachers will launch you on the path to becoming a self-learner by teaching you how to learn and practice new music. They’ll set high expectations for practicing between lessons, which will keep you motivated and help you develop self-confidence. They’ll be a mentor who helps you diagnose problems and think analytically but also creatively about your playing.
But in the end it’s your responsibility to intentionally apply what you’ve learned to become more and more self-sufficient as a player.
Set Realistic Goals
Setting goals (and writing them down) will take you further as a musician than not doing so.
There are many ways to formulate a goal, like “SMART”: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-focused, and Time-bound.
After setting a goal, consider exactly what steps you’ll need to take to achieve it. What will you need to do, learn or practice?
One of my adult students recently took the better part of two lessons to precisely formulate his goals, using me as a sounding board. He found the process to be immensely useful.
Of course, when setting goals it’s important to be realistic. If you’re a beginner at age 45, are you going to become a world-class pianist by age 55? Probably not. Yet this doesn’t mean you can’t learn to play the music that you love at a high level and enjoy piano as a life-long hobby.
Learn to Read Well
We’ve found that the vast majority of Creative Keyboardist students want to learn to read music, and read it well. Since there’s more music written for the piano than any other instrument, reading is a useful skill to say the least.
Make sure your method and/or teacher teaches intervallic reading. This involves pattern recognition, and is much more efficient than reading individual notes. It’s not much different than learning to speed-read a book, and usually easier to learn.
Train Your Ear
Improving your “musical ear” can allow you to:
- Learn to play a song just by hearing it (“playing by ear”)
- Play what you hear in your head (useful for improvisers and composers)
- Recognize mistakes you might otherwise miss
- Help you memorize music faster
- Improve your reading skills (believe it or not)
You can begin training your ear even before starting lessons. Search for “ear training” websites and smartphone apps.
Don’t Neglect Technique
The way one moves to play piano is called piano technique.
The way you move – your technique – influences the quality of your playing more than anything else. Better (more refined and “correct”) technique leads to better musical results.
A good teacher is your best resource for learning and improving technique.
Ear training (described above) is an often-neglected aspect of technique. The more detail you can hear and understand, the more feedback you’ll have on what works and what doesn’t.
Seek Out Honest Feedback
When I was a young adult, I received extremely honest but quite critical feedback from another member of a songwriting group. Boy, did I hate her for awhile! Only later did I recognize what a gift her honesty had been in helping me assess my songwriting skills.
It’s incredibly valuable to proactively seek honest feedback on your playing, particularly from your teacher. While it may occasionally sting, honest feedback is much more useful to your advancement as a musician than less-than-honest “positive” comments.
One of the most effective ways to request feedback is by using a 1 to 10 scale. You could ask your teacher:
On a scale from 1 to 10, how well did I play the piece?
On a scale from 1 to 10, how well do you think I’m practicing?
On a scale from 1 to 10, how is my overall progress?
If the answer isn’t “10,” follow up with this exceptionally useful question: What could I do to make it a 10?
Detail orientation is a highly-coveted job skill. It’s no less valuable for learning piano.
Detail orientation means giving attention to everything involved in playing – visually, aurally and kinesthetically:
- Visually: tracking all the symbols on the page in order to perform the music accurately
- Aurally: listening to the music you make for richness of tone, accuracy of notes and rhythm, and appropriate musical expression
- Kinesthetically: being mindful of your technique and making changes as needed to improve your overall musical results
The highest-achieving piano students generally take detailed notes at lessons and/or record their lessons for later playback. They also make meticulous notes on the written music to remember their teacher’s suggestions for improvement.
Set High Standards
To become the best player you can be, learn to play most pieces as well as you possibly can. This may sometimes entail practicing a piece beyond the point where it interests or moves you. Yet consider that top virtuosos continue to practice and perform the same pieces for decades. How do they do it without perishing of boredom? One way is to learn to intentionally appreciate the experience of playing, as well as your developing skills.
An occasional exception to this rule-of-thumb is OK. Sometimes you may tire of a piece or simply not enjoy it enough to want to polish it to perfection.
Cultivate a Problem-Solving Approach
When you are challenging yourself to become a better player, you’ll run into technical challenges on a regular basis. A common response to a difficult section of a piece is to think that your skills are not yet a match for it. Instead, try viewing a “hard” section of a piece as a “problem” with a findable solution. By approaching musical challenges as a solvable problem and not an insurmountable difficulty, you’ll gain self-confidence for overcoming future challenges.
Practice Consistently and Smartly
It’s obvious that consistent (regular) practice has a direct correlation with consistent progress. Consider scheduling time for practicing and making it a top priority.
Practicing smartly means learning and applying valuable practicing skills and strategies. Here are a few:
- Keep your practice sessions short. Brief but highly-focused sessions are more productive than longer, less-focused sessions.
- Break a piece down to its constituent parts. For example, practice one hand at a time before practicing hands together.
- Practice slower. Too many piano students attempt to play a piece at tempo before they are ready. Allow plenty of practice time for learning the “mechanics” of the piece: the notes, rhythm, fingering, and technique. It pays big dividends.
Keep Learning About Practicing
There are a number of excellent books about how to practice piano well, such as this one.
If you want to go beyond the norm, though, consider establishing a deliberate practice regimen. This will feel more like work than recreation. It’s not for everyone. But if you have serious musical aspirations, it may be worth it. Here are two ways that deliberate practice differs from most people’s practice habits:
- It involves focusing one’s practice time on the most difficult parts of the music, rather than playing the entire piece over and over. The former is the default practice approach of most virtuosos.
- It requires maximizing feedback. A tennis player who regularly practices with their coach may be better off than the typical piano student, who usually practices alone. If you can afford it, take lessons more frequently.
Be Patient and Keep Going
Like any complex skill, learning to play the piano is a journey. Patience is vital.
But keep going. If you graduated from high school or college, you had to study and work for years.
You have to do the same when learning piano.
But isn’t it true that something really worth learning won’t always be easy? Learning piano isn’t always easy. In fact, it can be quite challenging at times.
But – maybe that’s why the journey to learn to play piano is a journey worth taking.