“Teach yourself to fish” (i.e. play) with the help of a trusted expert (a piano teacher), and trust that in time you can become a confident, independent, and highly-proficient pianist.

We’ve all heard the well-worn proverb “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” The meaning is that teaching someone a skill to meet their needs is better for them in the long run than providing instant gratification of those needs.

How does this relate to learning piano, particularly for adults? The advent of interactive learning websites and apps has led to numerous options for gratifying adults’ desires to play piano. Never touched a piano before but suddenly have a yearning to play that Billy Joel song you loved in your youth? A quick Google search will surely lead to options for learning it by demonstration, also called rote learning. The dictionary defines rote learning as:

“Learning or memorizing by repetition, often without an understanding…of the material.”

Such options might involve watching a video of hands playing, or perhaps an animated keyboard showing keys as they’re depressed. You watch, over and over, copying the sequence, until you can play the song.

Rote learning can be useful. Piano teachers may conduct demonstrative “call and response” drills of a short phrase or passage that a student is struggling with. One of my teachers gave crash courses to Hollywood film actors who needed to quickly learn how to play a piano piece. He’d teach them the piece by demonstrating it over and over … and over.

There are really only three ways to learn how to play a song on piano:

  • By reading
  • By ear
  • By rote

Learning to read music is vital for piano players. There is more music written for the piano than any other instrument. Much of it is among the world’s greatest music, and much of it is quite complex. It is difficult and time-consuming (though not necessarily impossible) to learn such music by ear or rote.

Learning to play by ear is vital for keyboardists who want to play popular music and/or improvise, compose, etc. The best pop, blues and jazz players learn much of their trade by ear, though most also read music.

As just described, learning by rote may occasionally be useful, but relying on it to learn every new song will forestall the development of genuine and important musical skills. It is also likely to leave you feeling less than confident about your playing, and helplessly dependent on an external learning resource rather than your own hard-won musical skills. Assuming that learning by rote can lead to advanced piano skills is mistaken. Such skills require a deep understanding of how to learn and how to practice, not to mention how to read music. It may be possible for a serious autodidact to become an adequate intermediate piano player through diligent study and utilization of various resources, but it is much easier to just take lessons with a teacher.

So what’s the best way to learn to play the piano? If you’re an adult, the best way is with an adult-centered piano teacher who will help you learn how to read and/or play by ear well, and help you cultivate useful learning habits. You may not believe it just yet, but you can learn to read music, and you can learn to play by ear. Unless you just want to play a few songs, don’t sell yourself short by avoiding acquisition of these two essential piano skills.

“Teach yourself to fish” (i.e. play) with the help of a trusted expert (a piano teacher), and trust that in time you can become a confident, independent, and highly-proficient pianist.

Share this: