Curiosity can teach you a lot about a field. Our ancestors learned a lot about the stars by watching them, but we continued to progress our knowledge with every generation because every new generation didn’t have to start from scratch. They got to use the knowledge discovered by the astronomers who came before them. While curiosity can get you far on your own, then, its most useful purpose is as a motivator instead of the sole mechanism through which we learn. It’s much more efficient to learn from the people who know a little more than us.
The same goes for world explorers. They may draw their own maps as they go, but they start with the maps that are already available to them. This applies to every discipline of exploration and skill. Blacksmiths learned through trial and error how to properly smelt metal to make the best swords, and they passed this knowledge down to their apprentices. The apprentices built from this. And so on with every field.
For musicians, this means drawing on the resources available to us in the forms of sheet music, text books, teachers, courses, and apps. The most traditional (and still most highly celebrated) resource is that of a teacher. Learning from a teacher usually consists of weekly 30–60 minute lessons. Focused feedback from someone who’s spent years, even decades, working at their craft is more helpful than going it alone by using books or other solo resources.
All of these resources are helpful in different ways, however. In this post, I discuss each type of piano guide and provide recommendations for finding which ones best fit your goals and budget.
Traditional Piano Lessons
“Regular” or traditional piano lessons consist of meeting one-on-one with a piano teacher. This could be at your home, theirs, a studio, or online (especially right now!).
Most pianists recommend starting off with traditional lessons, so you get personalized feedback regarding your technique, posture, and goals for piano. Piano teachers have had much more exposure to repertoire choices than you, so if you have an idea of difficult pieces you’d like to play — La Campanella, Moonlight Sonata, and the Winter Wind Etude are famous examples — teachers can provide you with a series of pieces that will help you build up the skills required to conquer these more difficult pieces.
Why Can’t I Just Work on the Difficult Pieces for a Long Time?
Technically, you could just work on these pieces, but a few things happen to most students who take this approach:
1. They get frustrated.
When you work on one piece of music for a long time (years), especially when you’re new to the discipline, it can be incredibly frustrating to see very little progress. Part of the benefit of learning smaller pieces and building up the skills is that you see progress. You can check pieces off like a to-do list, and that alone is rewarding.
Additionally, you’ll have pieces you can play very well, so you’ll have music to play for friends or family when they inevitable ask you to at Christmas gatherings.
2. They injure themselves.
The most difficult aspect of some of these pieces is speed. When you don’t have comfortable, healthy technique (which takes a little time and patience to develop), the wobbliness becomes more apparent at higher speeds.
For example, if you’re new to skiing, it’s probably not the best idea to jump right on the black diamonds, especially if you haven’t practiced stopping. You might run into things/people because you’re not great at steering yet, or you could just start tumbling down the mountain.
3. They give up.
This is self-explanatory. For reasons 1 and 2, students give up on learning these pieces, claiming it’s not possible. It is definitely possible, but like every other skill, you have to learn the foundational techniques first.
Overall, this is certainly a discussion for a separate and longer post. The short answer is that your goals as a pianist should determine your repertoire choices. Do you want to be well-rounded, a virtuoso, a person who plays by ear, a pop pianist, etc.? A teacher is the type of expert who can help you pick pieces of music, so you can reach those goals in the most efficient way possible.
How Long Should I Take Lessons For?
If you’d like to be a more independent learner, I’d say that 3–6 months is a good amount of time to get the basics down. Consult with your teacher before quitting though!
Pros and Cons of Traditional Piano Learning
- Personalized feedback for solid, healthy, comfortable technique
- Repertoire recommendations that fit your preferences and goals
- A regular audience member to get you used to performance nerves
- Mentorship: a deep relationship with another person who cares profoundly about the same thing you do
- Can be a little pricey
- Can be difficult to find teachers that fit with your personality and your style
- Can feel pointless to deal with the nerves of playing for a teacher if you don’t intend to play for anyone else
How to Find a Quality Piano Teacher in Your Budget
One of the questions or concerns I see the most is that students don’t know where to look to find teachers.
Many obstacles students face include: not knowing where to look for a teacher in the first place, living in a remote area where literally no one is close, or the only teachers they can find are extremely expensive or outside the students’ budgets.
Additionally, students have trouble finding good quality teachers. These students share tragic tales of jumping from teacher to teacher, hoping to find a guide who listens and cares. Instead, these students get stuck with teachers who are clearly only in it for the money, are misinformed, or really don’t know enough to be teachers. The sad result is that these students grow so frustrated that they end up quitting piano because the entire experience is just so awful.
I’m glad that many of these students come back to piano and find better teachers a few years later, but they deserve better experiences when beginning to learn. It’s hard enough to learn new skills. Adding more frustration to that is a recipe for losing sight of what’s important. The best way I can help is by providing some sort of guidance to help you navigate finding and interviewing a teacher who is the right fit for you.
What Resources Are Available to Help Find Piano Teachers?
The internet is a great place to find teachers, but if possible, I recommend starting local. Find your nearest music stores. There are chains like Music & Arts, but local businesses can often help you more than big chains.
Music stores often hire teachers to teach lessons in the store. This can be incredibly convenient, as you can buy method books and anything else you’d need for lessons while you’re there. These stores also typically require their teachers to have advanced degrees (Master’s or higher), so you know you’ll be getting quality instruction at a fair rate.
The second place I’d check with is local churches or rec/community centers (like the Y). They’re everywhere, and they usually have at least one pianist on staff who plays for church services. Sometimes they’re allowed to teach in the church — don’t worry you won’t have to play hymns if you’re not religious. If the church pianist doesn’t teach, they likely know other teachers in the area of high quality. The same goes with community centers: if they don’t have a teacher on staff, they’ll probably know of a few good teachers.
If those don’t pan out, or you live in a rural area, then you can turn to the internet!
Beyond searching for “piano teachers near me,” there are online directories organized by state and sometimes city. Even if you’re hoping to take lessons online or remotely, I suggest trying to find a teacher who’s near your geographical location, at least in the same time zone. It makes scheduling a whole lot easier.
Most of these directories will lead you to the teacher’s studio website. The payments are handled individually, so you’ll want to keep an eye out for anything that may look suspicious. If you don’t feel safe paying or interacting with the teacher based on their website, trust your gut and go elsewhere.
If you’d feel more comfortable going through a third-party platform — a website runs background checks and makes sure that you get your money’s worth — look at websites like Take Lessons, Wyzant, and Thumbtack. The first two run background checks on their teachers (I think at the expense of the teacher), so you can be fairly certain the teachers are who they say they are. Thumbtack takes a hefty advertising fee, so teachers there usually are established in their communities, and you can find reviews about them easily.
For all of these avenues of finding a teacher, I always recommend setting up an interview with them before you sign on for lessons. Teachers can be incredible at what they do, but they may not be the right fit for you. Lessons aren’t the cheapest things in the world, so it’s important that you feel good about how you’re spending your time and money.
If you want to play rock piano, for example, maybe a teacher who’s only played classical music wouldn’t be the best fit. And vice versa.
What Questions Should You Ask a Prospective Piano Teacher?
There aren’t any right answers to the questions below, but there are answers that fit you better than others. Think about what types of answers would help you feel comfortable investing in a specific teacher.
You may have to interview a few teachers before finding answers that fit you, so be prepared to spend a little time looking. That way, you can be even more excited about beginning lessons!
- What is your piano experience? Any degrees? How long have you been playing?
- How long have you taught?
- Have you personally dealt with piano injuries? What about your students?
- What is your primary style? What is your experience performing in that style?
- Do you play other instruments?
- What is your opinion of students pursuing independent study? (If you’re hoping to get a good foundation and then stop lessons to self-teach/explore for the rest of the journey, find out from the beginning if the teacher is open to that. They’ll help you gauge when you’re ready to set out on your own.)
- Cost? Does it fit your budget?
- Does the teacher require weekly lessons, or if money/time is limited, what is the teacher’s policy on lessons every other week or even monthly check-ins?
- Does the teacher have a make-up policy? (For if you have to miss a lesson for illness, schedule conflicts, etc.)
- Is payment made in advance?
- How are payments handled?
Online Courses for Piano
Online courses have become extremely popular in recent years, especially in 2020 because of the pandemic. This has spurred many excellent pianists to create their own online courses.
Piano courses follow the same types of format as any video course. They’re usually self-paced, and you have little, if any, direct interaction with the teacher.
Online courses can be a cost-effective way to learn piano, but because of the lack of one-on-one time with these, I recommend starting with traditional lessons for a few months. You can take a course simultaneously with traditional lessons, or later replace
Recommended Online Courses for Piano
My Number One Recommendation
Dr. Josh Wright’s ProPractice Courses
I wrote a full review, which you can read here, but here’s a brief overview:
Overall, with any of Dr. Wright’s courses or his VIP Masterclass Series, you get meticulously detailed instruction on both technique, artistry, and a little theory. If you absolutely felt you could not start with traditional lessons, this course absolutely has the potential to make sure that you can figure out technique without feedback.
He covers all levels: absolute beginners all the way to concert pianists (and he teaches all of those levels personally in his own traditional lessons).
If you purchase the Lifetime Access Course (the one with all levels), you also get access to the Facebook Group, full of students of all levels. It’s a great resource to ask questions and post videos asking for feedback.
Other Recommended Piano Courses
Hoffman Academy. This one is geared mostly toward young kids, but the instruction is extremely thorough and technique-oriented.
PianoTV. I recommend these courses as a supplement to traditional lessons, as technique isn’t a huge focus. These courses, however, are a great resource for artistry and history.
Other Popular Piano Courses
This is by no means a comprehensive guide on all the best courses out there. But from the ones I’ve seen and been asked about, I recommend the courses above. The ones below are other courses that would be great as supplements to traditional lessons, as they don’t provide the amount of technique instruction that would help prevent injury.
Pianote. Massively popular for pop and worship music. It’s geared towards those styles, as their approach is focused around chords and accompanying. They have tutorials on writing your own songs, so if you’re taking up piano to be a singer-songwriter, Pianote might be a great addition to your regular lessons.
Flowkey. An app/online course by Yamaha. It has a combination of videos and a sheet music library, and some of the tutorials are a helpful split screen between overhead video of a pianist and scrolling sheet music. This is a great addition to traditional lessons for classical pianists.
Courses on Udemy, Skillsare, Teachable, and other platforms. There are countless courses out there, and I can’t personally speak about them. I am wary of most of these, as they appear to be newer pianists with poor technique. This is why speaking with a seasoned teacher about their experience and methodology regarding technique is important. Even if you don’t know what good technique looks like yet, knowing that a teacher has strong opinions about technique is a helpful indication that they prioritize healthy technique.
Overall, I’ve seen that most of the better online courses for piano are found on their own dedicated websites, so it can be tough to find these hidden gems. I’ll keep this page updated as I find other great courses! (Also keep an eye out for courses appearing on the Courses page here!)
What Should You Look for in an Online Piano Course?
- Cost? Is it a one-time cost or a membership, and is this in your budget?
- How experienced is the instructor?
- How does the instructor prioritize technique/avoiding injury?
- Do they cover music you’re interested in?
- Does the course cover your level?
- What’s included? (Sheet music, other materials) Will you have to purchase other materials?
The Pros and Cons of Taking an Online Piano Course Versus a Traditional Approach
- Self-guided pace: you can pause and take more time on your own before moving onto the next lesson if you need, and if you’re making efficient progress, you can move faster than in weekly meetings with a regular teacher. It fits your lifestyle.
- Flexible schedule: you don’t need to have the same time every week carved out to meet with a teacher. Learn when you have time to.
- Sometimes can be more cost-effective in the long run. You can’t always anticipate how long you’ll continue lessons, but if you anticipate learning piano for years, courses are often more cost-effective choices than paying a weekly fee.
- No one-on-one feedback: it’s difficult, especially as a beginner, to be aware of every aspect of good technique. Every motion feels awkward and new as a beginner, so it can be difficult to know when you’re feeling tension. This could lead to injury.
- Limited repertoire choices. When you enroll in an online course, you’re limited to the repertoire included in the course. With a real teacher, you can request pieces, and as your instructor gets to know your interests better, they can recommend pieces you’ll enjoy that you wouldn’t have known about otherwise.
- Difficult to tell if the course is worth your money, as you don’t get to chat with the instructor about their experience, methodology, and style.
Books for Piano Study
Books alone won’t get you far, but paired with a course or good Youtube tutorials, they teach you everything you need to know about reading sheet music, about musical patterns and structures, and about creating your own music. Searching for “piano method book” will give you many options, but my favorite is the Adult Piano Adventures book.
I’d recommend this to anyone around 10 years and older. It moves at a reasonable pace and has a wide variety of repertoire choices. Theory, performance, and artistry are all combined into one book, which makes way more sense than having to keep up with 4 separate books.
The Alfred’s Adult series is also great, but it feels a bit old fashioned. The repertoire in it is limited to children’s folk tunes and simplified public domain works, but if you like songs like “Tisket a Tasket” or “Brother John,” then go for it!
Apps and Programs
Piano apps like Simply Piano are a great addition to traditional learning. I’ve had students who bought the app and played with it alongside their regular lessons with me, and it really helped their sheet music reading abilities. These apps often neglect technique, however, and they cannot give you feedback other than “the note was right or wrong.”
That said, I think they’re super awesome if you have it in your budget to keep fresh music in front of you and to practice your sight reading skills. They also typically come with huge libraries of pop, jazz, and other non-classical music, so you won’t get bored in your practice time.
Of these (and with the idea of using the app/program in addition to other lessons), I recommend Simply Piano, Oktav, and Piano Marvel. Definitely look into the prices and libraries of each to know what works best for you.
For those looking for repertoire (organized by level), check out my post on picking repertoire.
What to Expect from an App
Note reading practice, large libraries of music. Apps are great if you already have solid technique and just want to play – you will improve just by playing and listening.
We live in an information age. Every time I look into all the resources available to piano students today, I’m overwhelmed by all that’s out there. How do you choose?
There’s so much anxiety involved with picking too. You don’t want to waste your money, and you certainly don’t want to miss out on any other opportunities.
My advice for picking is to just pick something and go with it. Part of marketing involves making you feel like if you don’t choose that specific product, then you’ll miss out on so much. The best way to combat that is to just do a little snooping and go with something.
It’s better to start and enjoy yourself than to agonize over it. We play piano to make us happy after all.
I hope this (long!) post on finding a guide is helpful. As always, if you have any questions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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