Taking up piano is very much like embarking on an epic quest. You have a general idea of where you need to go, but there’s a lot of terrain between here and there that you don’t know about yet.
If you’re not careful, you could end up trapped in a dark forest of no return!
So the secondary title for this post series is: How to Not Get Lost in a Dark Forest of No Return in Your Piano Journey.
This is why epic heroes often have someone to guide them on their journeys, whether it be a scruffy rogue or a wise-old wizard.
Most piano teachers suggest getting a piano teacher when you first start playing. Makes sense, right? But today, we have Youtube, books, apps, online classes, other teachers, all sorts of guides. How do we pick?
Is one better than the rest?
Every journey is different, so no, if I’m being realistic and genuinely want to help you instead of saying “the only answer is to sign up for lessons with me,” then I have to say that the best guide for you is up to you.
But don’t worry, this post series will be your guide to finding the perfect guide for you. It will help you create the path for your journey, starting with where you’re going and why.
Through the posts in this series, you’ll learn:
- Your true motivation for taking up and learning piano (which is applicable to any other instrument)
- How to use your values, true motivation, and experience to design a learning path that will set you up for success, so you can achieve your largest, scariest goals
- How to pick a piano or keyboard in your budget if you don’t already have one
- What apps, teachers, books, and courses are out there and how to use them in your specific path (including considering the costs of each)
- What practice is, how to make it an enjoyable experience, and how to keep it effective and efficient
- Overall, how to start your piano journey.
We’ll stick with the epic metaphor (yes that’s a real term that means I’m going to use this metaphor for more than a moment) throughout, and you’ll get tidbits from my journey.
Before we actually dive in, I want to answer the question I get asked most:
Is it too late for me to start?
I’m going to answer this one with my personal story of coming to piano.
When I was in 11th grade (like 17 years old I think?), I fell in love with piano. After zero experience as a pianist, I decided I wanted to pursue it for the rest of my life. I worked my a** off, learned Bach’s 2-Part Invention No. 1 in C Major and a Clementi Sonatina (and lots of other stuff), and after only a year of study passed my audition to study Piano Performance at my undergraduate university.
While it is surprising that I was able to do this, I’m not a complete outlier when it comes to taking up piano.
There are specific reasons why I had success in this venture:
- I had a why
- I had a goal
- I was specific
- I was insatiably curious
These four things gave me a path to forge for myself. Once I had a clear path, all I had to do was follow it. This is something that everyone is capable of doing at any age, so it isn’t too late to take up piano. You can be 14, 40, 104, and you can still learn piano.
My specific path looks like this:
Why. Playing piano provided me with a basic human need: connection. I was super lonely in high school (aren’t we all?), and piano made me feel a sense of belonging and deep connection to other people. My why was finding more human connection and sharing that great feeling with everyone.
Goal. My why informed my goal. Broadly, my why told me that I wanted to “get good” and share my why. As a measurable and achievable goal, this translated into “I will study piano for my Bachelor’s.”
Specific. I didn’t want to play all the music in the world. I loved Classical music and most specifically Classical music that made me feel understood. This came out to be basically anything that sounded remotely like Chopin or Debussy. There was a sense of hopeful melancholy that I latched onto in their works.
This specificity gave me one world to explore, knowing that the million other worlds to explore could wait until I was satisfied with this one.
Curious. Why did music, and specifically Chopin and Debussy, make me feel the way it did? Was there more of it somewhere? Could I get more of it?
That insatiable need to understand and to know more still drives me, even after my Master’s in Music Theory! And I don’t think it’ll ever go away. So this one is important.
How did these reasons help me forge my own path?
I first tried to teach myself, but there was too much I didn’t know and didn’t know where to look (online courses weren’t really a thing yet), so I found a teacher who was also one of my friends. Luckily, she and my second teacher (another friend who took over after my first teacher moved away) knew enough to guide me to get into a music program.
My why and curiosity provided me the internal motivation to keep going when times were tough, and I didn’t feel like practicing. It also breathed meaning into my music.
My goals helped me pick what pieces to learn (out of the billions and billions of pieces of music out there). Audition requirements gave me pieces to strive for, and my teachers gave me stepping-stone pieces to get there.
And finally, my specifics turned this whole giant adventure of “learning piano” into single, baby steps. Like I said before, it gave me one world to explore at a time instead of a billion at once. The other worlds could come later.
So, no, it’s not too late for you to start.
The reason why so many people “fail” to learn piano as they get older is because they come into it expecting to just do it without following any sort of plan and for it to happen overnight. When they self-teach, they tend to ignore the advice of following a method book or finding a mentor.
Would you have the same attitude if you decided to take up engineering as a hobby?
What’s my motivation?
Before any journey, we have to know where we’re actually going and why. Without a good reason for doing anything, we tend to give up more easily when the going gets tough.
I started playing piano because it made me feel more connected with humanity, both the people immediately around me and humanity as a whole. I felt composers long dead speak to me through my fingers. Their struggles and victories came alive again, giving hope to me and other people alive right now.
It is this profound belief in the ability for music to connect us together and bring us hope that I couldn’t not pursue music.
That’s my story.
Your story and motivation will be different, but you have to figure out what specifically is different.
Even if you feel like you only want piano (or music in general) to be a hobby, there is still a big why behind your desire to try to learn the instrument.
What inspired you?
First, think about what even brought you to the piano. Did you hear a performance that knocked you off your feet?
I’ve lost count of the number of live classical recitals I’ve attended that left me breathless and believing in magic. The best part is that the rest of the audience gets the breath knocked out of them too, and we’re all sitting in this beautiful, single moment of stillness that simultaneously stretches to eternity but is also less than a breath in length.
It helps to find recordings of performances that make you feel that way too.
This recording of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin performed by Angela Hewitt is one of my favorites. Ravel’s music is stunning, sparkly, and inspiring, and Hewitt plays with a delicate but lively touch:
Maybe it wasn’t classical for you though. Maybe you heard someone play something soulful, heartfelt, on a piano in the airport, and it made you pause in your rush to grab coffee before your connecting flight.
Dotan Negrin traveled all around the world with an upright piano and ran into a violinist, Ada Pasternak, in NYC. They spontaneously improvised a duet:
Maybe you experienced the conviction of someone who truly believes in the power of music to change and transform lives. Maybe you can’t put your finger on why it made you feel that way, but you know that’s your experience.
One of the most shared TED talks about Classical music is this one by Dr. Benjamin Zander on the “Transformative Power of Classical Music” in which he uses Chopin’s E Minor Prelude, Op. 28 No. 4 as a way of showing how everyone loves Classical music. They just don’t realize it yet.
Or does someone you know play the piano, and you’re curious what they experience? Or you’d like to know how hard it actually is?
Perhaps you’d like to learn piano because you were told it would make you smarter. Or your parent or someone else important to you told you to play.
Whatever the reason, hold onto that.
Make a playlist of inspiring videos like the ones I shared here. Keep a folder in your computer or on your phone of what you love about piano.
Determine Your Values
Using your reasons, we can determine your values, which will be your main motivator, your light guiding you from the edge of the dark forest.
Why did that performance stick with you? Do you admire the performer? Why? Are they a “good person”? Do you admire their gentleness or strength? Maybe you got a sense of their work ethic and want to develop your own.
What about the music you like to listen to every day? Why do you think you like it?
What does it make you feel? Does it solve an emotional problem? Does it make you happy or help you focus on work?
I listen to Le Tombeau de Couperin (embedded above) because it gives me hope. Something about the constant movement of the piece reminds me that even the bad times keep moving. We’re not stuck where we are right now. The gentle strength Angela Hewitt performs the piece with emphasizes that we don’t have to force ourselves through life.
We’re allowed to let all this movement wash over us. We can feel the many colors and ideas fly around us. We’re allowed to just be sometimes.
Maybe that’s another reason why I love music so much, especially Ravel’s work. It reminds me that I’m allowed to just be.
The value behind my reason for loving the music is that I believe the world is too hectic, and we should take moments to just be. We should let ourselves stop and smell the roses.
Because of the way the world is, especially in America (capitalism maybe? – I’m not a politician or social scientist), we feel like we’re not allowed to exist if we’re not constantly creating value for the world. But Ravel’s (and many other composers’) work reminds me that we do create value; we are doing a very human thing, when we just let ourselves be sometimes.
When you answer these questions, you’ll have a better understanding of why music is important to you in a way that is unique to you. We all may have similar answers regarding the emotional influence of music, but what drives each of us is unique and is directly related to our values in life.
What Should You Do This Week?
This week, find some time where you can allow yourself to just listen to music. Make a playlist of your favorite pieces of music of all time.
Don’t be facetious about it either. Include songs by N’SYNC or The Goo Goo Dolls (I love The Goo Goo Dolls, so you’re not alone). It can be a lot of fun to look at yourself through the perspective of the wide array of genres you’re bound to have in this list.
Then think about what about what specific things you connect with in each song. Is there a moment where you always hear a phrase, and say “yes” to yourself, like you understand?
I suggest writing at least bullet points for each song, so you can easily move into the next step of determining your values.
Some of you who are really in tune with your inner selves may already have a good idea of your life values. But no matter where you are in life, this is a helpful exercise to discover and remind ourselves of our values.
Today, we talked about finding our “why.” Next week we’ll move into the next step: curiosity.
As always, if you have any questions, ask in the comments below or email me at [email protected].
About the Author
Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.
- Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020)
- Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016)
- where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year
Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.