This is part 3 in the series on charting your quest, strategizing your piano journey so that you don’t get lost in some figurative dark forest of no return. We’re making plans, so you can achieve your goals and feel really awesome about the work you’re doing!
The first few posts aren’t about the act of playing the piano at all, which may feel odd to a lot of you, especially since you’re probably excited to just get going! Remember there’s a lot of emotional work to accomplish before you set out on any journey successfully. We’re trying to avoid New Year’s Resolution syndrome, so we’re being smart about goal-setting.
Last time and the post before, we talked about your motivation (what made you decide you wanted to start learning piano?) and curiosity (how this little-understood trait inspires you to keep learning). We talked a little bit about getting specific with our curiosity, but this week we’re focusing even more closely on being specific.
Why be Specific?
When we go on our first adventure, sticking to familiar terrain can help ease us into the practice of experiencing new places. It eases our anxiety because we know we can survive since we know the berries and other food sources available. So when you first delve into learning how to play the piano, you don’t want to figuratively throw yourself into the desert or into the icy tundra on top of Mount Everest. Instead, start with some moderate landscape that you’re familiar with. If you like to fish, go visit a lake. If you’re a hunter, march off into the forest.
Think about every piece of music you’ve ever heard. Jams on the radio, ditties in the elevator, in movies and tv shows, blasting from cars driving by, at some weird art exhibition your friend dragged you to, at your little cousin’s first ever piano recital…It would be impossible to make a complete list of every piece you’ve ever heard, especially because many times you probably didn’t even notice music was playing.
That’s a lot of music!
So when you’re entering into a new world, that of being a musician, it can be inspiring but also incredibly overwhelming to think of everything you don’t know. How do EDM artists differ from jazzers or classical musicians?
You’ve probably already narrowed down to a few genres that you like. For example, if you hate country music, it’s unlikely that you’ll want to spend time learning country music.
Think of every genre or style of music as a galaxy. There are a bunch, and they’re huge! Can you actually fathom how large the Milky Way is? For me, it’s hard to even imagine how big Earth is, as I haven’t traversed the entire globe. So the Milky Way or even just our solar system is impossibly huge for me.
Every style of music is that vast. There are solar systems within each galaxy of music that are sub-styles. So if we take Romantic music as an example, we’ve got the early Romantic section with Beethoven and his contemporaries, those who wrote lieder like Schumann, and a section for composers like Chopin and Beach, and so on. Then, every composer is their own world.
Beethoven’s world is broken up into sections based on his life (like his Heroic Age) and instrumentation (keyboard, orchestral, etc.).
You could spend a lifetime just studying one world in great depth, and people do!
The point of this analogy is that if you want to get good at learning how to explore music, start with one world. The other worlds will still be there to study later. Right now, pick one world as your playground. Learn its rules, its gravity, the way it’s organized, how it works, and you won’t waste time traveling from planet to planet.
Then, once you feel you’ve learned all you want to about this planet, you can travel to the next one, confident that you’ll pick up on the new rules of gravity, organization, circle of life, and so on even quicker because you’ve learned them before. Every new world you visit after this, you’ll learn about faster because of your experience.
How Do We Pick Where to Start?
Start somewhere familiar. Open up that playlist you made a couple of weeks ago. Is it full of music from just one genre or even just one composer/artist? That’s a great starting point!
You’ve already got the sounds in your ear and heart of how this music is supposed to go, so when you try to re-create it yourself, you can draw on those feelings.
From there, you can start your very own piano bucket list. This is a list I think every pianist should have, and you should constantly be adding to it, as there are always new things to learn.
I actually found it surprising how soon I was able to learn pieces from my bucket list because I thought all of them were so difficult, it would take a true concert pianist to learn them. But, like in learning any skill, the things I thought were impossible ended up not all being that hard.
So start with your playlist. Which pieces do you want to play before you die?
It’s a little easier if the piece is already written for piano, but you get to be a little creative if it isn’t. If a song you want to learn isn’t composed for piano, you’ll be playing a cover or arrangement of it. What do you want that to sound like?
If it’s an upbeat piece, do you want to play it slowly and lyrically? Or do you want to keep it as is? This is your opportunity to explore piano covers on Youtube. A lot of people post sheet music for these as well, so you can have a folder on your computer that includes all of this.
Why Have a List of Music?
This is going to be so helpful when we start setting goals. Whether you’re learning on your own or you’re studying with a teacher, having a collection of music that you want to learn at some point will help you chart your path in a way that prioritizes your happiness and interest.
It still leaves room for exploration into other genres and styles, which is an important part of musicianship, but it allows you to feel like you’re learning piano for the reasons you decided, not for the reasons someone else chose for you.
Additionally, since the first 3–6 months of learning piano is very fundamental (note reading, a lot of repetition of very simple movements, getting used to finger and hand independence, etc.), it helps to have fun music to push yourself through that stage. Otherwise, it can tend to feel like torture.
If you stick it out past that first stage of learning, then you start to specialize, but you can do this first stage with just the melodies from your favorite songs.
For example, I’ve actually had a lot of students who love Queen. They’re surprisingly young (like 7 years old) to listen to Queen, but they love that music. They signed up for piano because they want to play “Love of My Life” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” not J.S. Bach’s Inventions or some hardcore Beethoven.
So because they told me this at the beginning, instead of staying stuck in the lesson books, we pick out the melodies by ear on piano, and that serves as their technique exercise for the week. Way more fun than just doing scales!
As their technical facilities improve, they get to try more elaborate arrangements. These songs can grow with you.
Why Else is Being Specific Important?
If you’re reading this post, you’ve likely scoured the internet for answers to “how to be successful at piano” or something similar, which means you’ve probably been told to set “SMART” goals. This is actually a really helpful acronym to set yourself up for success when you set goals. To review:
This entire post has been about the importance of the first part of goal-setting: being specific. Most students I’ve taught don’t have any trouble knowing exactly what they want to accomplish in lessons. “I’m taking piano because I want to learn to play the Moonlight Sonata by next year,” for example. The issue comes when they try to incorporate the next two points: measurable and achievable.
Measurable is tricky in the world of music performance, as “playing a piece” carries multiple meanings. For beginners, this typically means that they can play all of the notes at the correct time with the proper dynamics. Another meaning for “playing a piece” involves nuanced expression, which is something students learn as they become more attuned to the subtle changes in gesture as well as familiarity with harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic language. Instead of a piece feeling like a prose story, students grow more aware of the crafted poetry of the work.
This means that beginners come in with a simple goal: get all the notes right. But by the time they’ve reached a level that allows them the physical capacity to achieve this, their concept of “playing a piece” has changed. That causes the goal to be un-achievable because the actual, specific goal keeps changing.
Perhaps this means the goal was not specific enough, but my perspective of the issue is the relationship of specific, measurable, and achievable.
Additionally, new students do include a timebound goal of learning the Moonlight Sonata by next year, but it may not be an achievable goal. They don’t yet know what physical capacities are required of the piece, so they grow frustrated when they aren’t able to learn it within the year.
Next time, I’ll write about reality checking our expectations to solve this problem of coming in with little knowledge of the physical requirements of playing certain pieces in a way that prioritizes our enjoyment of the process of learning to play the piano well.
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.
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