As a complete beginner, it can be difficult to imagine what the first half-year of lessons will be like, and what ground you’ll cover. This short guide is a tour through the first months as an average piano student (late teen or adult), and applies to both private lessons and the video series on the website.
Note reading is the #1 focus for the first six months of lessons (and even the first year), since being able to do it is so crucial to your future success as a piano player. There are plenty of people out there who swear by ear-playing (figuring out songs through sounds as opposed to reading sheets), and I’m a big fan of that too, but to be a well-rounded musician it’s important to be able to do both. Learning to read music is like learning to read a language. It’s only when the fundamentals become second nature that you can speak fluently and creatively. When your note reading is fluent, you can move on to bigger and better pieces.
When you’re learning to read notes, the songs start simply, often in a restricted ‘hand position’, and the notes slowly expand outward as you become more comfortable reading. By the end of six months you’ll be able to read the entire staff, both the treble and bass, though the degree of your comfort with it largely depends on how much you practice reading notes.
To supplement lessons, it’s helpful to print off note naming sheets, and/or pick up a beginner sight reading book (usually called ‘a line a day’), so that note reading becomes a part of your daily practice.
To get started with reading notes and identifying the keys, check out this video: Introduction to Note Reading.
Equally as important as note reading is rhythm. Just like songs are unrecognizable if you play the wrong notes, the same is true for playing the wrong rhythm. That’s why the first six months of lessons really drill rhythmic basics – quarter notes, half notes and whole notes in the beginning, and eighth notes later on. If you can’t master a steady quarter note beat, you’ll be entirely lost when sixteenth notes are introduced.
There are a lot of ways to strengthen your sense of rhythm. You can play your song along to a recording of it and make sure all the notes line up. You can practice with the metronome (something to use a little bit on a daily basis). Counting out loud and/or writing in the counts below the notes is usually the most effective method, which can feel like a lot of work to some, but since most people are willing to fix a flubbed note, the same consideration should be applied to fixing a flubbed rhythm. It helps to clap the rhythm of your piece before playing it, and to clap along to a recording of the piece – by isolating the rhythm from the melody, you only have one thing to worry about at a time.
You can also print off rhythm sheets where you can practice writing in the counting and/or clapping the rhythm. This is especially handy once eighth notes, and later sixteenth notes, are taught.
To begin learning basic rhythms, check out the video: Introduction to Rhythm.
This isn’t something everyone deems important in the beginning, but I tend to disagree. Composing is the best way to internalize new concepts to make sure you really grasp them. For example, if you’re learning a waltz, composing a simple waltz will be the difference between loosely understanding the form, and developing a deep, intuitive understanding of it. In sixth months you won’t be composing symphonies, and early songs might seem kiddish, but they’re just as important.
If you’re learning 8th notes, compose a short (4-8 bar) piece that uses 8th notes. If you’re learning a song in D minor, write a short tune in D minor. When learning a waltz, research the origin, history and use of a waltz, as well as its structure and how people dance to it, and then – you guessed it – write a simple waltz.
You can write compositions on a blank paper with just the letter names and the rhythm scrawled above it, or you could write it on notation paper (which is great practice for note reading – like any language, it helps to write it down instead of just read it).
By writing pieces based on what you’ve learned at lessons, you should be able to write a page-long song at the end of six months (about 16 bars) with both melody and supporting harmony. Again, it probably won’t be Beethoven-calibre at this stage, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is getting really familiar with music’s language, while having fun in the process – I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks composing is a real drag.
Phrasing, Articulation and Playing Musically
When you first start, try not to be disappointed if your technical exercises sound clunky, and if you feel like you have sticky fingers when you play songs. This is all pretty normal – unless you played when you were younger, your fingers are learning a whole new way of moving. The more your fingers move and play music, the more musical your playing will become. Sometimes all it takes is patience (and practice).
By six months, with practice you’ll be able to play passages smoothly (legato) or choppy (staccato) with ease – and from that point, more difficult movements can be learned.
To play a piece ‘musically’ is sort of a vague instruction – what this means, in simplest terms, is that the song is easy on the ears when you play it. If you’re hammering out an aggressive forte when you play, it’ll probably make your listeners cringe to hear it. If you play mechanically with little range in volume or tone, it’s also not so pleasant to listen to. The best way to gauge your ability to play musically is to record yourself, and then listen carefully. What you listen for depends on the style of the piece – in the example of a waltz, are you playing a strong downbeat? Is the melody lyrical and the piece graceful?
The points listed here are a big part of what you’ll spend time on in the first six months of lessons – they may seem basic, but they’re the building blocks of musical success. Even though you won’t be reading Moonlight Sonata in your first lessons, these basics will help you get there, and actually understand what’s going on when you’re ready for the piece (or any song you’re anxious to learn). As they say, you gotta walk before you can run. Skimming through the basics because they seem ‘easy’ will come back to haunt you in the long run. And besides, as they also say, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination.