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piano learning methods
Photo of Michael Lane
by Michael Lane

Chapter 2 - Piano Learning Methods

Once you have decided to take the journey to playing piano, and you’ve picked an instrument to be your companion (see Chapter 1 - Choosing a Piano or Keyboard), then you need to choose a route. The best route is a piano learning method that suits you, and everybody is different. The “perfect” choice for your best friend may be totally wrong for you.

Think about your lifestyle. An unpredictable schedule needs a flexible method. Or if you never stick to things without a specific time and place, then you might suit something more rigid. Maybe you can’t travel to lessons, or you want to learn a style local teachers don’t offer, like blues or baroque. A tight budget can rule out the cost of weekly lessons, which adds up fast.

Whatever your situation, the three main options are Traditional Lessons, Video Tutorials and App Learning. Choosing can get a little technical, but we’re here to guide you. To simplify things we break down the three options based on:

  • Cost - Can you afford it? Is it worth the expense?
  • Expertise - Can it teach the techniques and styles you want to learn?
  • Flexibility - Can you learn when you want to?
  • Teaching approach - Does it suit your learning style?
  • Time - Will you have to travel? How long will it take to set up lessons?

At flowkey we developed an app to help anyone learn piano with their favorite songs. We’re proud of the result, and this means we are a little biased towards App Learning. That said, this guide has been developed to be as balanced and objective as possible.

Traditional lessons

This is probably your mental picture of a piano lesson, student and teacher sat side-by-side at a piano. The student is guided through lessons and receives instant feedback. The best teachers keep students motivated, tackling problem areas from different angles. This personal touch and adaptability are the biggest advantages of traditional lessons.

traditional piano lessons with a teacher
Traditional piano lesson with a teacher

The major difficulty comes in finding the right teacher to suit the student. It can take time and expense, but will be totally worth it if you find the right combination. On the other hand, the wrong teacher can put off even the most motivated student.

Cost. A good, experienced piano teacher can be expensive - up to $30-50 (€25-45) per lesson - but can be absolutely worth the money.

Expertise. Proper instruction through music you love will spark motivation, so choose your teacher wisely. Do they know the classical, jazz, rock, or the Phil Collins songs you’re dying to learn? If they lack expertise in this area, then you run the risk of being pushed towards styles you dislike. If they know it well, learning can become a rewarding experience. If you want to become a classical concert pianist, then you will definitely need a concert pianist as your teacher.

Flexibility. Teachers usually set a time each week. This is great if you are busy and know that rigid timing will stop you skipping lessons. Unfortunately, the best are often the busiest and you may have to fit their schedule. If you are late, or can’t make a lesson, rearranging can be tough and many still charge for missed lessons. The same goes if you want to go over your lesson time, as it can mean organizing (and paying for) another lesson in advance.

Teaching approach. Teachers often combine elements from established methodologies like Bastien Piano Basics, The Music Tree, or the Suzuki, and Faber & Faber methods. They are all tried-and-tested, some of them designed only for children, and there are detailed explanations online. Good teachers always look out for new, better methods, and adapt to the student.

But the best teachers combine patient, clear instructions and adapt their style to you. They give you the most detailed feedback possible on your playing, help you overcome any difficulties, and have a long-term plan for developing your abilities as a piano player.

Get recommendations for a teacher, but bear in mind that a style that suits a friend may be wrong for you. Age, enthusiasm, humor and countless other factors define the experience. The best way to decide on a methodology, and a teacher, is to try a few lessons with multiple teachers.

Time. Take into account the time (and cost) to get to lessons (and back), to ensure you don’t waste precious lesson time. Some teachers travel to you, but they often charge a little more. Also consider any delays from getting in touch to organizing and setting up lessons.

Video tutorials

YouTube made it possible to give online tutorials in practically anything. You can find an ever-increasing number of video lessons, but quality varies wildly. More professional options often provide supporting workbooks to guide you through a structured course.

piano video tutorials with YouTube
Tutorial video on YouTube

Cost. There is a huge number of free tutorials available, while others charge a fee for the accompanying course materials. The free options range from talented tutors to amateurs giving questionable advice. It is often safer to stick with more established paid tutorials.

Expertise. The wealth of video tutorials available makes it easy to find one in almost any playing style, whether that is Ed Sheeran or Shostakovich. If you have found an online tutor you like, then branching out from their area of expertise can be difficult. If you find someone else for each different playing style, then be ready to experience a different teaching style.

Flexibility. Tutorials require nothing more than a laptop, phone or tablet, meaning that you can choose when (and where) you take lessons. Once you’ve found a video tutor you like, you can binge on as many as you want as long as they are all available online at once. If you choose to learn using an ongoing series from an online source, then consider how regularly they upload tutorials. Long gaps between lessons can be frustrating and demotivating.

Teaching approach. Videos are one-way and rely heavily on instructions, so find a tutor whose style you like. A major downside is that the pace of a video rarely matches your own. If they are too fast or too slow, you will find yourself rewinding to find the correct spot, taking time away from playing. Pausing and rewinding is also necessary when you want to repeat parts, an essential part of practicing that you may find yourself doing over and over again.

Videos also lack any feedback. When you play along it is hard as a beginner to tell if you are going wrong, and players often fall into bad habits. Studies have shown that learning without feedback is slower and less effective. Also, without the motivational boost from knowing if you got it right, many video learners lose interest when things get difficult.

Time. Setting up a lesson is as quick as turning on your laptop, phone or tablet and clicking a link. But before you set your mind on a single tutor, again bear in mind how often they upload tutorials. Consider if they are worth the wait, especially if you are keen to progress fast.

App learning

We learn best when the learning method is designed for that specific purpose. So while YouTube videos are great as one-way communication, instrument learning apps have been designed to fit your needs as you learn that specific instrument.

There are various options available for learning piano, combining video tutorials with technology to provide adaptive feedback. Some apps “gamify” learning, while others take a more structured approach to learning through tutorials. Students stay motivated through consistent feedback and the ability to learn by playing their favorite music.

man learning piano with flowkey
Learning with an App

Cost. Apps come in free or paid options, allowing students to try and see if it suits them before choosing whether to pay a subscription cost - usually around $80-150 (€70-130) per year. The subscription gives the student a wider variety of lessons, styles, songs and functionality to keep their lessons and practice varied and motivating.

Expertise. Apps, like video tutorials, can teach a range of styles and techniques from chords, reading music and playing techniques to music theory or improvisation. An app designed for young children will be heavy on children’s music, while a niche app appealing to older players may be limited to classical pieces. The best apps have a large and ever-growing repertoire making it easy to find your style and to play the songs and pieces you love.

Flexibility. Like tutorials, you need nothing more than a laptop, phone or tablet, and you can choose when (and where) to take your lessons. This type of flexible, self-regulated learning suits many people better than an imposed time and place.

Teaching approach. Technology can never fully mimic the experience of human interaction. If you absolutely need a human teacher sitting next to you, then an app won’t cut it. Apps do, however, solve the problem that video tutorials face by providing the feedback students need. Technology like interactive note detection keeps students motivated and on track, while a structured “learning path” guides students through the basics and monitors progress.

Time. Just like video tutorials, setting up and starting to learn on an app is fast and simple. Unlike videos, a well-designed app will improve on usability by including features like looping and interactive note detection. These take away the need to constantly pause and rewind a video, allowing you to focus on playing and practicing.


Traditional Lessons Video Tutorials App Learning
Cost Expensive Low cost or free Low cost or free
Expertise Specialised knowledge of a few areas (usually) Extensive range Extensive range
Teaching approach Highly adapted (if the teacher is good) Instructional, no feedback Instructional, responsive, with adaptive feedback
Time High travel/waiting time Instant, some waiting time for new content Instant

Cost

Traditional Lessons: Expensive
Video Tutorial: Low cost or free
App Learning: Low cost or free

Expertise

Traditional Lessons: Specialised knowledge of a few areas (usually)
Video Tutorial: Extensive range
App Learning: Extensive range

Teaching approach

Traditional Lessons: Highly adapted (if the teacher is good)
Video Tutorial: Instant, some waiting time for new content
App Learning: Instant

Time

Traditional Lessons: High travel/waiting time
Video Tutorial: Instant, some waiting time for new content
App Learning: Instant

Adult learning vs Child learning

If you are returning to the piano after learning as a child, you will probably have strong feelings about how you learned. Before you let these affect your decision, bear in mind that a range of research shows how different adult learning (andragogy) is from child learning (pedagogy).

As a child, you are entirely dependent on the teacher, often in combination with parents or other adults, to define the nature of learning. The motivation to take lessons and practice is usually external, especially at the start. In the worst cases they are motivated by avoiding punishment, but more often by the hope of a reward.

As an adult, your learning is self-regulated. You have nobody to answer to but yourself, so you need to draw motivation from internal factors like your own enjoyment and personal goals. You also have experience of how you learn best, with the freedom to choose your learning approach to make it as fun and rewarding as possible.

Whatever method you choose you can always change your mind or combine a few methods. For example, you could combine practicing songs from an app at home with traditional lessons to get detailed feedback. That said, try to stick to it for a little while before shifting approach. This guide sets you up with everything you need to start learning, but the learning itself takes time and patience. In the next chapter we go over proper technique, to get you sitting at the keys, ready to go.