The Beginner's Guide to Learning Piano
Starting out, it’s easy to look at an advanced pianist and feel you will never get there. It’s too far. Like looking at the distant peak of a mountain from the bottom. But just like climbing a mountain, becoming excellent at an instrument is about breaking up the challenge. Taking it one day at at a time, structuring each day effectively, and staying motivated. So let’s focus on piano goals and motivation in this chapter.
The easiest way is to build a daily practice routine around goals, feedback and reward. This pattern applies to both long and short term time horizons. Set a long term goal, get feedback by tracking progress against that goal, and get new motivation as a reward when you hit it. This is mirrored in the short term, with a goal for each practice session, instant feedback, and a reward to end each session.
Setting a long-term goal
Start by setting an overall goal to aim at in the long term. This is your mountain peak. It gives you direction, shaping your practice; the techniques you learn first and which areas to concentrate on.
Common mistake: not setting clear goals
Practicing without purpose is a common mistake, one that regularly leads to aimless sessions where progress eventually stalls. Spend a little time on setting your long and short term goals first.
Make it specific. Avoid things like “being good”. They don’t help. Instead, aim to perfectly play a specific song or piece of music you love. Or perform at a recital. It might feel out of your reach right now, but it gives you something to aim for. Give it a time horizon to help you track progress.
Make it your own. Choose something that makes you feel excited. If Romantic-era Beethoven makes you drift off to sleep, then it won’t make an inspiring goal. If you love Elton John, choose something from his back catalogue. Don’t aim to please other people. Stick to something you love, that will keep you running back to the keyboard.
Make it realistic. This depends on your goals. If you want to play a simple piece, then with quality practice this is possible in a matter of months. Trickier pieces will take longer, so if you aim to play complex pieces at an advanced level, then you’re looking at a few years at least. This will be shorter if you are returning to piano after taking lessons as a child.
Don’t let that scare you if you’re starting later in life. Journalist Alan Rusbridger wrote a book about how he returned to piano aged 56. After learning for exactly a year, he played Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 at a concert. His goal was both specific and - with a lot of practice - realistic.
Working towards your goal
Now that you have a long-term goal, use this to focus your practice sessions in the short term. You will improve faster and stay motivated longer if you base each session around a pattern of goals, feedback and reward.
Getting better at anything is all about making small improvements over time, a journey broken into single steps. Think of your long term goal and choose something to achieve today that will help you get there. Take each day at a time, get constant motivation boosts by achieving something daily, and you will be surprised how fast these small changes add up.
Make each daily goal specific. Specific goals make practicing far easier and more effective. If you want to improve your finger speed, you might aim to play specific arpeggios and scales ten times without mistakes. If you want to improve a section of a piece, choose only one segment and set your goal to play it through a set number of times without mistakes.
Make your daily goal realistic. Remember what we said in Chapter 6 - don’t practice for more than 40 minutes in one session, don’t try to change the world in one day. So make sure you can achieve your session goal in the time you set out to practice.
To play correctly, we need to know that we are playing correctly (or not):
Know when you get it wrong. At the start, we are still learning how the act of playing in a certain way translates to a particular sound. Without knowing when we are making mistakes, it is easy to develop bad habits, lack proper guidance and motivation.
Get some help. We don’t notice all our mistakes. This could be because we aren’t familiar with the original music, or because we subconsciously ignore them to get through it. Also, listening for mistakes while learning a new piece just gives us another thing to worry about. So make sure you have a teacher, a friend, or technological help to keep you in check.
Act on the feedback. Once you know where you make mistakes, fix them so they don’t keep coming back. We outlined a method for fixing problem areas in Chapter 6 - Piano Practice.
Know when you get it right. Simply knowing that you got something right can be incredibly satisfying, but adding external positive feedback can magnify the effect. This is especially powerful when balanced with negative feedback. If you know that you can’t get away with bad playing, a simple “well done” becomes far more meaningful and motivating.
When you hit the goal that you set at the start of your session, reward yourself. Combining positive feedback with a reward creates what psychologists call “positive reinforcement”. Research has shown that this is far better for learning and developing good habits than punishing negative feedback. This “negative reinforcement” can be de-motivating.
It could be that the satisfaction you feel when you hit the goal is enough, and this is fine. But experiment with a reward to see how motivating it can be. It could be a tasty treat, or the episode of whatever TV show you usually watch. It doesn’t matter if you’re “giving” yourself something you would usually have anyway. Once you’re in the habit then you won’t need to reward yourself at all, the act of playing and improving will be rewarding enough.
We have explained the value of getting feedback within each session. It is equally important to get a broad overview of how you are doing so you can make to corrections to keep you on track. This means tracking your progress from the start. A written log, session recordings, or automatic progress tracking in an app. Whatever method, you will thank yourself later.
Tracking allows you to compare your progress to the goal you set at the beginning. Are you still on the path? Have you got great hand coordination but lack speed? Have you concentrated on the first half of a piece but neglected the second? By recognizing that you have fallen behind, you can make changes to your learning method and practice regime.
It also could be that you need to reassess your long term goal. Maybe you set it without knowing what was realistic, and it is too ambitious. Or your tastes have changed and you simply don’t find it interesting anymore. There is nothing wrong with this. Rethink what you want to do, set a new long term goal, following the same guidance we laid out above.
The positive feedback involved in progress tracking is essential to keep you motivated. There will be times where you get stuck on a problem section, or simply have a bad day where nothing seems to sound right. It’s frustrating, and easy to feel like you aren’t progressing. If you track your progress from the start, you can look back on where you were, see the steady progression and recognize how much you have improved.
Imagine that you achieve your goal. Imagine that you can play the Mozart Concerto you set out to learn. Or you have the entire Frozen soundtrack ready for a little Christmas concert for your family. Or the favorite Romantic-era piece for your grandma on her 80th birthday. You’re at that place that felt so far away, and you did it by making systematic, gradual improvements. Setting a daily goal, practicing, reacting to feedback to improve.
When you get there, the reward will be something far more powerful than a cookie or the chance to fall asleep in front of Netflix. The reward is that you can play that Mozart Concerto, or the confidence to play in front of an audience. The reward is the ability that you have developed. Nobody can take that away from you.
Positive reinforcement is at its strongest here. Playing what you learned feels so good that there is no way it ends here. Pick another mountain. Set another goal and follow the same pattern, safe in the knowledge that you can get there. After all, you’ve already done it once.