The Beginner's Guide to Learning Piano
At flowkey we love hearing from our players, and we get a lot of messages from users sharing concerns or highlighting areas they find confusing. Here are answers to some of the most common questions, to help or reassure you while you get started, and disprove some piano myths. A lot of the answers are covered in more detail in other chapters of this eBook.
Q: How often do I need to practice?
A: Every day, but not for long. Getting better at the piano is about small improvements every day. 20 minutes is perfect to start with. It doesn’t matter when you fit them in, just try to build these short practice sessions into your everyday schedule whenever works best for you. We also know that life doesn’t always follow a schedule, so if you end up playing on only five days out of seven, this is fine. More on this in Chapter 6 - Piano Practice.
Q: Do I need to learn how to read music?
A: No, but you limit yourself if you don’t. The ability to read music opens out an entirely new range of possibilities to you. It gives you a universal language to understand and communicate music, fast and accurately. This then gives you access to an almost unlimited range of music that, once you get good enough, you will be able to play as soon as you see it.
The added upside is that getting to a decent level doesn’t take as long as you might think. And if all you want to learn is basic chords to play with other musicians, then alternative approaches like Chord Notation will serve the purpose. More on this in Chapter 5 - Reading Sheet Music (the Basics).
Q: What should I be able to play after one year?
A: Simple classical pieces and some intermediate songs. This answer may feel vague, but it’s better than the real answer of “it depends”. Be confident that through daily practice, with each session structured correctly, and by tackling each new technique or problem systematically, you can play something you can be proud of in a year. More on this in Chapter 6 - Piano Practice.
You are also more likely to get there if you follow a pattern of goal setting, feedback and rewards like we lay out in Chapter 7. For inspiration on how this can turn out when done properly, look to Alan Rusbridger, the journalist who took to the piano aged 56 and succeeded in play Chopin’s tricky Ballade No. 1 at a concert.
Q: How can I practice left hand/right hand coordination?
A: Practice separately, then together. Playing with both hands actually forces your brain to concentrate on three tasks at once: right hand, left hand and coordinating the two. The good news here is that this third element (coordination) will improve with focused practice just like anything else. Separate out the tasks, getting the right and left hands perfect before putting them together slowly. There are practice tips for this in Chapter 6 - Piano Practice.
Q: How can I improve the flexibility/dexterity of my fingers?
A: Scales and technical exercises. Your hands, fingers and wrists are like any collection of muscles, bones and tendons. By far the easiest and fastest way to improve on agility and flexibility is through exercise. Scales have been the primary technique for hundreds of years, simply because they work. You can find tutorials on scales in the flowkey app.
A great alternative for improving flexibility, speed, agility, and strength for the fingers and wrists are the Hanon exercises. In “The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises”, Charles Louis Hanon laid out exercises ranging from “Preparatory exercises for beginners”, all the way to “Virtuoso exercises for mastering the greatest technical difficulties”. Find them for free in various places online.
Also, the good news is that your flexibility and dexterity will improve over time just by playing songs you love. In fact, you can learn and practice almost any technique with songs that use those techniques. It only takes a little patience. It might take months until you achieve the improvement you desire but that is totally fine. Incorporating some of the above suggestions into your practice routine can speed up your progress.
Q: Am I too old?
A: No, now is the right time to start. It’s human nature for our fear of failure to get in the way of starting something, but fear is all it is. There is no logic behind it. There is no age limit to learning an instrument. Even if you are over 70 and worried about your physical ability, there are a wealth of scientifically proven benefits of piano for improving mental and physical health and wellbeing. If you’re younger than 70, then the answer is the same. Do it.
A common excuse is “I’ll be too old by the time I’m good”. If this is you, see the above answer to “What should I be able to play after a year?” for inspiration on what you can achieve. Think of yourself a year ago. Imagine you had started then. Now think of yourself a year from now, thanking yourself for taking the time this year. Start now. It’s always the perfect time.
Q: What if I don’t have time?
A: You do, you just need to find it. It’s 20 minutes a day. Take a look at your daily schedule and find a gap. It’s not important when you practice, only that you practice. We’re all different. Mozart was most creative very early or very late, while Strauss preferred mid-morning.
If you look at your schedule and really can’t find a gap, then a good trick is to practice as the first or last thing of the day. Deciding when depends on how you feel after practicing. If it fills you with energy, then early morning could work, while if you find it relaxing then maybe play before bed. Experiment. A digital piano or keyboard has an advantage here, as headphones keep you friendly with your neighbours if you practice best at 4 a.m. on weeknights.
Q: What if I’m not naturally talented?
A: You aren’t born talented, you become talented. Any pianist performing at a high level has worked for it. There is no "natural talent" at play, simply a combination of good quality teaching, practice and motivation. Those who seem to learn far quicker than anybody else were not born with the ability, they found a method that works for them, and stuck to it.
In this eBook we hope to have given you the knowledge and tools to find your own best method for learning, practicing and motivating yourself. Once you are set on a method, you just need to put in the time, safe in the knowledge that you can do it.
Q: How do I know I’m using the correct fingering?
A: There is no single “correct” fingering. It depends on the size of your hands, the dexterity and flexibility of your fingers, and the sound you want to create. As a rule, good fingering creates the smallest number of hand jumps and changes in positions, so experiment to find what makes you feel comfortable. Over time you will learn patterns that make sense and it will become second nature.
In sheet music, fingering is often suggested as small numbers above or below the notes. The 1 to 5 refers to your five fingers, with 1 as your thumb and 5 as your little (pinky) finger.
When practicing with flowkey, pay attention to the fingering our professional pianists use, as they have spent time working it out for each piece. Of course, if you find it hard to play sections as shown in the video, find a fingering that is more comfortable for you.
Q: What if my hands are too small?
A: They aren’t, you can play great songs on the piano with small hands. First of all, your ability to stretch will improve a great deal as your flexibility improves (see the dexterity and flexibility question above). Like anything else it takes practice and a little time. Second, there are phenomenal pianists with small hands. Think of child prodigies. Or Lee Shaw, the “First Lady of Jazz”, who was exceptional for all of her 89 years at less than 150cm (five feet) tall!
For now, look for music that doesn’t include simultaneous notes more than an octave apart, or big five-note chords. Anything with fast, close finger work is great. You may even find it easier than those with big hands. Large, fast jumps may seem difficult now, but try to get into the habit of playing them, it’s a useful technique in learning to stretch with small hands.