Learning to Play

The piano is an impressive instrument. Its keys have a range unlike any other classical instrument's, and it sounds wonderful when played alone or when
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The piano is an impressive instrument. Its keys have a range unlike any other classical instrument's, and it sounds wonderful when played alone or when played along with other instruments. And though musical fads come and go, the piano remains as popular as ever.

The best way to explore the wonderful features on your piano is simply to play it. Perhaps you are contemplating beginning piano lessons, or maybe you are jumping back in after years of not playing. With the right piano-education program — whether you opt for traditional lessons, method books, or software — you can learn to play what you want at a pace that's appropriate for you.

First, we need to clarify your musical dreams concerning the piano. Second, we will offer some ideas on finding and choosing a teacher or instructional approach that will get you headed in the direction you want to go. And third, we will explore some alternative approaches to learning music such as software and online instruction.

YOUR FIRST ASSIGNMENT

If you have never played the piano before or if you took your last lesson years ago, you'll be happy to know that endless educational resources are available, whatever your skill level and whatever musical goals you have. Begin by asking the right questions. The first is, What you want to do with your piano? Do you want to play a thrilling Chopin scherzo or a laid-back jazz number? Do you want to play solo or with a group? Do you want to accompany yourself as you sing? The next big question is, How much time you can devote to practicing? Time is the biggest factor in determining your progress. You will also want to consider your learning style: Do you prefer working alone or with a teacher? Do you need the accountability such as that found in a teacher-student relationship, or are you self-motivated and able to learn independently, say, using a computer?

Finally, ask yourself just how much money you are willing to spend acquiring this skill. Once you learn to play, you will enjoy playing the piano your entire life, so it's really a long-term investment.

PRIVATE LESSONS

The most popular type of piano lesson is one given by a private instructor. When interviewing a teacher, ask about his policies regarding scheduling, performances and fees. Ask, too, about the instructor's educational background. If she does not have a degree in music, has she completed a music-certification course?

In many cases (especially in the U.S., where there is no national standard certification requirement for piano teachers), you may find a very competent teacher who has years of experience instructing and performing. Ask permission to attend a recital so you can observe his students. This will give you an indication of his standards of excellence, his style of music, and the range of difficulty he is able to teach.

If your dream is to play holiday tunes, pop music, folk sing-alongs, rock 'n' roll, blues, or boogie, you may need a different type of teacher. When playing these styles, you will benefit from music-reading skills, but the focus is less on the finer details of reading music and more on developing your own interpretation and arrangement of the piece. You will need to be able to read the treble clef, play chords, and improvise. Add to these a sense of adventure, independence, and creativity! Few professional teachers are teaching these styles of music, so you may have to look for someone who performs in this manner (at church, in a mall, or at parties) and set up an appointment.

If you are devoted to exploring the “music within” and wish to put your musical ideas on paper, you may benefit most from a coaching set-up with a teacher who will help you with music theory (the grammar of music) and get you started using a computer software program designed for notation.

If you are a beginner who wants to eventually play a Chopin scherzo, you will probably study daily for five to ten years, and the cost of lessons will be part of your regular budget.

GROUP LESSONS

The second option in piano instruction is the group instructor. This relatively new approach to teaching is often found in schools and universities. Some independent teachers have adopted this approach in order to accommodate more students and because it offers some benefits not readily available with one-on-one teaching.

Rhythm and listening skills are quickly developed as students play music together, learning the importance of musical cooperation, staying with the beat, and listening while they play. Before the advent of electronic keyboards, this option was quite rare.

In group lessons, students' motivation to practice increases, friendships are formed, and the pieces played sound fuller and more interesting earlier in the learning process. Teachers of group lessons are likely to have an understanding of technology and music software, and they can provide guidance in these areas as well.

Whether you opt for private lessons or for group instruction, you will need to find a teacher who will draw out the best in you. Here are some questions to ask when interviewing a teacher.

Does the teacher have a studio policy that outlines fees, practice expectations, musical equipment requirements, a yearly schedule, rules regarding missed lessons, and descriptions of performance opportunities? Such a policy gives you a glimpse of the teacher's philosophy of teaching (for example, whether the focus is on fun, discipline, or performance) and an understanding of what the standards are. If there is no formal studio policy, ask relevant questions so you have a clear understanding of the expectations.

Does the teacher accept adult and young students? How flexible is she with requirements and yearly curriculum? An adult may need a very flexible arrangement, especially when juggling work and family schedules. A periodic, temporary or irregular “coaching” arrangement may be more suitable than a weekly lesson.

What type of instrument does the teacher require or prefer that you use for practice? Some teachers refuse to teach students who do not have an acoustic piano. Others will find digital pianos with weighted keys acceptable, but they may not accept keyboards with un-weighted keys.

What is the teacher's specialty? For example, does he teach students how to read standard music notation or how to improvise and compose?

What is the teacher's philosophy of music and teaching? How does it match with your own?

Is the teacher's attitude open, positive, and responsive toward you (or your child)? If you are seeking a teacher for your child, remember that children enjoy being involved in selecting a teacher. If possible, request a “sample” (though not necessarily free) lesson so you and your child can discover the teacher's approach and personality. When the student is a child, ask whether the teacher expects parents to attend the lesson and take an active part in the practice time or whether she prefers to teach the student alone.

Does the teacher have any other features in the studio, such as a computer lab or a listening library? These provide opportunities for students to try new computer programs and to be exposed to a great selection of music.

Does the teacher offer a variety of performance opportunities, such as participation in competitions and recitals?

Successfully locating a teacher depends largely on your ability to articulate what you want and on the effort you put into finding an instructor willing to teach it to you. Review these questions before you talk to a teacher so that you know what your preferences are. Then you will be able to find a good, long-lasting match — or a happy, short one, as the case may be.

FINDING A TEACHER

Now that you've defined what you want, here are some suggestions for finding a teacher who can guide you to the level of playing you want to achieve.

Start out by asking friends for references. Chances are you or your child has friends who are taking lessons. Ask them about their teachers and whether they are making satisfactory progress.

Ask instrumental and choral teachers at your local schools for recommendations; they usually know private teachers, as do worship music directors and accompanists. Or you can call music stores and piano-and-organ dealers to ask whether they have in-house private or group instructors. You can even try calling a nearby community college or university to find out whether a faculty member teaches any community-oriented noncredit piano classes or private lessons. Inquire about student teachers as well; often they can get you started for a lower fee than faculty members would charge. They are often on the cutting edge of technology and methods; however, they will obviously have less experience dealing with challenges in technique or learning styles.

Your local chamber of commerce, public library, music stores, and yellow pages may also provide contact information for local music clubs and associations. These associations are excellent resources, especially for students seeking a long-term arrangement. The Music Teachers' National Association, the largest organization of its type, has more than 24,000 members and can direct you to an organization in your area. You can call the MTNA at (513) 421-1420, visit its Web site at www.mtna.org, or send an e-mail to mtnanet@mtna.org.

Most state organizations have a free referral service to help you locate a nearby teacher. Instructors who belong to these groups are usually well educated and professional, they maintain their skills, and they can involve students in local and regional music festivals, competitions, and ensemble opportunities.

ONLINE INSTRUCTION

Lessons via the Internet are an interesting alternative to face-to-face private lessons or to group lessons. They are convenient: you can take a lesson at your leisure, whether at midnight or noon, and you can play your own piano. Hearandplay.com advertises 60 free lessons online. Lessons4you.com provides ten lessons for $25, and at Playpianonow.com you'll find mini-lessons on chords.

Most sites give a sample lesson and some background on the instructor. After considering these, you can decide whether you would like to buy the “package” of lessons, which usually requires you to purchase their music and method books. The online lessons I have observed are some combination of the following: First, you study the information presented via their Web site. Second, you learn the information or piece of music, and then either record the piece as a MIDI file (using a MIDI-equipped keyboard) or capture your performance on audio- or videotape. Finally, you send your recording to the instructor, who reviews your work and sends you comments and demonstrations via e-mail or using your “station” on the Web site.

Note that many online lessons are geared toward absolute beginners. Others are quick-start programs that may not give a good foundation of reading or theory. Some may simply focus on one particular musical style. You'll need to determine whether this is what you are looking for or whether it is too limited.

Even these online options involve establishing a relationship with a teacher: you will likely be given an e-mail address to which you can address questions before your choose to enroll in the lessons. Many of the interview questions given above are appropriate for evaluating online instruction.

METHOD BOOKS AND SHEET MUSIC

If you're looking to supplement your lessons or if you learn well on your own, you might consider purchasing some method books, which are designed to lead a student through a logical progression of musical principles and skills over the first few years. Some methods comprise several books, such as a lesson book that describes new concepts, a corresponding performance book with solo pieces that demonstrate the concept, and a theory book that reinforces the same concept through questions, puzzles, and games.

Many method books now provide MIDI-accompaniment software on MIDI song disks. These programs are excellent for learning rhythm and expression (loud, soft, slow, fast, and so on) through listening. Because the tempo can be controlled by the student, the speed can be varied to suit any stage of the learning process.

I enjoy using several method books, but my students have favored Nancy and Randall Faber's Piano Adventures series (FJH Music Company). The music is charming and interesting, and the artwork is light but not “childish.” In addition to having the standard note and rhythm information, these books address musical concepts such as touch and tone.

You may find that even if you are self-motivated, it is still helpful to have a teacher who will support your musical goals with occasional coaching lessons. It is great to have someone ensure that you properly understand the concepts you've studied.

Another avenue of exploration is certainly the various workshops available through recreation centers and college piano classes. Some courses, such as those available through the New School of American Music, founded by Robert Laughlin, use a one-day, three-hour seminar format that allows adults to sample various styles such as pop and blues as well as playing the piano by ear. These courses also contain tapes and music, so you can review what you have learned in the class. These are excellent for self-starters or those just needing some practical skills for their own enjoyment.

MUSIC EDUCATION SOFTWARE

Using software is a wonderful way to learn the basics of music. A clever software program can drill concepts in a way that is fun and challenging. However, there are programs available for teaching piano to the absolute beginner, I have not yet seen any that progress much farther than the level of an average second-year student.

Every musician needs to understand and feel rhythm. A theory book can explain concepts, but software can give you feedback on what you have actually played into the computer. One such program is Rhythm Ace (Alfred Publishing Company [Win], $49.95), a no-frills program that gives a sample rhythm for you to play and then processes two pieces of information: when you play a note and how long you hold it. Afterward it shows you what your rhythm actually was, compared with what it was supposed to be. You receive points for accuracy. The level of difficulty ranges from beginner to intermediate.

Music Lessons I (MiBAC [Win, $119; Mac, $149]) is an excellent program for learning all the basics: note reading, rhythmic note values, scales, intervals, and regular and jazz modes. This program can be adapted to any skill level, and it contains excellent descriptions of new concepts as well as effective drills for reviewing. Music Lessons II, which focuses on chords and harmony, is also available ([Mac/Win, $149]).

If you or your child needs some fun “bells and whistles,” try Music Ace (Harmonic Vision [Mac/Win, $49.95]), a fun, interactive game that teaches a variety of musical skills. It covers staff and keyboard relationships, pitch identification, note reading, listening skills, sharps, flats, key signatures, and major scales. It proves that you learn most effectively when you are enjoying yourself!

Noteplay (Alfred Publishing Company [Win], $49.95) is one of my favorite programs for simply learning to read notes. It has no rhythmic requirements, so the student can focus on learning note names and playing them on the piano. It begins with three notes in the right hand and progresses to a level of difficulty similar to that needed to play an easy Bach prelude or fugue. The notes are entirely random, and the program is scored to encourage accuracy and speed.

HOW TO LOCATE AND SELECT SOFTWARE

With so many Web sites, it is impossible to say which is the best. I have used Lentine's Music Guide not only to learn about the latest music educational and performance software, but also to read their excellent articles and descriptions of software. You can order their catalog by calling (800) 822-6752 or by visiting www.lentine.com. Alfred Publishing Company also provides information about locating a store near you that carries their software: call (818) 892-2452 or visit www.alfred.com.

Music software games offer ingenious ways of drilling basic concepts using fun graphics and exciting scenarios. For example, Beethoven Lives Upstairs (The Children's Group [Win], $29.99) uses many games as well as video clips from the movie of the same title. The games allow you to compose your own pieces and race with the clock to put rhythmic characters in the correct place.

Many software programs can track a player's progress and pick up where the student left off. They can easily and creatively drill the student on basic musical concepts such as notes, rhythm, time signatures, ear training (the ability to play what you have just heard), and sight-reading (the ability to read and play music accurately on the first reading). Students get caught up in the fun and hardly realize how much they are learning.

Another great collection of programs is the Pianist series (PG Music [Mac/Win, $49.00 each]), a repertoire program that not only entertains as you listen to favorites from composers of every musical period, but teaches those who like to listen and watch as the notes play and change color on the screen. The series includes programs in classical, jazz, blues, gospel, and new age music, and more programs are being developed.

Even traditional private piano lessons are not so traditional any more: according to the MTNA, 60 percent of its member teachers augment music lessons with computer-based programs. Computer software is also ideal in a lab, where the teacher can use programs to answer questions and illustrate concepts or to record pieces onto CD.

If you're considering instructional software, remember that it has its own rules and limitations. For example, a musical notation program that scores music as you play can't tell which hand is playing which notes, so it may transcribe your composition with the notes on the wrong staff.

SUMMARY

Whether you're learning to play the piano for the first time or whether you're simply brushing up after years away from the keyboard, you will want the best educational program. You may choose a private teacher, a class, a book series, or a computer-based curriculum. What matters most is finding an arrangement that teaches the musical skills you want in a format you enjoy.

Nancy Davis conducts music-technology workshops and teaches group and private lessons in her music school, Keys to Creativity, located in northern Arizona. She worked with the Kennedy Center American Composer Friedheim Awards and served as president of the Northern Virginia Music Teachers' Association.

Online Resources for Piano Education

pianoeducation.org

The Piano Education Page offers teachers, students, and parents more than 600 pages of free information, upgraded monthly. Find suggestions on learning to play the piano, read reviews of software, check out hundreds of links, read tips for piano teachers — even visit a fun page where kids can meet composers and listen to solo piano music.

www.classicalmus.hispeed.com

Visitors to the Charles K. Moss Piano Studio site will find links to classical-piano sites and loads of informative material for students and teachers to read, such as articles on practicing the piano, the Kodaly philosophy of music, and various composers' lives.

www.gopiano.com

What could be better than free online piano lessons for beginners? These include a lesson plan, rhythm exercises, and a theory examination with immediate scoring results.

www.mcpiano.com

The Mayron Cole Piano Method's distinctive site focuses on group piano-teaching information and resources. Among its offerings are articles on group piano-teaching philosophy, learning styles, and the incorporation of music technology.

www.musicedmarket.com

This page is maintained by a group of more than 30 piano and music teachers. Visitors will find a Q&A “Talk to Us” section, teaching resources and ideas, and even products designed for home schoolers.

www.pianofun.com

The New School of American Music's site offers one-minute piano lessons (updated weekly) and a responsive message board where you can ask questions about technique and style. You'll also find tips geared toward adult students who want to play pop, blues, and boogie or play by ear.

www.pianonet.com

You'll find the who, what, why, and how of piano music here — the official site of the National Piano Foundation — from university-level research into the benefits of playing to resources for group teaching.

www.practicespot.com

This Web site is packed with resources for teachers, such as “Countdown Charts,” which help teachers prepare students for recitals. Be sure to read about how playing video games will help your child play piano better!

www.ptg.org/piano_teachers.htm

This page, sponsored by the Piano Technicians Guild, features links for instructors and curious students. You may even find a link to a page hosted by a piano teacher near you.

Online Resources for Music Education

www.amc-music.com/brain.html

The American Music Conference hosts a page on music making and the mind. It's a terrific resource for anyone interested in the multiple benefits of music listening and learning.

www.arts.state.tx.us/schoolhouse

The Texas Commission on the Arts Web site is a storehouse of information for people interested in everything from music technology to harmonica lessons, from online piano lessons to K — 12 resources for music educators. It offers links to major arts organizations as well as links to music theory and ear-training drills. Just choose the Music link when you reach this page.

www.artsedge.kennedy-center.org

This ArtsEdge page offers local and national arts and education information. The site includes teaching materials and “ArtsEdge” lessons for the performing arts.

www.chapman.edu/soe/faculty/piper/cpiper/MERLmenu.htm

This Music Education Resource Links site provides links to curriculum resources for each of the nine national content standards of the National Standards for Art Education. Documents describing what students should know and be able to do in the arts are available online.

www.drumbum.com/lessons

Attention, drummers (or anyone interested in rhythm) — the Drum Bum site features a fun drum-lesson database with more than 400 free lessons in various styles and patterns, including sound clips.

www.harmony-central.com/MIDI

The Harmony Central site provides an explanation of MIDI as well as tips, tricks, and tools to get started using your MIDI-equipped instruments. The information provided here ranges from introductory to advanced.

www.isd77.k12.mn.us/resources/staffpages/shirk/k12.music.html

K-12 Resources for Music Educators offers valuable resources for teachers and students in all educational levels and areas, including band, orchestra, vocal, and classroom situations.

www.menc.org

This is the home page for the National Association for Music Education (formerly known as the Music Educators' National Conference, hence the acronym MENC in the URL). This site targets music educators in its offering of research papers, resource links for sheet music (vocal and instrumental), and even lesson outlines that include popular sheet music to print out. It is also a great site for curious and adventurous students.

www.mmbmusic.com

MMB Music's site is a treasure trove of online resources, lists, and databases for the music educator, including information on technology for music therapy and performance; books and recordings on the Mozart Effect; and percussion instruments for school, church, and family.

www.ti-me.org

The mission statement for the Technology Institute for Music Education says that TI:ME exists to “assist music educators in applying technology to improve teaching and learning in music.” To meet this goal, they have set up a certification process for teachers. You can find lists of teachers, as well as other resources for music technology, at this site.

www.uncg.edu/mus/courses/flmccart/amr

The American Music Resource home page is “a multidimensional reference source for all styles of music indigenous to the Western Hemisphere.” The collection houses more than 800 bibliographies, lists, and files, indexed by topic and subject. The site's Netography is a compilation of links and music-related search engines.