Learning piano not so young: nine months later

Nine months have  passed since I decided to learn to play the piano, and I’m still on it, which is good. Not a virtuoso by any stretch, but I can almost accompany songs and have a lot of fun practicing by myself, which is bound to lead to good results. In this article, I muse about what has worked, and what hasn’t worked so well, in case it might help you.

In this post of a few months ago, I had a few recommendations for gear. I find they were mostly correct at the nine-month mark. There are two essential qualities for your learning piano:

It has to sound good. Otherwise you’ll lose interest and stop. Since most likely you’ll be practicing with headphones on an electronic piano, this also means that the headphones should not screw up the sound. I have tested a number of them and I found large differences. Most headphones you can buy today are going to have enhanced bass because they are for consuming music. This is bad for learning piano because it makes the keys played with the left hand boom over the other keys. Get a set of headphones that will not add extra bass. I bought a set of Audio-Technica ath-m20x (the bottom of their line) and I like them so much that I just bought another set for the computer. As for the keyboard itself, if you don’t like its sound you can just use its MIDI out function into an iPad and get the sound from a good-sounding app like Pure Piano, or BS-16i or World Piano plus a good free piano sound font (you can find many here, and another whole bunch here).

if you are not concerned about neighbors (or even family) hearing your clumsy practice you may be using speakers, and here you need to be careful too because the built-in speakers of many otherwise good digital pianos are sub-par and won’t reproduce the sound generated by the electronics in all its crispness and nuance, which may end up discouraging you from practice. I just added a pair of cheap studio monitors to my Casio setup, and the sound difference is like night and day, even better than with the headphones. If I close my eyes, I can easily fool myself into thinking that I’m seated in front of an acoustic grand, as far as the sound goes. We have a baby grand in the living room (not the most expensive brand, but a real acoustic piano nonetheless, and in tune), and the Casio with the monitor speakers sound better.

It has to feel right. This means fully weighted keys. I bought a Casio CDP-S350 for $450 (minus stand) and I’m quite happy with its feel and sound. But I recently bought a used Casio WK-225, which does not have weighted keys, and I’m liking it a lot too. This is because it has a firmer feel than other synth action keyboards and also has 76 keys instead of the usual 61. With 61 keys, I always find myself with the uncomfortable feeling that I might miss a note any time because my left hand is playing at the very edge of the keyboard.

As you progress, you may find yourself requiring a more realistic acoustic-piano feel than the simple “graded hammer action” of my CDP-S350. This will mean a pricier piano having a key mechanism lifted from an acoustic, which should come also with better speakers and (slightly) better sound generation. This, however, is largely a matter of taste and it is also likely that you’ll prefer the cheaper action if you start learning on it instead of a true acoustic.

Concerning books, videos, and other learning tools, by now I’m quite convinced that “piano for all” is superior to the other methods. And it’s the cheapest, too. The other method I mentioned in my previous post takes too long to introduce you to chords, and then mixes it with melody samples that are not what you need, and it doesn’t explain the why of all those chords and rhythms. Piano for all does that efficiently and comprehensively. I’m even coming up with new rhythms that are not in the videos. My knowledge of the ukulele, which is all chord-based, helps here a lot.

It also helps to tell people that you are trying to learn the piano. You get encouragement and a modicum of peer pressure, which can get you over bad days. The occasional demo of your progress before family or friends will get you some affirmation, which is also helpful whether or not you want to admit it.

2 thoughts to “Learning piano not so young: nine months later”

  1. Amateur musicians like me read notes. Professional musicians like Santana feel notes. There is a Pointer System, where the note played is an anchor, and the remaining notes in a chord are displacements from that note. It’s amazing how many professionals do not read music. Yet, they can navigate all up and down the scale.

  2. Reading your insightful post rang a similar chord in my own musical memory. I’m a 65-year-old software engineer who has a classical music playing background.

    At age 11 I studied the English Concertina for two years with the virtuoso Boris Matusewitch in New York City before emigrating to Israel. Boris Matusewitch was a consummate master of the English Concertina, with an enormous repertoire of music including classical, pop, jazz, and folk music. Within the first year he had me playing Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Handel, Vivaldi, and many more composers, both solo and duets with him. I have continued playing classical music on the Concertina since then.

    As a teenager I was also attracted to the classical guitar, this time self-taught. My repertoire included classical, pop, and folk music.

    I could never understand how pianists could split their minds into right and left hands, with both hands often playing totally different music lines. Friends would try to convince me that I did the same with the concertina and classical guitar, i.e., operate both hands in seemingly unrelated fashions, but I remained unconvinced.

    On the concertina, my two hands play a single logical stream of notes, with the notes technically divided between both hands.

    Similarly, on the guitar, the left hand fingers the notes on the strings while the right hand plucks the strings, but both hands attempt to play a single stream of melody/harmony using both hands (yes, the guitar is capable of counterpoint, but you get the idea).

    I knew that pianists had an ability I didn’t: their right and left hands played two independent musical lines at the same time. I just couldn’t split my consciousness into two simultaneous but different musical streams.

    In addition, my two instruments have their music written in the treble (G) clef. Reading the piano’s left-handed bass (F) clef has always been a challenge for me, so improving my reading of the bass clef was a secondary goal.

    Fast forward to a few years ago. I had finally resolved to teach myself to play serious classical music with both hands on the piano. The two pieces I selected were by both Bach: The Prelude in C Major (BWV 846), and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” (BWV 147).

    The first piece, the Prelude in C Major, does not actually have both hands playing simultaneously, but rather in arpeggiated fashion. Nonetheless, I was able to work on my fingering and bass clef reading, and produce beautiful music at the same time.

    The second piece, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, was the true challenge. Here I needed to tackle two seemingly independent stream of notes at the same time. I worked on this for about two months, trying to absorb the right- and left-hand lines, how they fit together, savoring it all like a good wine.

    In the beginning the going was tough, but determined working on it paid off in the end. I reveled in convincing myself of the best fingering, marveled in the artful way one can play a piece with minimal effort and maximal dexterity, and enjoyed listening to the music as I became adept at playing it without needing the notes.

    On a personal level, mastering these pieces proved to myself that I was indeed able to achieve an exciting yet difficult goal I had set for myself, not unlike learning a new language. At my age I often wonder if I have the mental ability to accomplish truly new challenges, and learning to play the piano convinced me that I could.

    As you mention in your case, I did my playing on a Casio CTK-4000, and used headphones so I could play whenever I wanted to without disturbing the family. Experimenting with the different built-in tones (e.g., grand piano, strings, harpsichord, organ) made the experience that much more enjoyable.

    Having climbed my Everest and proven I could do it, I now sit down occasionally to figure out another piece (but always one I really want to master).

    One thing is clear: I will always remember the sense of excitement and awe I felt when I sat down to seriously play the piano.

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