New Year 2022 resolution: to learn to play the piano. I’m sure many of you have made a similar resolution, and perhaps abandoned it after a while. I am aware of the pitfalls ahead, and so I’d like to tell you how I’ve gotten started. In this article I review the different learning methods I’ve surveyed, the instrument I chose, my general setup, and some basic ideas about the whole thing. I cannot promise this will work, so stand by for another article a few months from now telling you how it went.
First of all, why learn the piano? Is it even possible to learn it decently when you are not so young (I’m 61 as I’m writing this, but obviously young at heart). Here are the answers in reverse order:
- Yes, it is possible, especially if you don’t expect to be performing at Carnegie Hall anytime soon. In my case, the ultimate goal is to play ragtime, more immediately to accompany popular songs. I surprised myself being able to do some decently sounding chord progressions within the first week. More about that later.
- Why the piano? Because unlike most other instruments it doesn’t take any effort to make a decent sound. Because you can have both hands making music. Because you can get a ton of help online and in person. Because you can play any genre. And because it’s cool, of course. Why not? Well, pianos are not very cheap, and not very portable. And I can’t think of any other reason why not. Even portability can be achieved reasonably, as I’ll show you later.
OK, so now that you want to do it and it seems like it won’t be impossible, where to start? Here is what looks to me like the path of least resistance:
- Get a piano. Going to a school every few days may be okay, but I think an adult needs an instrument that is accessible at odd times, when a meeting gets canceled, or when you can’t fall asleep, or when you feel the need to wind down. Pianos are not as expensive as you’d think. Look on Craigslist and you’ll find pianos given away for nothing, so long as you pick them up. Now, the instrument needs to sound good or you won’t like what you are doing and will stop after a short time. I think I said the same thing about ukuleles, but ukuleles are a lot easier to keep in tune. Because of this, I recommend a digital piano over an acoustic one, with the added bonus that you can use headphones and nobody will have to suffer your practice. After watching a whole bunch of YouTube videos about digital pianos for beginners, I ended up buying a Casio CDP-S350 (two months ago, today I would have bought the just-released CDP-S360, which claims to give you more for about the same price). It has the essentials: 88 keys, graded hammer action (don’t even try learning on a keyboard without hammer action), and a very nice piano sound (plus 699 more instruments, for variety’s sake). You will also need a decent sustain pedal (the one included with the piano is just too cheesy), a stand (get a rigid one; I got the wooden one fitting the instrument, but a double-X collapsible one might also work; don’t get a single-X stand, it will shake too much), and a bench to sit on (you’ll want one with thick padding, and which can be raised to at least 20 inches high, unless your arms are rather short).
- Make sure you can find time. This is easier than it looks. A spanking brand new piano sitting in you living room has a sort of mermaid song to it. If you can’t find a slot in your busy social schedule, maybe your social life is too intense. If you have kids they likely will enjoy practicing with you much more than doing it alone.
- Get a course or a teacher. Human teachers are relatively expensive and won’t adapt to your schedule, though there’s something to be said for making a whole in your schedule in order to accommodate a teacher. I opted to begin with a recorded course, thinking that maybe I can get some lessons at a more advanced level. The immense majority of online courses are offered on a subscription basis. Being an education professional myself, I didn’t want to fall into this trap. It also usually a raw deal for the teachers producing the content, who get paid only once while the publisher gets paid every month with no end in sight. The more they advertise (I’m looking at you, Simply Piano), the more they convince me they’re putting more money on advertising than on producing actual content. Besides, the core of many of these subscriptions is an app that gives you score for playing the right key at the “right” time determined by colored falling bars. I can see no reason why owning this kind of app warrants a subscription, to say nothing of whether it makes any musical sense to learn piano like playing Space Invaders. In the end, I am following two pre-recorded courses that you can get for a one-time price without unnecessary subscriptions: “Learn and Master Piano with Will Barrow,” and “Pianoforall”. They both consist of written material in pdf format, plus a whole bunch of videos to teach you stuff. Then you practice on your own. I found Pianoforall for only 20 bucks (that’s 50% off) at this link. The other course I found on the Internet for free (I won’t tell you where, but it’s easy to find).
- Optional: get a tablet. This is quite useful so you can watch the lessons and play at the same time, plus eventually display sheet music. I use a 1st generation iPad pro, but I’m sure most lesser tablets will be fine. Since the piano has an AUX input, I feed the sound from the iPad into the piano with a short cable, and then I listen to that and my own playing through headphones hoked up to the piano. I also have a USB cable on the MIDI out of the piano, and into the iPad through an USB to Lightning adaptor so I can play piano and synth apps on the iPad (I have accumulated a lot of those; the best are mentioned below).
Once you have all the required material, jump into it. The courses will start you at the lowest level, usually without even bothering to teach you much music notation at first. The essence is to get the feel of the music coming out of your fingers. Don’t neglect the stretching exercises that Will Barrow shows you at the start if you don’t want your wrists to get sore. Do pay attention to correct fingering and sitting position so you don’t develop bad habits. Do invent you own chord progressions that sound good to you. Explore the keyboard up and down. Change from piano to other sounds as the whim strikes you; the learning will be the same and variety always helps. Have fun.
And now a few words on other issues:
- Portability. The digital piano I bought weighs 22 pounds, a featherweight in the piano world. You can buy a gig bag for it for 120 bucks, but it still seems like a lot of weight to lug around, to say nothing of the 52 inches required by the 88 keys. If you are not picky about having hammer action and 88 keys while traveling, you can get by with a MIDI controller plus a USB cable into your tablet, and have the tablet generate the sound. I got myself a used M-Audio Oxygen49 for 45 bucks, plus a 20-dollar bag originally intended for carrying photo equipment. The size of the whole setup is only a bit larger than a ukulele. 49 keys might be all you need to carry around, and it covers most keys normally used in songs. If you need to get out of that range, MIDI controllers usually have dedicated buttons for shifting octaves up and down, so the reduced number of keys is not as limiting as it seems at first.
- Sound quality. Most brand-name digital pianos made today have a very realistic piano sound, usually better than an acoustic piano that might not be perfectly in tune. When you get off the main Japanese brands (Yamaha, Casio, Kawai, Roland, Korg) you may encounter pianos that don’t sound so good. This is where you can plug it into a tablet via a USB MIDI cable and use a piano app to make the sound (don’t get a piano lacking a MIDI port!). Some free apps can emulate very realistic pianos, such as: iGrand Piano free (IK Multimedia), KORG Module (Korg), SampleTank CS (IK Multimedia), Numa Player (Studiologic). Paid apps: Pure Piano, BS-16i plus a good sound font, Ravenscroft 275.
- If you are on a tight budget, get a cheaper keyboard. I said earlier that weighted hammer action is a must, and it really is if you want to be able to play a real piano eventually because the other action types are just too soft and you’ll end up learning wrong. But if this is not a problem for you then you can save half the money with a keyboard that does not have hammer action. Right now my favorite in this category is the Casio CT-S400, which has the same AiX sound engine as the piano I bought and costs $200 less. Or any Casio with the AiX sound chip, really; they all sound terrific. But let me repeat the stern warning: you really want hammer action. I got myself a decent sounding synth action keyboard some years ago, and it ended up gathering dust. In retrospect, I think this is because it just didn’t feel right, even with the voices that sounded realistic, and it wasn’t nearly as much fun to play it. The same thing might happen to you.