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Learning to Play Without a Private Teacher


by John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
Rio Rancho, NM USA

lthough a private teacher is usually the best and easiest way to learn to play the piano, some people will receive lessons through their piano dealer or will want to train themselves. This page has tips for those students. A separate page, Learning to Play the Piano, covers what you should know about taking lessons from a private teacher.



keyinfo.gif (1045 bytes)Parents and students may also find some of the articles in The Teaching Studio useful, even though they are directed at piano teachers.


Piano Dealer Lessons

Many sellers of pianos offer lessons in their showrooms. Such lessons are often heavily promoted in radio and print advertisements and may be included with the purchase of a piano or expensive digital keyboard. Often, piano dealer lessons take the form of standardized audio courses heard through earphones while you play at some type of digital keyboard, with monitoring by a teacher.

While such lessons can be useful, depending on the quality of the course and the involvement of the teacher, it is likely that you will not get the one-on-one kind of commitment by a teacher in this setting that you would get with private lessons. We've heard from some students that these audio course lessons are valuable; other students report less positive experiences. We've also heard horror stories, including from some teachers, about outright pressure by the dealer on the teacher to maneuver students into buying digital keyboards or pianos.

We suggest that you exercise the same kind of care in evaluating piano dealer lessons that you would use in choosing a private teacher. Before you sign up for lessons at a dealer, ask for one free introductory lesson to see if the approach to lessons used by the dealer will work for you. Such a request is not unreasonable, in light of the fact that most private teachers offer a free introductory lesson which allows you to do that same kind of evaluation with the private teacher. If the dealer refuses your request or demands that you make a purchase to receive a free introductory lesson, it's probably best to think carefully about whether you want to spend your money and time on lessons at that dealer. In the end, the only thing that counts in choosing among the various piano learning options is what works best for you.

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Internet Piano Lessons

Several sites on the Internet offer online piano lessons free or for a fee. The technical acumen and sheer effort required in producing such sites are deserving of a degree of respect and praise. These sites can give the home learner a basic introduction to the piano and keyboards, beginning advice on proper posture and technique, a basic grounding in music theory and video demonstrations of critical points, among other elements of piano lessons that can be accomplished online. Some such sites supplement the online lessons with the ability to e-mail questions for problem-solving. Many people can learn useful elements of playing piano online.

While admitting a certain respect for those people or companies who implement lessons online, I believe a piano beginner should approach them with a degree of caution and an understanding of their limitations. Recognizing all the things which the online sites can accomplish, what all such approaches lack is direct feedback and coaching. For example, the online site may show you a video of proper posture at the piano, and you may do your best to emulate it, but, if you're doing it wrong, there is nobody to correct it early on. If your technique is faulty, nobody knows it or intervenes to remedy it before bad habits are reinforced. The online site can grade your tests online, but simply can't know if you've learned how to put into practice (no pun intended) what you've learned there.

These shortcomings (and others) are the sorts of things which are easily and rapidly remedied by a private teacher. A private teacher can correct problems before they become ingrained and can teach you what you need to know actually to play piano. She/he can tailor her teaching and method to your particular needs and learning style. A piano studio can provide you with performance opportunities that help give you goals and the real enjoyment of piano playing. Of course, most people would also add that the ability to talk with a real human being during lessons has great value and makes lessons more fun.

We would not discourage anyone from beginning the process of learning to play piano online, so long as he recognizes the limitations of online learning and accepts that some material and habits may have to be relearned, when he later moves on to private lessons. We have written just below about some of the pitfalls that can be encountered with any sort of piano method advertised online (or elsewhere). We will not repeat those here. Anyone contemplating learning from an online site should take those potential pitfalls into consideration, especially if use of the site involves a fee for access. The online learner should also keep in mind that online lessons are very different from learning from a teacher and may require more dedication and personal responsibility. Online lessons may be a good choice for people with little free time during the day or evenings, but there is simply no good substitute for good private lessons in learning to play the piano.

Top of page! Learning to Play the Piano | Piano Dealer Lessons | Internet Lessons | Learning to Play on Your Own | Tips | Purchasing a Piano | Methods | Top Ten Lists | Reference | Resources for Impaired | Music and The Home Computer | Musical Graphics | Piano Education Home

Learning to Play on Your Own

While no self-training program can provide the many benefits of a committed private piano teacher, some individuals may lack time, funds or motivation to learn to play from a private teacher and will seek to train themselves, perhaps with the help of software, videos or other modern learning aids. The problem with using such learning aids by themselves is that the average beginner is in no position to evaluate their potential effectiveness, let alone their pedagogical soundness or applicability to his own situation and needs. Thus, in some sense, those who train themselves are likely to be "flying blind." If you need to train yourself at home, here a few tips that may help you avoid some of the many pitfalls inherent in self-training.

As we have said many times on the site, modern multimedia software can be a very powerful aid to learning to play at home and can help you determine if you have the interest and motivation to take lessons effectively from a private teacher. Much of current software is pedagogically sound and has the virtue of always being available when you are. Assuming that you have the time and motivation to use software, the inevitable issues that arise are how to choose the best software for you and how to use it to best advantage. Keep in mind that even the very best programs won't work well for every student and that no software is as flexible or knowledgeable as a well-trained private teacher.

If you want to give software a try in your home, our best advice is to start by reading our article Choosing and Using Music Software in the Studio and Home and then to carefully read our Piano and Music Software Reviews. The article will tell you how to properly use reviews, ours or anybody else's, in the process of identifying proper software and how to install and configure music software you've purchased. Our reviews, all performed by working piano teachers in studio environments, will tell you "what's hot and what's not." More importantly, they will give you a sense of whether a package is pedagogically sound, what audience it is mostly directed toward, and what you can expect once you open the package and install it. Reading and following our reviews isn't guaranteed to help you learn how to play the piano at home, but it will help steer you away from making some wrong purchases for you.

Software isn't the only tool you can use to learn at home. There are MANY video courses and books that claim to help you learn to play, including numerous ones available through the Internet. In our experience, the quality and value of these is highly variable. Determining the worth of an individual "method" can be virtually impossible for the beginner. That said, there are a few principles that will serve you well in evaluating various self-proclaimed "revolutionary" methods. First, if a method promises to teach you to play in a day, a week, or a month or asserts other "miracles" associated with its use, be cautious. Almost by definition, these "play-in-a-day" methods must be incomplete and focused entirely on immediate gratification, rather than building the necessary knowledge of music theory, sight reading, and technique that can only come with hard work over time. You may learn to play a few simple songs, but what happens when someone asks you to play a piece not included in the method? Even Mozart, perhaps music's greatest prodigy, couldn't have learned to play piano well in a day. So unless you're convinced you are so talented that you can absorb these other critical elements of music training through your skin, we suggest that you give little consideration to those methods that promise "miracle" results.

Setting aside the "miracle methods," which, unfortunately, constitute the bulk of what you will find advertised online, what criteria can you use to evaluate other video, software, and book methods which don't make such claims? First, look for detailed descriptions of what the method embodies, including what is taught at each level, the specific manner in which critical elements (music theory, sight reading, technique, etc.) are introduced, and the types of music taught (strictly popular tunes vs. a well-rounded collection of popular, jazz and classical works). Second, be wary of any method which uses "position playing," rather than emphasizing reading music by recognizing intervalic relationships and notes. Position playing methods will ask the student to place the hand in specific positions on the keyboard which span five notes and to change the hand position to another specific hand position to reach new notes. Such methods don't teach the student how to read music and generally produce students who are locked into playing by position. Third, give little weight to "testimonials." In our experience, the promoters of methods offered online are usually very unwilling to give e-mail addresses that will allow you to ask your own questions of those providing the testimonials. This leads us to suspect that some of those individuals giving the testimonials are either paid for their comments or are friends of the promoter and, therefore, incapable of giving an unbiased, let alone knowledgeable, viewpoint. Fourth, look for a detailed statement about what the promoter considers unique and advantageous about the method. Merely stating that the method is unique does not constitute evidence that the method is advantageous for anyone, let alone you! Fifth, look for a money-back guarantee. If the purveyor of the method is that sure that the method is good, he should be willing to give you your money back within a certain specified period of time, if the method doesn't work for you. Sixth, if you can't find enough information on the Web site advertising the method to draw an informed conclusion, look for an e-mail address that allows you to write the person selling the method, not just an address for orders. Then, write the person with your questions. If you don't get a reply that answers them, you can draw your own conclusions.

It may seem like a miracle when, after putting in a lot of time, effort and commitment, you are able to play the piano, but the fact is that this achievement is no miracle at all. If you're willing to bring that kind of commitment to the table, chances are you'll learn to play at least to some extent, irrespective of your level of inherent talent, the method used, or the way in which you do it. You'll almost certainly learn faster and avoid mistakes with a good private teacher, but, like a lot of things, playing the piano is, in the final analysis, "5% inspiration and 95% perspiration." There are no miracles involved, just good, hard-working students who really want to learn to play.

Page created: 8/2/95
Last updated: 05/25/19
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
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