Learning an instrument isn’t easy, but it’s refreshing.
I don’t recall the exact moment when staying up to decode Chopsticks on the piano turned into an obsession with playing faster, stronger, louder. There is something magical about not knowing where you’ll end up.
This question comes from a reader who only learned to play with his right hand:
I have just started to learn how to play the piano by way of using a keyboard. I took an eight-week recreational piano course from April 1st to May 20th; we met on Fridays only. I now feel lost and frustrated, as my goal is to learn how to play by reading sheet music and by ear as well. I can only play with my right hand and I am trying to learn how to play well with the right, left, and then both hands. I want to learn how to play well enough to be a well-rounded piano/keyboard player, and to play gospel piano for my baptist church.
Now that I have my own keyboard at home, will you please tell me what I should be practicing in order to learn how to become a great and well-rounded, two-handed player that can play everything from Gospel to Rock & Roll?
One thing I tell all of my students: consistency is key! Even twenty minutes of practice, everyday, does wonders. Ten, if you’re pushing it.
We will tackle this from two angles: technique and ear training. At any point, a pianist should be excelling in both of these areas. Technique is about the quality of sound you’re producing and how practiced your fingers are. Ear training is about processing the music you hear and how well you’re able to play it back.
If you want to play others’ music, you’ll need to learn to read sheet music. There is no way around it other than practicing naming the notes (remember how you learned how to read English?). You can practice naming notes from both clefs on paper, or get an app that does that; here’s a quick guide.
During your practice session, you will want to warm up with finger exercises. Many people skip this and it’s one of the biggest roadblocks to stronger fingers.
Train your fingers to be able to play stronger and more evenly. When you do finger exercises, lift your fingers high and press to the bottom of the key, while keeping your wrists loose.
If one hand is significantly stronger than the other, you want to do two exercises focussing on the weaker hand for every one you do on the stronger hand. For example, your 4-5 fingers are likely the weakest on your non-dominant hand, so you might do two sets of those for every one on the dominant.
A Dozen a Day are a fun series for beginners. Hanon exercises are more rigorous and suitable when you’re more advanced (I swear by these–here are a few Hanon tips) and they are sequences that target specific fingers. Czerny features a collection of music that strengthen different fingers.
I’m not sure what the method of piano instruction was used for your lessons but you shouldn’t be taught to play with one hand only. Beginner methods should show you how to do similar things on both hands. I’d recommend looking into the Faber Piano Adventures series — those pieces are quite interesting, especially for older students. Lynette Sawatsky and Janice Gieck also have interesting pieces to learn from.
To practice playing by ear, try playing melodies from songs you hear on the radio. Pop songs have simple melodies that repeat a million times and are relatively easy to recreate.
Start training your intonation by recognizing whether a note is higher or lower relative to another. This is an exercise I liked to do with beginner students: have a friend play two notes on the piano, and try to identify which is higher and which is lower. Another variation is playing a succession of notes and identifying by ear, whether the sequence going up or going down.
I also recommend taking private lessons with a piano teacher for at least 3 months. You will learn much more, at a higher rate, than if you spent 6 months fumbling on your own. Your teacher should correct your posture, sound quality, and help with ear training—so that you’ll create good habits, to be successful on your own. I can’t stress how important posture is; small tweaks make a huge difference.
I’m going to open the floor up to everyone in the community – have you experienced one hand being significantly stronger, and how did you deal with it? What advice would you give to Greg?
Thanks, Dan for designing the cover image. :)