If you ask several piano players how they learnt to play, you’re likely to get some quite different answers. Some will have received very formal (probably classical) tuition from a ‘proper’ piano teacher. Others will have been taught by a parent, relative or friend. Still others will have used a book or an online resource to teach themselves from scratch. You will also find many who (like me) have used a combination of these methods. So, how do you decide which is best for you?
Here are 6 key questions to ask yourself and some ideas to get you thinking:
1. What are your goals?
Whether you want to learn to play the piano yourself or whether you’re a parent thinking of lessons for your child, it’s important to have a goal in mind. Do you have visions of your child as a concert pianist? Do you want them to play the piano as a ‘skill for life’? Do you want to be able to read and play any piece of sheet music? Will your playing be just for your own enjoyment or do you want to perform in public? Do you just want to impress your friends by playing a few tunes? If you are clear about what you want to achieve, this will help you decide how to learn.
Formal piano lessons will give the techniques and music theory you will need to play well at an intermediate and advanced level, but this might be at the expense of playing the type of music you want to play. One the other hand, searching for a few piano videos on YouTube might get you started and get you playing your preferred type of music more quickly, but you might develop some bad habits as you go. You could buy a book and work through it, but you might struggle to find help when you get stuck.
In general, the more casual your goals, the more casual your approach to learning can be. For most people, just being able to play a few songs is rewarding enough. And remember: concert pianists are generally very well-paid but the stakes are high and the work involved is huge.
2. How’s your motivation?
If you are highly determined to learn to play, you’re willing to put in the effort for several years and you’re the kind of person who always sees things through to the end, then formal lessons from a teacher may well be a good idea. A good teacher will channel that enthusiasm and tenacity into a progressive, effective learning journey.
On the other hand, if you’re more of a ‘give it a try and see how it goes’ kind of person, then a little self-tuition will go a long way to deciding if playing the piano is for you. If you decide to take this route, make sure you don’t give up too quickly – the first few weeks can be difficult but the payoff is well worth it once you master the basics and start to make good progress. You could always ask a local piano teacher or piano-playing friend for a one-off lesson after your first few months, just to check your progress and identify any particular areas to work on.
3. What type of music do you want to play?
Whilst it’s certainly true that today’s piano teachers tend to teach a broader range of music than those 30 years ago, nevertheless they may well prefer to concentrate on classical music, particularly as you progress to higher levels. These days, even music board examinations have broader choices in the pieces you can play, but the emphasis is still on a formal, highly technical approach. If this is what you want, then a piano teacher is ideal.
However, if you want to learn some down-and-dirty jazz improvisation or if you want to vamp along to pop classics or the latest chart hits, then teaching yourself could be a better option. For the latest tunes, online resources are plentiful: new tutorial videos are added all the time to YouTube. although sadly many are of rather poor quality. There are also many teach-yourself books, DVDs and online courses for a variety of different music styles.
4. What type of learner are you?
Different people have different learning preferences. Some like to read, understand and apply ideas. Others like to listen and respond. Some like to watch and copy. Do you like learning alone, or with someone else watching? Thinking about your ‘preferred learning style’ will help you decide whether you want to sit with a teacher, read a book or watch a video or DVD. Try to choose a learning method that matches what you know works for you.
5. How much can you afford?
Formal weekly piano lessons, even for beginners, will normally cost you around £12 to £18 each. This represents a significant cost, particularly when you multiply it up across the year. But with the right teacher and a good attitude to practice, it can be money well spent.
The cheaper option of a DVD or online piano course will typically be a one-off purchase, although be aware that online courses will work very hard to get you to ‘upgrade’ to further courses and add-ons. Choose your material wisely and your investment may pay off well. Always check ‘free trial’ material first to make sure the product is what you are looking for. A piano starter book from your local music shop can be an even lower-cost alternative.
Apart from the cost of your internet connection, a lot of ‘lessons’ can be accessed online for free. Be aware, though, that finding good, relevant and progressive learning material can be a needle-in-a-haystack experience! You may have to sift through a lot of poor quality and/or irrelevant content before you find what you need.
How much time do you have?
Consider your weekly commitments. Can you make time for a regular, weekly session with a teacher, without having to cancel or rearrange lessons? Most piano teachers take a dim view of this (and rightly so!) More importantly, how much time can you practice? If you are going to pay a piano teacher, there is no point going to them every week for a ‘supervised practice session’ because you haven’t practised since the last time you saw them. If you can’t commit to at least five good, solid practice sessions each and every week, then consider taking a less formal approach and teaching yourself when you have time. on the other hand, having a formal weekly lesson might provide you with the motivation you need to keep going. Think about what’s best, and realistic, for you.
So, teach yourself or get a piano teacher?
There is no ‘one size fits all’. Ultimately it’s about you and your desires, abilities and circumstances. I hope these 6 questions will help you decide what is best for you. Whether you choose to employ a teacher or go-it-alone, learning to play the piano can be a wonderfully enriching and rewarding experience. So however you decide to do it – just do it! I wish you many happy hours at the keyboard.
Do you have particular questions or ideas about learning to play? If so, please feel free to comment below and I will try to give you a helpful response if I can.