You’ve decided that this is the year you’re going to learn to play the piano. Time to get excited and start learning everything you need to know to get started!
I’m a piano tutor and have helped many students, both kids and adults, to get started with their piano journey, and now I’d like to help you!
Sure, it might feel like there is too much to learn before you actually become a skilled pianist, but I would advise you not to skip the basic steps.
When you build a house, you have to lay the foundation first, so that it has something to stand on, and the same is true for piano playing. Doing it right from the beginning will make it easier in the long run.
We’re now going to take a look at how you decide if the piano is the right instrument for you, but I’ll also walk you through practical steps like how to go about buying a piano, how to sit properly with correct posture and different ways to learn how to play.
We’re also going to learn a few little songs, as well as learn how to stay motivated when you have been playing for a while.
So let’s get started! This is when your piano journey begins!
Deciding if the piano is the right instrument for you
The piano is an instrument that most people like, but there are a few things to consider before you rush out to buy one.
Have You Got Enough Space?
One thing is the space it takes up. Pianos are big, and you have to make sure that you have enough space.
One way to solve this might be to get an easily portable digital piano which you can keep under your bed and put up on a table when you want to play, but honestly, how often will you have the energy to do that?
Even if pianos are big, they can be really good for people who live in apartments.
If you get a digital piano, you can turn the sound down or even wear headphones, which is not easily done with a trumpet or a violin.
Do You Have Enough Coordination and Patience?
Another thing to consider is how good your coordination is.
Playing with two hands is difficult (but really good for the brain!) and some people tend to give up when they can’t get the hands to work together.
It takes lots of practice to become good enough to just look at a new sheet of music and play it straight off the page, much more practice than you would need if you, for example, played the flute.
So if you know that you easily give up when things get hard, the piano might not be the perfect instrument for you to start with, but rather something you can learn when you have some experience with another instrument.
Piano as a Second Instrument
If you already play another instrument or sing, the piano is perfect to learn, as it really helps you visualize the music theory, like scales and chords.
It’s also fun to be able to sing and accompany yourself at the piano or accompany a friend that plays another instrument.
The music theory bit also ties in with composing and arranging, so if you like writing songs, the piano is almost essential to learn.
It’s easy to try out different chord progressions and melodies at the piano, and it’s also pretty straightforward to improvise, which is great if you are a creative soul.
Long Nails and the Piano
One thing that most people don’t consider before they start playing the piano is that you shouldn’t have long nails when you play it.
Long nails will make it impossible to use the right technique and they will also make a clicking noise which is really annoying.
This can be an issue for guitarists who have long nails on their right hand, which they need in order to play classical music.
If you are one of those guitarists you will have to choose which instrument is the most important to you.
Sure, you can play the piano with long nails, but you will never be able to get to the same level as if you didn’t have them.
Let’s Bust Some Myths!
Here are some myths that you might have heard!
- You have to read music in order to play the piano
(Not true, do you have to be able to read in order to speak a language? Although it can certainly be helpful!)
- It’s easier to play the piano with big hands
(Not true, sometimes it’s actually harder because people with big hands can just stretch them out instead of using their wrist to elegantly move their hands with good technique)
- It’s too late to start, only kids can learn
(Very often, it’s much easier for adults to learn)
Buying your piano
There are a few ways to buy a piano, but before you buy one, you need to decide if you want an acoustic piano or a digital one.
Acoustic pianos are without a doubt the nicest to play, as long as you have a good one.
You can buy a new piano, but there are many second-hand ones that are great as well, and often sound better.
Acoustic pianos obviously need to be tuned about once a year, which is a cost you need to remember.
If you decide to buy a used piano, try all the keys so that they are working and listen for clicks when you press them down.
Also bear in mind that if a piano is extremely out of tune, a piano tuner might not be able to save it entirely.
Somewhat sour notes are ok, but if some keys sound as if they are three different notes played at the same time, go for another one.
When you buy an acoustic piano, always, always, always hire a professional to do it, as you can damage the piano, your back, and other things around you, which can be very costly.
A piano tuner I know once told me that he’s seen countless of dropped pianos and he said that one of the dumbest things one ever can do is to try to move it yourself.
A professional will have equipment you can’t access or use, plus the muscles to lift the piano.
When you have bought your piano, make sure that you place it out of reach for the sun, and not close to any windows or radiators.
Digital pianos are much easier to buy than acoustic ones, but there are a few things to remember.
Make sure that you get a ‘graded hammer action’ piano, which resembles the feeling of playing a real, acoustic piano.
You’ll also want to make sure that you get a piano with 88 keys, which is a full-sized keyboard.
If you buy a used digital piano, always ask to test play it, and check so that all the keys are working properly.
I once bought a digital piano without doing this and when I got home I realized that some keys were significantly louder than the rest!
Familiarize yourself with the keyboard
When you’ve finally bought your new, beloved piano, it’s time to start with the basics!
How to Sit
Sitting with a correct posture is good for your back and neck, it looks professional, and it can make it easier to play.
So what is the correct way to sit?
- Your back should be straight, and your feet on the floor. Don’t cross your legs or anything like that
- Sit quite far forward on the seat
- If you use the pedal, your heel should always be on the floor
- Your wrists should be straight, and if they aren’t, you need to adjust the height of your seat
- Your hands should be cupped. Try cupping them over your knees and then, keeping them in the same shape, move them up to the keyboard
- Your fingers should be bent, and you’ll be using your fingertips to play. Make sure that your joints don’t collapse, as this is a bad habit that will make it more difficult further on
Learn the Name of the Notes
The notes in the musical alphabet are, as you might already know, called A-G, using the same order as the regular alphabet.
Now it’s time for you to learn how to find C, which is an important note for reasons we don’t really need to look into right now.
If you look at the keys, you’ll notice that the black notes are grouped by two and three. See the white key that’s right before the two black keys? That’s C.
Now take a closer look. Try finding all the C’s on the keyboard. Play them!
You’ll notice that the further to the left, the lower the note, and they get higher when you go to the right.
This is called that the C’s you just played are in different octaves. An octave is a set of eight notes, and they’re counted from C to C.
How Octaves Work
You might still wonder how the whole octave thing works.
It has to do with math, a note is actually sound waves that have a certain frequency, and the same note an octave higher has double the frequency or double the vibrations.
This means that every C sound like a unity, even if they’re not in the same octave.
It was actually Pythagoras (yes, the math guy!) who figured this out. He used a string and realized that when he pressed it down exactly on the middle, it produced the same note as the full-length string, just an octave higher.
Try Out Some Combinations
Let’s try this out. See what happens if you play a C and a D, which is the next white key (the one between the two black ones).
Sounds sharp and unpleasing, right?
Now try playing C with it’s fifth, that is, G. Count C as the first white key and count five keys up. You can also say the alphabet when you find it. C, D, E, F, G.
Sounds much better, right? More peaceful. This too has to do with the vibrations matching up and is something that is key to all music composition.
This is not to say that some keys go together and some don’t, because sometimes we might want that tension to be able to release it and create contrast.
Now try playing C together with some other keys and see what they sound like!
Did you find any favorites?
I’m going to give you a tip, try playing three at the same time, C, E, and G. Play them with your right hand with your thumb, middle finger, and pinky, or 1, 3, and 5, as we’re going to call them.
Sounds good together, right? Congratulations, you’re playing a C major chord!
This is what it looks like written down:
Middle C (if you have a keyhole on your piano, this is where you’ll find it) is the bottom note in the picture.
E is the middle note, just like on the keyboard, and G is the highest note. Just like the keyboard goes from low to high, so does the music when it’s written down, from down to up, low to high.
Keep your hand at the C major chord and look at where your 2nd and 4th finger is (you’re still using 1, 3, 5 for the chord, right?).
The 2nd and 4th finger are on D and F, and you’ll find those notes between the lines where your chord notes are.
So there is one note on every line, but also one between every line.
Amazing, now you already know how to play a C major chord, how it’s written and two extra notes!
Little tunes to get you started
Let’s try out a few easy songs to get you started using the notes you just learned!
Frère Jacques is a classic song that only uses the C major chord you just learned. Try pulsing the chord in a steady beat counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4. Don’t go too fast or too slow.
Make sure that all three keys go down at the exact same time.
Try to sing the melody at the same time. You will start singing on the note C.
The picture above illustrates when you sing and play.
These notes, black with a basic stem without any extras are quarter notes. It’s the note that the system is built on.
If you look just after the treble clef, you’ll see that it says 4/4, which means that there are four quarter notes in a bar.
Now try playing the same thing but with the left hand, one octave down.
Easy Warm-Up Exercise
The next little tune we’re going to play is going to help you build up some speed.
Look at the picture.
Here we have a bass-clef (the bottom one) and a treble clef.
The bass is for the left hand, which will be playing in the octave to the left of the middle octave, and the right hand, using the treble clef, will play in the middle octave.
You might wonder: “I can’t read music, how am I going to play that?”. Don’t worry!
Simply place your left hand with your 5th finger on C (that is, your pinky since thumbs are 1).
Now you’re going to play so-called eight notes, which are half as long as quarter notes, going from C to F quick and then play G twice, but twice as long as the short ones you just played.
So moving up you can think “Short, short, short, short, long, long”.
If you still are unsure about the rhythm, say “Hamburger and piz-za” out loud. This is the right rhythm.
When you’ve played Hamburger and piz-za with the left hand, you do the exact same thing with your right hand, only one octave higher.
So now you’ve climbed all the way up to G in the left hand and it’s time to go all the way down again.
The rhythm is the same, Hamburger and Piz-za, but you’re starting with G and moving down to C, first with the right hand and then with the left hand, and then you’re finished!
Try to play this really slowly at first, making sure to use the correct fingering, one finger for each key, and then speed it up.
Improvise Like a Pro
One of the things I like to do the most with new piano students is to teach them how to improvise using only the black keys.
Your left hand will just play long notes, as often or seldom as you feel like it.
Use your 5th finger (pinky) for F sharp (F#), which is the black key next to F.
Your 1st finger (thumb) will be playing on C sharp (C#), which you can find on the black note next to C.
Try pressing them down at the same time!
Now the fun begins. Your left hand can use any black notes and any rhythm. Just improvise and see what you can come up with!
How to practice effectively
You probably realize by now that you will need to practice in order to get better. But how often and how long should you be practicing?
My advice would be to squeeze in some practice every day, even if it’s not for more than 15 minutes.
If you play often, you don’t have to start all over again every single time because you have forgotten what you did last time.
If you take lessons I would highly recommend that you practice as soon as you get home from the lesson, so that you immediately can put to use what your teacher has told you.
If you wait one week to practice and do it the night before your lesson you won’t remember half of what your teacher said.
Some people find it helpful to keep a little book where they write how long they have practiced for and what they did, what they struggled with, and what went well.
That way you stay organized and can structure your practice in a good way.
It’s important to measure progress, so record yourself once in a while, or show your spouse or a friend what you have learned.
The recordings can also make you aware of things you have to work on that you might not notice otherwise, like if you have difficulty keeping the tempo even.
If you encounter a difficult passage, isolate it and practice just that small passage for a while.
I like to encourage my students to guess how many times they need to play it until they know it.
Some say 100 times, some say 5 times. Then I make them do it.
The student who thought she would need 100 times might be ok after 10, and the student who did it 5 times might need to do it 5 more times.
This is a great way not only to learn your piece well but also to give you some insight into your own abilities.
Even though it might be boring to practice the same thing over and over, the students always think it is worth it, instead of just starting over every time they get to that difficult place.
Different ways to learn
I’d like to start this section by saying that there is no better way to learn the piano than having an excellent teacher.
A teacher can see your needs and teach you to play, but also make you aware of why the music is written in a way, connecting music theory to the material and often come with interesting facts that keep you motivated.
An experienced teacher will also be able to see if you have any bad habits you need to work on.
Having regular lessons also holds you accountable and gives you something to practice for.
Not every teacher is good, though, and always ask for a free trial lesson before you make up your mind.
Most good piano teachers will offer this because they know that you will want to come back for more.
If they don’t offer a free lesson, or you even have to purchase ten lessons at a time when you start, then you might wonder what they’re scared of.
Education is not everything, I’ve had music teacher’s teaching different instruments that have gone to university for over five years, but it doesn’t matter because they didn’t know how to teach and capture a student’s attention.
If you really want to know if a teacher is good or not, don’t ask to see certificates, but rather ask for a couple of other students’ email addresses, so that you can ask somebody else that is just like you if they recommend the teacher.
Using the Internet
Even though I generally recommend traditional lessons, there are many advantages to learning online.
It’s most often free, you can do it anytime, and you will probably only learn songs that you really want to play, which can do much for the motivation.
YouTube is a good source for music lessons and tutorials.
Once you’ve learned how to read music it’s easy to find sheet music online by simply searching for it.
Old, classical music is public domain, and you can just print it and use it, while pop songs and other modern music need to be purchased if you’re going to use it legally.
The chords for most popular songs are easy to find online, but since it’s often amateurs that write them down, they’re not always correct.
Lastly, I’d like to recommend the iPad app Piano Maestro, which is almost like a game, where you learn how to sight read and play with both hands.
Rookie mistakes to avoid
If you’re starting from scratch, there are a few mistakes that are bound to happen but are good to be aware of.
Promise yourself that every single time you play the piano you are going to sit correctly, with a straight back and feet on the floor. Don’t even make it an option to sit with bad posture!
Using the Wrong Fingering
Make sure that you get used to obeying the fingering given in the sheet music.
This might not always be necessary when you play easy songs, which is the reason why many ignore them.
If you don’t care about using the right fingers, you’re going to struggle later on. Remember to lay a solid foundation!
Never, never ever move one finger to the next key! Instead, you need to find out where you went wrong and try again, using the correct fingering.
Playing with Stiff Hands
Your hands should be nice and relaxed when you play.
Your wrists should be relaxed too, like a ballerina.
If you tense your hands and arms you can get a number of problems, like inflammation and neck pain.
It will also make it more difficult to play fast songs and to move your hands smoothly.
Looking at Your Hands All the Time
If you keep looking down at your hands it will be difficult for you to find your way when you’re reading music.
Have as a goal to play your songs without looking at your hands, except for when you need to move them.
Using the fingering suggested in your music will help greatly with this.
If you look down all the time you might get neck problems.
Starting from the Top
Most students make this mistake, so read carefully!
When you learn a new piece, don’t always start from the beginning every time you make a mistake.
Decide that you are going to learn perhaps eight bars of music and play those over and over until you know them.
Forbid yourself to play any further until you know these eight bars well.
Then, when you move on, you skip the eight bars you already know and start where everything is fresh and do the same thing with the next chunk of music.
If you don’t do it this way, you will most likely start over from the beginning every single time you make a mistake.
When you finally can play through the whole piece, the quality is going to be totally uneven, because you will have played the beginning maybe 60 times, but the end only twice.
Sometimes I like to even start practicing at the very end of a piece because this is what the audience will remember hearing, but it’s most often the part that’s been the least practiced.
Goals to keep you motivated
One thing that will take you further in life is to set goals for yourself and map out how you’re going to reach those goals.
In this case, your main goal is to learn how to play the piano.
Here are some suggestions for smaller goals that will help you achieve that!
- Reach a certain level in the Piano Maestro iPad app
- Play a song from your favorite movie or TV series
- Learn a song so that you can accompany a friend who plays another instrument
- Play on an open stage or a concert
- Write your own song
- Play every day for a month
How to get out of a music rut
If you, after you have been playing the piano for a few months, find yourself stuck in a music rut, where you keep playing the same songs over and over again, you need to try something new.
Here are some suggestions for things to do that will make your playing fun instantly.
Look Up Chords for Songs You Like
Find the chords for your favorite songs online. Many pop songs only use four chords and are pretty easy to learn.
If you want to know what I mean, check out Axis of Awesome’s “Four Chord Song” on YouTube!
Find Inspiration on Pinterest
Pinterest is not only great for finding pictures of food and cute puppies, but there is a lot of sheet music to find there!
This is a good place to look because if you click on a picture, you’ll get similar suggestions, which is perfect.
If you find a song that is too difficult for you, try typing the name of the song and ‘simplified version’ and you might find something playable that is still really good!
Borrow Sheet Music from Friends
If you have friends that play the piano, ask them what songs they like to play, and ask if you can borrow the sheet music.
Make sure that you give it back, though!
Go to a Music Shop
Music shops are great for inspiration and there are hundreds of music books and pieces just waiting to be discovered!
If you have your smartphone with you, you can easily look up any music that seems interesting and listen to it before you make a purchase.
Hopefully, you feel less like a beginner after reading this article.
Now you know how to sit with correct posture, you can read a little bit of music, you know a couple of songs and best of all, you know how to move forward toward your goal of playing the piano!
Finally, I’d like to encourage you to keep on going. Never give up! It’s not always going to be easy, and it does take some time before you will feel like a good pianist, but it’s worth it!
Playing an instrument is one of the most rewarding hobbies there is because you can not only entertain others and yourself, but also express your emotions.
And remember what Tom Lehrer said: “Life is like a piano. What you get out of it depends on how you play it.”