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After having taught piano for over a decade, I can tell you one thing: Learning piano is really challenging.
But ... it's a lot easier when you do the right things from the very start. And although there's a limit to how good you can get at piano, I believe anyone can get to a decent level.
In my opinion, a beginning student's goal should be to play sheet music in the shortest amount of time possible. Here are a few tips to get you started.
The Beginner Piano Guide to Learning
The Sheet Music
The most important decision you'll make is deciding what books to purchase and which music to play. In my opinion, you'll want to take a look at the "Faber Studio Collection."
This is, hands-down, the best material I've ever taught from.
First, you'll be playing "real" songs. Unfortunately, many piano teachers still use "method books." The problem with method books are that it's like learning to ride a bike by reading and solving equations. What these teachers don't understand is that you don't need a bunch of theory to get started.
Just hop on the bike.
An even better idea is to pick songs you already know. Logically, if you know how the songs go, you'll have a much easier (and faster) time learning them.
Second, you'll start with basic "5-finger" patterns. This means your hands are in a "fixed" position, so all you need to do is focus on keeping each one of your fingers on the correct, corresponding key.
Third, the Faber Studio Collection is progressively difficult. This means the music gets challenging one little step at a time. And because there are so many choices, you can stay at a level long enough until you feel comfortable before moving up. At the same time, you'll slowly expand the range of notes you can play while improving your overall technique.
And did I mention you can order it all through Amazon?
Side note: you don't necessarily have to pick this series. You can choose other books as long as they satisfy the above-mentioned criteria.
Supporting Materials for The Beginner Piano Guide to Learning
Although the following resources are what I consider supporting materials, they're still absolutely necessary.
1. A keyboard guide
Continuing with our example of bike riding, the keyboard guide represents your training wheels (though you'll still use all three resources together in order to get the best results).
The keyboard guide is what I use from the very first lesson. It's extremely useful because once you lay it out on your piano or keyboard, you'll not only have a visual layout of all the note letters, but see how each note is positioned on the grand staff (treble clef and bass clef).
This is super-handy when it comes to playing (and reading) sheet music.
Flashcards will help you with note reading.
Because you're starting out with basic 5-finger positions, you can limit yourself to those basic notes. When you expand the range of notes you're able to play, simply add those notes to your flashcard routine.
Now, when to start using flashcards is really up to you. You might want to focus on getting comfortable with playing the piano first. I've had students start with flashcards immediately, while others have waited a few weeks after getting a few songs under their belt.
In my opinion, videos are the most important resource you'll ever come across. More specifically, my YouTube videos (I've recorded this entire collection: Download your free PDF here).
The saying goes, "the best writers are the best readers." In the same way, the best pianists are the best listeners.
Like I mentioned in the beginning, PIANO IS HARD. But when you incorporate watching videos into your studies it becomes a lot easier. This is because they hit ALL of the senses involved in playing music (visual, rhythm, and sound).
Just remember: it's easier to play a song if you know how it goes.
So if you want to make things easy on yourself, listen to the music you're practicing every chance you get.
Now for the actual process.
The first thing you need to know are your finger numbers. Thankfully, this is the easiest part to learn. Simply count from your thumb (in each hand) starting at one, until you get to your pinky (which is five).
The next, and most tedious step, is to identify each note on the sheet music with the correct finger number. For example, if your right hand is in the traditional 5-finger position, your thumb (#1) will be playing middle C, index finger (#2) on D, middle finger (#3) on E and so on. Then, write the number above or below every single note.
Now, focus only on playing the correct finger number. Forget about reading notes, forget about playing with rhythm, just focus on this one thing.
Once you've mastered this step, you can then turn your attention to note reading. At this stage you'll want to leave out a number here and there. You'll know you're on the right track when you can play the correct note without needing to write a number above it. But be patient, this will take a while.
The last step is to play with correct rhythm. This usually comes after you've reached a certain level of mastery with reading notes and playing with finger numbers. If you're struggling to keep the beat, it's usually because you still need more experience with finger numbers or note reading.
Keep in mind, the actual order you learn this process in might be different than what I've pointed out here. For example, some of my students are naturally better at rhythm, others are better at reading notes. So think about how you learn best. For example, are you a visual learner or are you better at playing by ear?
So the sequence might be numbers-notes-rhythm or numbers-rhythm-notes (in my experience, numbers have always come first).
If you've made it this far, I know it's a lot of information to take in. If we were having a one-on-one lesson, I would develop the perfect, customized, individual plan for you. So if you're doing this on your own, my advice is to use everything you've read today in every combination possible.
Continually test. Track your results and be patient because it might take you a few months to finally figure out what works best.
And before you go, remember that having the proper mindset is what will provide the fuel for your long-term motivation. If there's anything I've learned in life, it's to remember that, "we are always beginners."
The students who have the hardest time are the ones who expect things will be a breeze. If anything, you should expect to make mistakes every step of the way. I say this not to discourage you, but to liberate you from "perfectionism" (a curable disease).
So enjoy the process. The point of gardening is not to have a tree, it's to garden. The point of writing is not to publish a book, it's to write.
Just practice for the sake of practice and the results will come naturally.
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