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Best Way to Learn Piano
After a student piano recital, one of my wife's clients made a remark about how "professional" my students' hands looked on stage.
That client was talking about hand posture. My technical explanation: to deploy the hands and fingers in an optimal way to play with proper, relaxed technique.
Funny thing is ... I've never taught hand posture. Sure, I make corrections here and there during lessons but it's hardly a main focus.
So how is it that most, if not all, of my students develop great hand posture?
Drum roll please ... because they watch my YouTube videos.
When I first started teaching privately, I was eager to find any tool to help my students succeed. So I experimented with recording videos and uploading them to YouTube.
Fast forward to today, this was one of the best decisions I've ever made.
Whether you're a beginner, intermediate or advanced pianist, I'm convinced that online videos are the greatest resource available to you today.
So in the rest of this article, I'm going to share the top 3 reasons why online (YouTube) videos are the best investment of your time when learning piano.
At the end of this post I'll also include a free link to my Faber Collection Guide, a curated list of the most popular sheet music series I've ever taught.
Vision Is King
Dr. John Medina - author of Brain Rules says that "vision is king."
This is true not only for adults, but even for children at the youngest age - babies immediately begin using visual cues to learn without being taught a single thing.
And according to further research cited in the book, visual processing takes up about half(!) of your brain's resources.
It also doesn't matter how well-honed your other senses are:
Additionally, another test showed that people could remember up to 2,500 pictures with 90% accuracy when shown the same images several days later - more unbelievable is that they saw each picture for only 10 seconds.
Further research from the book indicated that presentations given without pictures - purely text or oral - were far less efficient than presentations given with them.
For oral presentations, people remembered 10% of what they heard after a couple hours. When pictures were added, their memory jumped to 65%!
This is also a prime strategy when learning languages. A valuable book on language acquisition, Fluent Forever, advises aspiring polyglots to pair words with pure images instead of direct translations.
Imagine you saw the word caballo (Spanish for horse) on a flashcard. When you flip that card over, you should see a photo of a horse and not the definition in English.
You remember more easily by not relying on a word-for-word translation. But there's more to this story.
We have these things called mirror neurons: specific neurons that get fired in our brain whenever we simply observe an action. This means by merely watching someone do something, we almost feel the same sensation of having done it - monkey see, monkey do.
This article from themusiciansbrain.com discusses this in more detail and I highly suggest you check it out after you finish up here.
But here's the highlight I remember the most: these so-called imitation neurons are activated in a musician's brain ... even without sound.
This partly explains the phenomenon behind mental practice. For example, if you saw me out-and-about you would notice I tap my fingers a lot. But what you think is an annoying habit is actually me playing a Beethoven sonata.
By the way, this is a frequent go-to technique for professional musicians when they don't have an instrument to practice on.
Let's take this idea even deeper.
Here's a story from the book, The Talent Code.
The author, Daniel Coyle, met Carolyn Xie, who was a top-ranked Chinese-American 8 year-old tennis player in the entire country (at the time).
He noticed she had the typical tennis prodigy's game, except for one thing ... her backhand.
Instead of hitting tennis balls with the usual two-handed grip, she hit them one-handed ... Ã la Roger Federer (one of the greatest tennis players ever).
In fact, she did it exactly like Roger Federer.
When Coyle pressed her on this, she had no idea what he was talking about. He was taken aback by this curious statement, but later discovered that Xie and her entire family were rabid Federer fans.
In her short life, she had watched nearly every single match Roger Federer ever played - and simply absorbed his backhand without realizing it.
So in theory, this is why my students develop impressive hand posture - by absorbing mine through videos.
A picture most definitely is worth a thousand words.
But we not only mimic everything we see, we also emulate what we hear.
To illustrate, a short vignette from my personal life: I once visited a colleague in Chicago, who had recently befriended two amiable Irish lads.
And wouldn't you know? Just after a day I not only picked up their slang, but their accent - along with a healthy appreciation for Guinness.
This is why videos are such a powerful resource: they tap into your vision as well as your hearing. And remember, because of mirror neurons they also tap into your tactile (touch) senses as well.
A formidable triple-threat combination.
Strike a Pose
Now when it comes to learning piano, or anything else for that matter, I submit to you what I believe to be the most important question ever:
If you're attempting to learn on your own, this question gets magnified tenfold.
This wasn't much of an issue during the classical era. During those times, piano students reportedly had lessons every day (they also never had smartphones, but that's a topic for another time).
Contrast that to today: most students only have a half hour lesson once a week - which means they have 6 days to get things wrong.
In a perfect world, daily lessons are the way to go. But who can afford that?
This is the main reason I started recording videos and posting them on YouTube.
I was not only frustrated with students doing the complete opposite of what was instructed, but realized they needed a model for reference.
In laymen's terms, they needed an example to imitate (there's that word again).
This makes videos the perfect example - they're virtual demonstrations students can access at any time, any place.
I also don't say a thing in these recordings - the majority of my videos are just me playing the entire song or piece from start to end.
Explanation is unnecessary!
Let's read on to see why this is the case.
In the book The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey, author, shares how he taught fifty-year-old beginners of tennis to play decent games ...
... within 20 minutes ...
... without a single word of instruction!
He taught with his mouth shut - something a lot of educators should do more of.
Side note: Gallwey also co-wrote The Inner Game of Music, a highly suggested read on the psychology of performance.
What better way to learn, especially something like piano, than being shown exactly the way it's done?
As an aside, I find it sadly hilarious when I get YouTube comments on a certain video complaining about the accuracy of my playing - while my students use the exact same video for great results.
Some people will lie to themselves no matter how much concrete evidence is staring them in the face.
But remember ... the tape doesn't lie.
Videos are not only a safeguard (hopefully) against human bias, but also remove much of the complexity in piano playing.
This is particularly important for a beginning student: the less they have to think, the more mental resources they have at their beck-and-call (which hopefully translates into high-quality practice).
It's just like productivity - the less (trivial) decisions you need to make, the more
concentration you have in reserve.
For you more experienced players out there, videos can represent benchmarks rather than models.
But even if you're at the intermediate level or beyond, there are always going to be more challenging pieces for you to learn - so you'll still need tools like videos (or audio recordings) at your disposal.
Lastly, videos are the most accurate model for learning piano because they satisfy all the requirements for corrective feedback, which - according to Scott Young - is the best form of feedback.
Here's the definition from his book, Ultralearning: corrective feedback tells you what you're doing wrong and how to fix it.
Now, I'm not saying you'll be able to do this right off the bat. When I teach a complete beginner it can take anywhere from a week to a month for them to get the hang of videos for self-study.
But no matter how long it takes, they always get there.
One last word of advice: if you're learning without the aid of an expert, you're going to need a BOATLOAD of patience - and objectivity.
J.S. Bach once walked 250 miles to hear the music of master organist Dietrich Buxtehude.
Compare that to today - some people won't even drive 5 miles on the weekend to get food (totally not talking about myself here).
We'll naturally (lazily) seek the most convenient option available - unless your last name's Bach.
For example, see:
Services you can access in seconds, apps available in the palm of your hands, products brought to your door with a tap of your finger.
Even when you're out-and-about, and not burying your face in your phone, what food options do you notice?
A fast-food joint lollapalooza.
Admittedly, healthy choices are becoming more abundant but junk food is still the winner by a land slide - because it's cheap and quick (convenient).
And it's the same with my piano studio. The egoist in me would like to boast that people come to me for quality, professional teaching.
But 99% of the time it's because ... I'm down the street.
So here's the most important reason why online videos are an unrivaled resource: they're easily accessible.
What else is more straightforward than opening your YouTube app? With a little practice, the whole process could probably take less than a second (not that you should try).
And what an amazing place to learn it is! You can find topics on everything. For me, YouTube has been the single wellspring of information I've both spend the most time on and learned the most from (besides books).
It's amazing that I can search up a video on an established author or noteworthy thinker, instead of walking 250 miles.
And even better is when a YouTuber actually documents their whole journey - so you know their results have been field-tested.
This is super useful for when you need to fix something around the house (saving hundreds of dollars) or tear apart a dungeness crab (tasty) for the very first time.
Not to mention that it's all FREE, so don't you dare complain about ads.
Now, this doesn't mean you shouldn't ever shell out cash. Once you vet the source, something like an online course can be a shortcut in terms of the learning process.
Still, I love the fact that there's no price tag on what we can learn these days. The easier a tool is to access, the more you'll use it. So unless something better than YouTube comes along, that's what you'll be using for the immediate future.
Now onto some practical suggestions, as in how to best utilize online/YouTube videos.
There are four ways to learn with videos:
If you're a beginner, you most definitely want to watch before you play. It's because:
I can't say this enough: make sure you develop proper practice habits from the start.
In my experience, it has always been easier to teach a student from scratch.
hen I get a transfer student for the first time, we usually spend the majority of piano lessons fixing bad habits they've developed.
For example, I have an amazing student who just started with me 2 months ago.
But during the waiting period (a year or so) before our first lesson, he self-taught himself with YouTube videos.
Though my jaw dropped when I initially saw what he could do, our lessons have been geared towards correcting faulty technique.
Now, if you're at the intermediate level then you can watch videos after (or while) you try a new piece out - since your skills are more established.
You can also use videos to practice more challenging music, repertoire that's beyond your current level. It's a superb way to amplify your progress.
Next, you can view videos away from the piano - when you're not physically practicing.
This is very handy because you can tap into spaced repetition.
You do this by watching throughout the day at different times. So instead of looking at a video 5 times in a row, you'll understand a LOT more by spreading those repetitions out.
This method was scientifically researched. In How We Learn, studies showed that traditional repetition actually made you worse.
By the way, you can also apply spaced repetition to physical practice.
Lastly, you can play along with the videos (simultaneously). For obvious reasons, this is the most precise way to practice: you hear all the correct notes and proper rhythm in real time.
A word of warning though: you can make a massive amount of progress with this approach, but be careful not to use it as a crutch.
Mistake-free, accelerated learning is exhilarating!
You want to avoid a situation where you constantly have the answer handed to you.
Without challenge, it's not real learning.
So I suggest using a combination of all four methods described. Variety of practice is what will lead you to tremendous improvement.
As promised, click this link for recommended sheet music. Videos have made a stupendous difference for my students, so I'm excited to see what you'll achieve with them!
I can't help but feel a bit jealous, if I had YouTube growing up I'm convinced I'd be a radically different pianist today. Ah well ... it's the journey that counts. So I rest my case. I hope I've convinced you that online videos as the best modern resource we have to learn piano - they've definitely become a permanent staple of my teaching process.
When I first recorded a simple YouTube video for a single student, I never thought I'd end up recording a complete curriculum for my entire studio - or even start my own YouTube channel.
But ... you can bet I'm always on the lookout to see what amazing new learning tool is on the horizon.
Even as an old dog, you can always learn new tricks.
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