KL Yong is a keyboardist with over 30 years of experience. Nowadays, he manages a YouTube channel and arranges songs for hobbyists.
The modern electronic keyboard, or music keyboard, is a technological marvel. A compact delight that enables anyone to instantly be a full orchestra, a jazz quartet, or a rock band.
That said, mastering keyboard playing is not a simple matter of pressing a few keys and a few buttons. If you’re struggling, here are 20 tips to help you along. Do a mixture of all faithfully and you will be a better keyboardist in no time.
20 Ways to Improve Music Keyboard Playing Skills
- Practice always makes perfect.
- Practice with the aim to rectify weaknesses.
- Never over practice.
- Make it convenient and conducive to practice.
- Do drills every day.
- Don’t attempt songs that are too difficult.
- Play the same song differently.
- Record your own playing.
- Be familiar with the role of the electronic keyboard in music performances.
- Identify the nuances of different musical instruments when listening to music.
- Take time to learn improvisation.
- Transcribe your favorite songs.
- Play music genres that you dislike.
- Get fit.
- Experiment with audio effects.
- Collaborate with other musicians
- Arrange your favorite songs.
- Do not obsess over owning the latest models.
- Use notation software to check the accuracy of your playing.
- Subject yourself to criticism on YouTube.
1. Practice, Practice, and Practice
“Practice makes perfect” will always rank supreme for any form of learning. This will be the case for you too. Nor would this fact ever change.
2. Practice Honestly and Intelligently
Practice is not repeating the same song again and again till getting it right.
Proper, beneficial practice is instead the identification of weaknesses followed by specific efforts to address those weaknesses, which itself will only happen when you are utterly unforgiving about your slip-ups.
As a guideline, remember that it is far more important to get a stanza or phrase right, rather than to finish the entire song. You should also never rush to finish learning any song or technique.
3. Do Not Over Practice
This is not contradictory to tip 2. What it means is that you should never risk injury by over practicing.
However important your music is to you, your physical well-being always takes precedence. It is sheer stupidity to strain your fingers or wrist for the sake of a song. Over practice can also result in the inexplicable but quite possible scenario of you suddenly hating the electronic keyboard.
4. Remove the Barriers to Practice
Many a time, we do not neglect practice because we are lazy. Instead, we push practice aside because some circumstance makes it unpleasant or inconvenient. For example, an unconducive environment. Or housemates who mind the noise. Etc.
Spend a day or two remedying these situations to the best of your abilities. While you might not be able to completely resolve the issues, it does still contribute to your motivation to practice.
5. Make Drills a Part of Your Practice Schedule
Scales, arpeggios, and similar piano/keyboard exercises are often more effective than medicine when it comes to putting a keyboardist to sleep. Unfortunately, though, their benefits for better performances are indisputable. If you wish to improve your keyboard playing skills, you have to make such drills a heavy part of your practice routine. One simple way is to always begin a practice session with some drills. Vary the drills on a day-to-day basis to reduce tedium too.
6. Be Sensible About Difficulty
Whether you are using graded scores, or not, do not attempt songs that are too difficult for your current skill level.
Some musicians feel doing so is an effective “shock-treatment” way to immediately strengthen one’s techniques. Chances are, though, you might end up frustrated, to the extent you’d consider abandoning your once-beloved instrument.
Know too that many advanced scores often require a firm foundation in certain techniques and theories; prematurely trying them is actually detrimental to learning. Think of it as like writing an English essay. Would it be possible without first learning about tenses?
7. Play the Same Song Differently, Numerous Times
The greatest attraction of the electronic keyboard is its ability to instantly generate many types of sounds and rhythmic accompaniment. Use this to improve your keyboard playing by repeating the same song again and again, but in different styles.
Doing so is not only fun, it is a fast and effective way to develop versatility with different sounds; this being the foundation for superior performance skills. To inject additional difficulty, try the same song in different keys too. That will provide for a most challenging drill.
8. Use Your Electronic Keyboard to Record Your Performance. Then Listen to It Critically
If you haven’t already done so, know that you’d be stunned by how differently your performance sound when you are listening to it as an audience.
Mistakes you never realized were everywhere would suddenly be screaming at you from every stanza, making this one of the most unforgiving ways to assess your skills.
All that keeps you from becoming a better artist is whether you can literally face up to your own music. No pun intended.
9. Understand the Role of the Keyboardist in Band Performances
The many sounds and rhythmic accompaniments of an electronic keyboard, even cheap ones, enable anyone to instantly be a “one-man band.” That said, a keyboardist has quite a different role in an actual band, usually taking on responsibility for accompaniment or substituting for instruments that cannot be physically present.
Unless you are dead sure you will never play in a band throughout your life, you will tremendously benefit from practicing for that role. The process itself greatly improves your grasp and understanding of music, particularly concepts like harmonization. In short, you will only emerge a better artist from the experience.
10. Listen to Songs As an Electronic Keyboardist
Listening to more songs and performances will improve your overall musicianship. However, your actual keyboard playing skills are unlikely to change for the better unless you are listening from the perspective of an electronic keyboardist.
Instead of purely enjoying the soothing sounds of a guitar serenade, think about how you could incorporate the Nylon Guitar style into your performances. Ask yourself the question of, what differentiates this style from other instruments?
Likewise, do the same for different genres of music, be it classical, or folk, or jazz. Remember that the mark of an accomplished keyboardist is the ability to accurately reproduce a myriad of styles. The nuances of individual instruments too. It is never simply about producing the sound.
11. Learn Improvisation
Improvisation covers a broad spectrum of musical techniques, techniques that range from chords to counters, to ad-libbing. Correspondingly, it is one of the hardest skills to master.
Sad to say, though, if you wish to infuse any performance with a special touch, a special magic, you have to master some degree of improvisation. To make the process easier, start slow. Start simple too; it is foolish to expect yourself to be Oscar Peterson overnight.
Take the time to familiarize yourself with basic music concepts such as triads and modulation too. Once you get the hang of it, everything becomes intuitive. You might even find yourself loving the opportunities to improvise.
12. Transcribe Your Favorite Songs
Transcribing your beloved songs doesn’t just hone your hearing. Nor is it a meaningless drill to refine your music notation skills.
When you take the effort to transcribe a song, be it by hand or by software, you are dissecting the composition for a thorough examination. The process often inspires new ideas, on top of hint at areas you could improve on or copy from.
To further benefit, add in some of your ideas once you have the basic structure done. This, incidentally, is also a great way to strengthen your improvisation skills.
13. Don’t Just Play Music Genres You Enjoy
It is always terrible to only play music genres you enjoy. Doubly so for electronic keyboard playing, given even cheap models are capable of a great variety of sounds and rhythmic accompaniments.
When you play nothing but songs that you enjoy, you effectively put your growth as a musician on hiatus. Beyond a point, you might even start to regress.
Do yourself a favor. Make it a point to regularly attempt songs that are new or unappealing to you. Take the effort to perform such songs well too. With enough devotion, you will notice your overall musicianship improving. This will be reflected in your performances.
14. Strengthen Yourself Physically
These refer not to the drills mentioned under (5) but physical exercises at the gym, with dumbbells, at the sports track, and so on. Being fitter and with better stamina will benefit your keyboard playing skills one way or another. For a start, you can practice longer. You can also practice with a reduced risk of injury.
15. Experiment with Audio Effects
Electronic keyboards nowadays are capable of an astonishing variety of audio effects. Effects such as delay, chorus, compression, distortion, and so on. While none of these can completely mask a terrible performance, they can give a decent one that magical extra touch.
In addition, the ability to work with such effects also necessitates careful techniques and suitable variations, as well as substantial musical knowledge. For a start, experiment with presets. Once you get the hang of it, once you understand the nature and purpose of each effect, start varying perimeters.
Your ultimate aim is to be able to layer i.e. combine effects for a truly emphatic sound.
16. Playing With Other Musicians Always Improves Keyboard Playing Skills
Let’s be honest. Working with other people can be vexing and exasperating. More often than not, it’s a constant situation of give-and-take, frequently under fiery circumstances.
That said, subjecting yourself to group dynamics could be enlightening, even if the process or outcome is unpleasant. All else aside, the experience could offer insight as to why others dislike your style or technique.
Needless to say, when it does work out well, you grow in more ways than one. There is nothing comparable to actual interaction with other budding musicians.
17. Arrange Some Songs
Some music educators would claim that this is time-consuming and unbeneficial to learning. While there is some truth in that, arranging songs for the keyboard you are using is a way to force yourself to know your gear inside out.
As absurd as it might sound, some keyboardists use but a fraction of the capabilities open to them. Naturally, the process of discovering new functions is often inspirational too. Chances are, you will develop new ideas on how to play. New ideas on improvement techniques too.
18. Don’t Obsess Over The Latest Models
Regarding (17), while investigating the capabilities of your gear, it is quite likely you’d start yearning for a better or newer model.
Indulge yourself but don’t get carried away. Never permit yourself to splurge too. Remember, a better model enhances performances but only if you are skillful to begin with. Your primary focus should always be to enhance your keyboard playing skills.
19. Enlist A.I. Help
Notation software such as Finale allows you to connect an electronic keyboard with your computer system using a MIDI cable. Whatever you subsequently play is then instantly transcribed into the software.
Primarily designed for the convenience of composers and arrangers, this setup could alternatively be used to check playing accuracy. Specifically, your timing.
A warning here, you are going to be utterly appalled the first time you try this technique. Software is more than brutally unforgiving when it comes to interpreting human timing. You might think you’re playing a crochet. But in truth, to the program, your beat lasted but an odd and distasteful 0.875 counts. In short, prepared to be horrified, then learn from it.
20. Upload Your Recordings to YouTube
Doing so is always beneficial to your growth as an electronic keyboardist. Simply put, if you’re good, you’d receive affirmation. If you’re terrible, well, many will ensure you become aware of the fact.
On the latter situation, don’t be too affected by negative comments or a ton of dislikes. Know too how to differentiate between genuine criticism and malicious trolling.
Lastly, even trolls could provide useful insight. Typically, they jump on your weakest area and use that to attack you. Interpreted with the right mindset, such trolls could be your best critics. (Or worst). The true musician then finds new ways to become a better keyboardist using such criticism.
Questions & Answers
Question: What are the best ways to learn songs on the keyboard?
Answer: Before and during practice, take the effort to understand, to "get" the feel of a song. Mechanical as it sounds, playing an instrument involves a substantial amount of coordination and muscle memory. Make the task easier for yourself by developing a mental sequence of sorts. A kind of, you know what comes next, mental programming.
It also helps if you have a firm understanding of fundamental concepts such as scales, chords, the Circle of Fifths, etc. Music is highly mathematical, in the sense "certain things" always happen with certain other things. For example, a D-Minor bar will almost always contain the notes of the D-Minor chord. Over time, such understanding develops a natural anticipation. In other words, you don't need to rely on hard memory or sight reading all the time.
Question: How can I learn to transpose for a person who is singing?
Answer: Do you mean transposing the key of a singer you are accompanying?
This is odd, to me. However, some keyboards allow you to plug in the mic. It would then "auto-tune" the singer's key.
I guess some models also allow you to simultaneously play an audio track, with some sort of tuning.
But as I said, it's odd. Usually, the musician caters to the key of the singer. It's actually quite easy to do. You can perform in a key you are comfortable with, then use the transpose function to change the key of the audio output.
© 2019 Yong Kuan Leong
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on September 02, 2020:
Thanks for reading! :)
precious on September 01, 2020:
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on April 04, 2019:
Oh dear! I know those keyboards. They were supposed to facilitate music interest. LOL.
Liz Westwood from UK on April 02, 2019:
When our children were younger, we had a keyboard with some preprogrammed music on it. The keys would light up so they knew which ones to play. Unsurprisingly, none of them pursued a musical career.