How to Be a Better Piano Player
I've played piano for over 15 years now, and while one can take multiple avenues to achieve success, some methods have proven to be more effective at helping me improve my playing. In this article, I will attempt to impart some of my humble experiences onto those who wish to learn. However, you should remember that playing piano should be about competing with yourself as opposed to competing with others. That being said, playing piano becomes an entirely different activity when there are fewer limits on what one can play, and instead of focusing on not making mistakes, you can focus on actually enjoying the music. Because of this, becoming a better pianist will add much more depth and enjoyment to your playing experience. So in this Hub, I will cover six methods I have found to be extremely helpful in improving my technique and piano experience overall.
1. Learn Music Theory
When you understand music theory, playing the piano becomes significantly easier. The keys no longer appear to be an enigma where you're never certain which ones will sound good. Music theory adds structure and rules (which, of course, can and should be broken) that makes the music fall into place. Training in music theory will help you hear where a song might be going next, recognizes phrases and patterns, and help you understand what is actually happening in a piece. Theory proves to be incredibly wonderful, because one can find great use out of theory without having to know that much. For example, understanding some of the most basic concepts of theory such as triads, arpeggios, and scales, will prove to be quite useful in understanding the structure of a piece as a whole. Even something as simple as just knowing how to form chords and recognize key signatures will help you understand what you're playing. In fact, one of the most helpful aspects of music theory can be knowing how to recognize key signatures. When you know what key signature you're in, it allows you to have a deeper intuition about which notes to play next as opposed to just tinkering around. For the purposes of getting started and learning some basic theory, I would recommend looking into the following topics:
- Recognising key signatures
- Recognising intervals
- Forming chords
- Chord progressions
However, you should learn as much as you can, because the more you know, the better you will become.
2. Play Classical Pieces
I can already hear some of you shouting, "classical music is boring!" Classical music may not be the most interesting music to many, but many classical pieces require a great deal of technical prowess. Once you get in to some of the more advanced pieces, you will start seeing huge improvements in your technical abilities. Classical music will build a solid foundation of basics from which you can expand. In fact, when my friends ask me how to become better at piano, I tell them to learn a few classical songs. For those of you who know nothing about classical music, here are a few classical composers whose pieces would be great to learn: Bach, Chopin, or really any classical Etudes (for the very daring). Bach's preludes and fugues prove to be excellent beginning pieces, because they in particular place an emphasis on technique while still being quite playable. In the end, I'm not trying to say you can't play modern pieces or other songs, but you will improve if you add in some classical pieces. Just make sure that you choose pieces that will challenge you, because you won't improve if you only do what you already know you can succeed at.
Speaking of which...
3. Challenge Yourself
This may seem obvious, but many pianists (or people practicing any skill for that matter) fail to challenge themselves. You need to actively challenge yourself if you want to get better. Just as a body builder must lift heavier weights to get stronger, a pianist should play more difficult pieces to improve. Too often, students will get caught in the rut of only playing songs they know they can play. In fact, most of my friends who play piano fail to challenge themselves, which is almost always why they don't improve. They stick to playing songs that are, quite frankly, not challenging them. I don't mean to say you cannot play easy songs that are beautiful, or you have to learn Chopin's complete list of études; I simply state the obvious by positing that challenging yourself will naturally make you better. Only when my teacher would give me songs that, in my mind, were way beyond my abilities did I manage to improve. However, one should find a balance. Don't find the most difficult piece you can an jump right in. Simply choose pieces that are a little out of your league in technical ability or pieces that require techniques you're just not good at, and you will get better. If you're struggling with your left hand, find a song that's hard in the left hand. You should always be working on at least one piece that challenges you. Eventually, you'll look back and be amazed at how far you've come.
Do you take lessons?
4. Take Lessons
Now this may seem obvious, but many people try to learn piano without taking lessons, and yes, a lot of them do succeed. However, I'd bet my bottom dollar they would all be a lot better if they took lessons. I can attest to this personally, because I took a break from piano lessons for a few years. While I was able to maintain my skill level, I never really improved. Yet, in the first year of lessons after that break, I improved more than I had for the past six years combined. Lessons are helpful because they give you someone who is often an expert and can guide you. They can tell you what would be good to learn for your level, and what to work on to improve. Teachers also provide deadlines, which often help motivated students to make progress and work harder. Many people try to accomplish things and never get them done, because they never spend the time to reach their goals. I often find that whether or not a pianist takes lessons is one of the biggest factors in how quickly they improve. If you're really serious about playing, and you really want to improve, I would highly recommend taking lessons.
5. Slow Down
I can not tell you how many times I have had to tell people (and been told for that matter) to practice playing slowly. Too many people get this notion that the faster they play, the better they sound, or that playing faster will make them sound better. This isn't true, because when you only play fast, you start to miss notes, and your playing becomes sloppy. When you start missing notes in a section, you don't need to practice it over and over at full speed; you need to slow down. It doesn't matter how well you think you know a piece, play it slowly at least one time for two times you play it fast. After all, if you can't even play it slowly, why would you ever think you could play it to speed? Think of it this way: speed and accuracy come from repetition. Play through the piece, and find the part where you have to slow down a bit or where you make mistakes. Now find a tempo where you can play that section comfortably, and practice the entire song at that slower tempo. Then, even after you think you've mastered a song, play it slowly every now and then to keep it neat and tidy. If the song is already long when played up to speed, or you don't have the time to play the whole piece slowly, only slow down the parts that give you trouble, or slow down a part each day. I've gotten to the point where whenever I have any trouble at all in a song, I slow that part down and play it about five times. I actually play some of my more difficult pieces four or five times slowly per every one time I play them fast.
If you want to be as awesome as Ashkenazy, you need to play slowly. Period.
How often do you practice?
6. Practice, practice, practice...
Finally, the most important thing you can do to improve your playing is practice. Don't sit around thinking about playing, or contemplating how good you might become; go practice! The best players I know play two hours a day, every day, minimum. Most people don't have the time to do that, but that is why those who do are so good. I've heard several teacher say that playing 15 minutes everyday is much better than an hour every other day. If you want to see improvement, practice consistently and put some time in to it. Eventually, you'll find it hard to only play for 30 minutes. I've sat at a piano and played, then looked at the clock and realized its been four and a half hours. Just remember, you only get out of life what you put in.
Now just go have fun!
Finally, remember to enjoy playing. If you get frustrated because you just can't get that tricky part, switch songs for a while, or better yet, just go walk around or eat a delicious banana. Also, don't be afraid to get lost in the music and put your emotions in the piece. In fact, what really makes a good pianist is when their playing is filled with emotion and not just notes on a page being played. Just remember, don't make playing a chore; play because you love to play, and you will become a great pianist.
Thank you for reading, and I wish the best of luck to you in your piano playing!