How to Be a Better Piano Player
I have been playing piano for a long time now, and there are certain things I've noticed that helped me become better at playing. Now the point of this article isn't to get caught up in who is the better pianist, because that's really not what piano is about. It's about competing with yourself, and trying to become better than you are right now. Playing piano can be a lot more fun when you feel there are fewer limits on what you can do and when you can focus more on getting lost in the music than worrying about not having proper technique. That's why becoming a better pianist can make playing much more enjoyable. So in this Hub I'll go over six things that helped me improve my technique and can help you too.
1. Learn Music Theory
I've played for a long time now, but the time where I saw the most improvement in my playing was the semester when I was taking a music theory class. All of a sudden, I was able to actually connect chords that would sound good together, or be able to hear where a song should go next. The great thing about theory though, is you don't even have to have a degree in theory, or even know anything too advanced for it to be incredibly useful. For example, you get better at seeing patterns such as groups of triads, arpeggios, or maybe you've recognized the chord progression. Even something as simple as just knowing how to form chords and recognize key signatures can help you understand what you're playing. In fact, one of the most helpful aspects of music theory can be knowing how to recognise key signatures. This is because your playing goes from tinkering around until you figure out which notes sound good, to just knowing from the start which notes will work well. So for the purpose of becoming a better piano player, I would really recommend studying at least the following aspects of music theory:
- 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!" Hear me out, though. Classical music may not be the most interesting music to a lot of people, but it is very technically demanding. Once you get in to some of the more advanced pieces, you will start seeing huge improvements in your technical abilities. Classical music can help build a very solid foundation of basics from which you can expand. In fact, when my friends who play 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). A good place to start would be Bach's preludes and fugues, as they in particular are very helpful in improving technique. In the end, I'm not trying to say you can never ever play modern pieces or other songs, but that 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 this is something that many students fail to do. You have 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, this is the most common reason I see many of my friends failing to improve. They are stuck playing songs that are, quite frankly, not challenging them. This is not to say you cannot play easy songs that are beautiful, or you have to learn Chopin's complete list of études, but challenging yourself will help you. Every time a friend asks how to get better, I tell them, "play songs you think you can't and play slowly". The only times I've improved were when my instructor would suggest songs that I thought were out of my league. This is also not to say you should jump for the most difficult song you can find. But simply choose pieces that are a little out of your league in technical ability or in anything 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. It's always good to be working on at least one piece that challenges you. Eventually, you'll look back and be amazed at how far you've come.
4. Take Lessons
Now I know this may seem obvious, but I've seen a lot of people try to learn piano without taking lessons, and yes, a lot of them are pretty good. However, they would all be a lot better if they took lessons. I can attest to this personally, as I took a break from piano lessons for a few years. While I was able to maintain my skill level, I never really improved very much. Yet, in the first year of lessons after that break, I improved more than I had for the past six years combined. Now the reason lessons are so helpful is you have someone who really knows what they're doing to guide you. They can tell you what would be good to learn for your level, and what to work on to improve. More importantly, though, is teachers will set deadlines for you. Too many people try to accomplish things, but just never get them done due to never spending the time on their goals. Teachers will set goals and deadlines which helps people stay motivated since they have something to work towards. This is largely why I often find that taking lessons is one of the biggest factors in how quickly a player improves. Now, this is not to say you can't learn on your own, because I've seen it done. In fact one of the best players I know has never taken a lesson, but that's a very rare case. 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 the key to getting better is playing faster and faster. Now this isn't true because what actually happens when you play fast all the time is you start to miss notes, and your playing becomes sloppy. When you start to miss 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 every three or four times you play it fast. After all, if you can't even play it slowly, why would you ever think you could play it fast? 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, just 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're going to need to play slowly. Period.
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. Now 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 realised its been four and a half hours (no joke). So this is the final and most important step to becoming a good pianist. Just remember, you only get out of life what you put in.
Now just go have fun!
The last thing I have to say is 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!