Kymberly started learning piano at age 5, and picked up a range of instruments in high school. She loves all kinds of music and instruments.
After a 15+ year break from creating music, I am finally returning to the piano.
It is easy to get discouraged at how much skill, strength and dexterity has been lost during the years of no practice. However, with patience and diligence, you can return to your previous form and beyond!
My old piano had given up the ghost many years ago, stuck keys and wood damage meant the repair cost was much more than a new piano.
After an overseas move, I vowed to get back to the keys, and splurged on a fantastic new Clavinova, an electric piano that sounds and feels just like a real one!
It's too tempting to play for hours on end like you once did. But reign in your enthusiasm for extended practice sessions for a while.
Your hands (and entire body) need time to remember their previous skills, build strength and regain flexibility.
Over-practicing will cause pain and frustration, which can lead to quitting all over again.
Commit to a short practice session every day to restore and maintain the brain-finger connection. Start at 20 minutes, then gradually increase the time and the difficulty of your exercises and music.
Tip: Use a timer to limit your practice session - when it rings, stop for the day, stretch and massage your hands.
Warm up and stretch
Scales and arpeggios are the best warm up for sluggish fingers. Start slowly and allow yourself to remember the correct finger progressions and key signatures. Over time, speed things up, and add interest with staccato, thirds, sixths and octaves.
Keep an eye on hand posture, and ensure each finger performs evenly and smoothly.
Be careful when stretching for octaves or larger spreads - it is easy to overstretch as your fingers remember the music, but haven't yet gained back their strength and flexibility.
After a practice session, massage and stretch your fingers and wrists to reward your hands and release tension.
Correct your posture
With computers now in most workplaces, the posture of many people has become slumped and unhealthy.
Poor piano posture will increase fatigue and put strain on wrists. It will make some techniques difficult to perform, and may cause pain.
Make sure that your stool is at the correct height and distance from the keys, both for your hands on the keyboard, and your feet on the pedals.
If you must use a chair, choose a sturdy one without arms and wheels.
Watch that you are sitting with a straight back, without tension (especially in the neck and shoulders), and that your wrists are loose and relaxed, fingers slightly curved.
Try to keep this posture when you return to work (or play) at your computer too!
Tip: The Alexander technique was developed by and for actors and musicians.
You may find it useful to find an Alexander technique teacher, experienced with pianists. They can watch your playing posture and correct any errors.
Watch out for pain
A little soreness when returning to the keys is normal. If you practiced a piece consistently for a few days using your muscles in ways they haven't previously been used, you will become sore. Take a break, and play something else using different techniques for a few days to recover.
Stronger, lasting, or sharp pain is an indication that something is wrong. You may be moving in poor or incorrect ways. It may be time to have a lesson with an experienced teacher to have your technique corrected, or see a physiotherapist for advice. If you have persistent joint pain, please see your doctor to rule out any underlying illnesses.
You may find strength exercises away from the keyboards useful. For example:
- Using a rubber band for resistance, stretch the fingers apart.
- Squish silly putty or play dough between the fingers (pressing the fingers together against resistance).
- Squish a stress ball for overall hand strength (and stress relief).
Play real music
Play real pieces of music, not just exercises!
You want to avoid becoming bored at all costs!
Some good pieces for rebuilding your skills, include:
- Friedrich Burgmüller: 25 Études, Op. 100
- Béla Bartók: Mikokosmos and For Children studies
- Johann Sebastian Bach: 15 Inventions and 15 Sinfonias
- Frédéric Chopin: Études
- Carl Humphries: The Piano Handbook
Of course, the more difficult pieces should be played slowly, and put together a section at a time, focusing on correct technique.
Make sure you actually read and follow the music, and don't guess at which note comes next!
It is very encouraging to see these pieces progress in speed, accuracy and fluency as time passes!
Chopin's Étude "Aeolian Harp"
Listening to a range of classical piano music (or the style you are re-learning), and watching live (or recorded) performances can do wonders for motivation.
One of my favorite musical Japanese anime series, Nodame Cantabile, follows the progress of a young and talented pianist. It is full of wonderful classical music, and was made into a live-action series. Listening to the soundtrack, or watching an episode encourages me to fit in a practice session.
I've even started to learn some of the piano music featured in Nodame Cantabile, even though they are technically very difficult! It's very encouraging to see my skills improve over time.
Tip: Follow some blogging musicians for tips and inspiration!
Or you can find out about musical locations in your town and visit them. I'm lucky to live in Leipzig - the home of Bach, Schumann and Mendelssohn and the birthplace of Wagner. There's plenty of museums, concert halls and exhibitions along the Notenspur, plus a daily offering of concerts, operas and ballets to go to.
Structure your practice sessions
20 minutes of planned, structured practice, is worth so much more than randomly playing through the pieces that you like, ignoring any errors you make. When you work to a plan, you actively develop your skills.
Priorities in any practice session will change over time.
Perhaps a good starting point would be:
- 20% on scales and arpeggios
- 50% on mastering a moderately challenging piece
- 30% playing the pieces that you love (and which keep your fingers supple)
Keep a practice diary, noting what you have played and your progress. This helps with motivation, setting goals, prioritizing practice sessions, and is a good reminder that you are continuously improving.
Master a piece gradually
Playing with a metronome can force you to slow things down, and increase your accuracy.
You can gradually speed up once your fingers become more familiar.
To improve a difficult passage
- Play the passage one hand at a time, slowly and carefully, using a metronome.
If there are multiple melody/harmony lines within one hand, you can break it down further, but make sure the fingering remains correct.
- Repeat each hand separately multiple times.
- Once both hands are familiar with the passage, play with both hands together. Slowly to begin with, and then gradually increasing in speed.
If you do this over multiple practice sessions, you can master a more difficult pieces, and improve your technique. This approach also works when memorizing a piece of music.
Don't forget to also play pieces you enjoy and that you have previously mastered - this maintains motivation and enthusiasm.
Piano street offers practical and useful advice for learning piano, and has an active forum for pianists and piano teachers.
Topics range from music, teaching, piano recommendations, and also suggestions to deal with pain from practicing - a fantastic resource when you don't have access to a teacher!
Above all, have fun!
You are returning to the piano because you want to.
Enjoy your fingers twinkling over the keys, the music surrounding you.
Reward your progress and diligence with a CD or a new piece of sheet music.
Piano playing can be very relaxing - playing any instrument is a great stress relief method.
Although recovering rusty skills will take time and effort, enjoy the journey! Have fun playing your old favorites and finding new pieces to explore.
What are your tips for picking up an instrument you have not played in a long time?
Zheng You on November 03, 2017:
Not just being unable to play on my own, but also I have no interest in classical music. I think I am more towards pop music and sometimes ballads.
Zheng You on November 03, 2017:
I have been playing the piano for almost 9 year but I find that I am not getting anywhere. I got a pass in Grade 5. I am struggling because I am not able to play any piece without my teacher's guidance. What should I do?
Lyn Halper on July 26, 2017:
Reassuring words here. I stopped playing ten years ago, but wish to resume now. Arthritis has caused a contraction in right hand and can no longer span an octave. Besides practice, I am using visualization since the mind cannot tell the difference between reality and imaging. It helps.
Thanks for your forum.
Michelle on March 20, 2017:
Thanks so much for this post! I'm playing on a 61 key keyboard - full size, of course, but enough to get me back into it. I'm going to follow the tips you've posted here. I've played on & off over the past two decades, but I'm definitely not where I used to be. I look forward to getting back to playing regularly. Thanks again for the pointers & approach you shared here.
AlbertoVilela on November 21, 2016:
Hello, I´ve been away from piano playing and practising for nearly 10 years now, during this time I practised now and then but nothing compared to my daily 3, 4 hours back in the days. I find this blog very encouraging, thank you for that.
Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on August 08, 2016:
Hi Dot, Congrats on keeping it up for two years!
I learnt rhythms at the beginning, with exercises on a blackboard - not music/notes, just rhythms. We'd clap or tap our fingers, or slap our knees in time to those rhythms.
Whenever I had trouble with rhythms in a piece of mysic, I took it away from the piano, and practiced on my legs or on table tops. Just the rhythms. First the melody line or the right hand, then the left hand, then both together. First slowly, then gradually speeding up. After I was comfortable with both hands, I'd play the right, left and then both together on the piano slowly.
I still get tripped up sometimes, and return to this method to practice difficult rhythms.
I hope this helps!
Dot on August 08, 2016:
Hello i am almost 14 and i have been taking piano lessons for almost 2 years. But when i started taking lessons, i didnt really understand the rhythym and everything. The notes and keys were easy to remember and everything. And everytime when i played the piano i would never understand the rhythym thing. And now, i have practiced 2 pieces for a whole year and i still cant play them both very well. Only the the first page and then i lose it. I need help on how to not let my past 2 years become waste. All the money, time. and people's trust. Just thinking about it makes me very depressed. Would really appreciate it if you can give me advice. thanks
Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on January 25, 2016:
I'm struggling with the lack of time too, and the physical limitations from arthritis and synovitis at the moment. I'm enjoying playing new pieces, perhaps a little easier than my exam pieces, but fun. I think the key is to find composers and pieces that you can have fun with.
Filipe Kramer on January 21, 2016:
that's amazing you to have written this blog! those words are encouraging, however, as to me, I stopped studying and playing the piano for roughly 10 years. I used to play amazing songs such as ballade n 1, F major, Chopin, and I had so much technique and momentum. but now I wonder how long would it take to almost go back to square one and get all that I had once! besides, I do not have the same free-time I used to have to practice through 6 hours a day! what shall I do? want to play with the same technique and momentum I played 10 years ago.
Barb Johnson from Alaska's Kenai Peninsula on July 28, 2015:
This was very encouraging Kymberly. I purchased an electric Yamaha recently myself. It's been 20 years at the most. Will certainly be using your tips to ease back into the flow. Anxious to just enjoy playing again. Thanks!
Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on April 21, 2015:
You're welcome Penny! It took my fingers a while to remember how to move on the keys, and the more difficult pieces I used to play are still out of reach. But they are getting closer!
Penny on April 18, 2015:
I bought both a yamaha electric piano and a rocket electric double bass and bow this week after 13 years of playing neither. This morning my fingers touched piano keys and then I froze. I didn't know where to start. I started with a couple of scales and arpeggios and then my muscle memory started to remember snippets from songs I used to play like Gershwins Prelude No 2, Rachmaninovs Piano Concerto 2, Fur Elise and more randomly the James Bond Theme tune. I wish my muscle memory would remember the rest of the songs though! My books should be arriving today so I'll be able to start relearning from scratch on both instruments. Considering I was grade 8 double bass and grade 6 piano when I was 23 I think its safe to say I'm back at grade 2 until my body and brain start to remember stuff. Thank you for your helpful guide.
Joyfulcrown on January 13, 2015:
I played the piano for 6 years, from 3rd grade to high school. I enjoyed playing but I got distracted by high school activities. I do wish I had kept it up. Maybe one day and I get a piano or key boards and play again.
ideadesigns on January 06, 2015:
I did piano for 3 years when I was little. I appreciate music a little more than if I hadn't done that. I appreciate my parents taking me!
Anna Stevens from USA on September 21, 2013:
I think that the guide which you shared can really help to relearn piano and the people can really learn it back quickly by following these tips.
Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on June 24, 2013:
Dreamhowl - Apart from how you move your fingers, piano is very much keyboard percussion. I loved playing marimba and timpani back in high school. Thanks!
Jessica Peri from United States on June 21, 2013:
I don't play piano, but I used to play mallet percussion in high school. My family used to make me play the piano at Christmas for simple songs just because I could read the notes. Voted up!
Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on May 15, 2013:
Lesley - it's much nicer to be naughty and keep playing real music than to run scales endlessly! Enjoy your return to the keys and good luck with buying a new keyboard!
Lesleysherwood on May 08, 2013:
I love your tips for exercising the fingers. I learnt the piano as a kid and I remember my mum calling up the stairs, "stop mucking around and do your exercises". May'be if I'd mucked around a teeny bit more I would be playing today. Unfortunately I don't own a piano any more, but still have party pieces that I played SO often in my teens that I don't think I'l ever lose the ability to show off at private get togethers. I would love to write music, I tried only to fail, not talented enough I'm afraid. Your hub has made me want to look into buying a keyboard again, because it would be nice for ME. I know I will never be a Paul McCartney or Beethoven, but I do love music and think I'd like to be naughty and NOT get on with my exercises. Thank you for writing such a good hub.
Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on May 29, 2012:
Sarah - Your Yamaha sounds absolutely lovely! I had never found a Yamaha that wasn't too bright for me, so I think you were very lucky!
I think the first piano always has a special place in our hearts -- mine had a beautiful dark tone, a muted upper register, and an extremely heavy action, great for darker emotional pieces, but terrible for anything baroque.
So glad you'll be keeping with the shorter practice sessions, they do make it easier and less frustrating! Enjoy!
Sarah Jane Bacon from Dubai, United Arab Emirates on May 24, 2012:
I bought a Yamaha upright [beautiful tone, bright but not TOO bright, great action, with a glorious upper register]. So far, I'm thrilled with it. Of course, nothing comes close to one's 'original' piano [mine is still back in my home country at my parents' house and it's impossible to move it to my current temporary expat home]. It's a Ronisch, built turn of the 20th century and while many say pianos of this vintage aren't worth the trouble, mine's been in the family since purchase and has been tended lovingly ever since.
Thanks for the uplifting words: I was feeling quite defeatist this morning until I googled for help and came across your page. The idea of sticking to a 20-min practice session to start is such a great idea; I did that today and will do the same tomorrow. I don't feel nearly so bad about things now. :-)
I'll be keeping up the good work, promise! Cheers!
Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on May 24, 2012:
Thank you Sarah! What piano did you get - an upright / grand / electric? It is soooooo tempting to jump into our old pieces that we could play, and then get depressed and frustrated because our fingers have forgotten the techniques and music. Glad to hear the exercises are helping - I find they help a heap with mobility and strength, but I often pushed my hands too far when I first restarted. Have fun!
Sarah Jane Bacon from Dubai, United Arab Emirates on May 23, 2012:
Thanks so much for this. I've just bought a new piano, intending to 'get back into it' after over 20 years without playing, and this, after a childhood/adolescence of playing seriously, doing music at university and finding the big leagues 'wasn't for me'. Starting way back is a good tip [though it IS tempting to leap back into favourite Bach fugues of the past!] so I'm going to take your advice and begin [almost] at the beginning. Hanon and Czerny ARE helping though, even if my fingers don't really want to do what I want them to. Yet.
Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on April 25, 2012:
Piano Street - Thank you! I had no idea you were on HubPages! The Piano Street forums are packed with wonderful information for beginners through the advanced players - I couldn't miss linking to them!
Piano Street from Stockholm, Sweden on April 18, 2012:
Lovely to read this! I congratulate you on having returned to playing the piano! And with your dedicated approach I am sure you'll have many enjoyable hours together with your instrument in the future. A lot of good advice here, which I hope a lot of people will take into account. And thanks for the link! ;-) All best wishes, PianoStreet
Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on March 02, 2012:
Ingenira - I do need to take breaks every few days to allow my fingers a little more recovery time. I hope they'll get stronger soon!
Ingenira on February 19, 2012:
I'd like to do the same... but I am lack of commitment so far. You are really determined and disciplined indeed.
Kymberly Fergusson (author) from Germany on February 19, 2012:
Thank you Ingenira! It's a little tough to get back into a routine of practicing after such a long break, but I'm getting there!
Ingenira on February 19, 2012:
Wow, a really systematic approach to master piano playing again. Excellent step by step guide to play well on the piano again. :)
Voted up, useful and shared.