Am I Ready For Piano Lessons?

Starting Piano Lessons

People who start piano lessons for the first time, or who resume after a break of many years often ask me for advice about what to expect. I usually respond by asking a few straightforward questions:

Do you have TIME for piano lessons?

This may sound really obvious, but believe me, people don't ask themselves this question enough. Here are a few pointers to think about:

  1. To see any noticeable results, piano lessons are a medium to long-term commitment, requiring more than just a 40 minute weekly session with your piano teacher. To achieve the goals the two of you agree in your piano lesson, you'll need to set up a practice schedule to do the homework assigned by your piano tutor. To progress in any significant way and justify the money you're paying in piano tuition fees, you'll need to dedicate a minimum number of practice sessions in between, to make sure you're prepared for the next lesson.
  2. I personally recommend no less than 3 half-hour practice sessions per week. Increase that exponentially if you have more than one piece, are practising scales & exercises, or working towards an exam, showcase, or recital. If you'd like to find out more about practising, read this article on effective piano practice.
  3. If you're able to schedule a programme based on the points above, you'll be able to see noticeable results in a short space of time and before you know it, you'll be building up a repertoire of piano music to impress your friends and colleagues. It's a great feeling of achievement to finish a piece and deliver it to a high standard in front of an appreciative audience!

Are you READY for piano lessons?

Before deciding to book piano lessons, it's a good idea to check if you have several things in place.

  1. Do you own an acoustic piano, digital piano, or have the budget to buy or rent one?
  2. Do you have a space away from distractions and noise where you can spend quality time practising the piano?
  3. Are you in a mentally and/or physically demanding job or study programme? It's worth asking yourself if you have enough energy left at the end of a long day for lessons AND practice sessions. Based on the times given, that's approximately 2.5 hours extra that you need to find per week.
  4. Consistency is the key to progress as with many things and to achieve noticeable results, you should be sure you can keep a regular practice schedule in addition to your other commitments.
  5. Following on from this, are you in an unpredictable job that will have you cancelling your piano lesson on a regular basis? Some of my keenest students have included a doctor, a head of marketing, a cabinet office employee, a record label boss and a travelling photographer who were all very committed to learning, but whose work was very demanding and continually required them to stay late or change schedules. Unfortunately something had to give and it was their piano lessons. So it's essential be honest and realistic with yourself about this side of learning the piano.

Summary

Hopefully these questions have made you sit up and think. With any luck I've pointed out some stuff you hadn't thought of, in which case, you're welcome! If you're waaaaaaay ahead of me, good for you! 

Playing the piano is one of life's most satisfying achievements. There's nothing like expressing yourself in music and communicating one of the the deepest parts of the human experience to others. If you improvise, using the knowledge you already have, this is the purest, and most soul-fulfilling aspect of being a musician and I believe it is this unfettered freedom of expression that most attracts people to music and musicians.

So are you ready for piano lessons???

The Taubman technique for pianists

piano-lessons-postureI recently experienced difficulties with my thumbs during a concentrated spell of practise. As a result, I started to do some research on playing technique, to find out if perhaps I’d developed any bad habits. Dorothy Taubman, the creator of this discipline, developed the therapeutic approach during her lifetime, dedicated to helping people with bad injuries and conditions caused by bad technique or other incorrect habits.

I came across a collection of helpful instructional videos for pianists on You Tube by Edna Golansky, in which she goes into some detail on the approach and focuses in on some very specific examples. I recommend watching at least some of these, whether you’re experiencing problems or not, as there’s a wealth of information here.

Luckily, or perhaps not so much, my thumb issue seems to be the onset of arthritis more than a bad playing technique, however I’m currently looking at ways to improve my hand and arm work based on the ideas put forward by Taubman practitioners and plan to book myself a Skype session or two in the future (there are currently no UK practitioners).

I’d be very interested to hear from any students who have attended classes or seminars on the Taubman technique, to hear your experiences and opinions, so please contact me if you’d like to get into a discussion – or hit the comment box below.

Happy and comfortable playing!

The Essentials Of Jazz Improvisation Part 2: Practicing Scales

This is part 2 of a series of articles about jazz improvisation. It focuses on scales and repetitive exercises, which is a helpful habit to develop as part of a regular practice routine. I often start my piano practice with these because it loosens up my hands and gets me familiar with the keyboard very fast, before moving onto my main practice session. Of course everyone approaches practice sessions differently, so it’s by no means the only method.

Scales:

All tonal music is based on scales of one kind or another. These are the building blocks of a high percentage of all western music and knowing them inside out is a major step in gaining freedom on any instrument. As well as the more usual major & minor scales studied for the more traditional exams, jazz adopts Greek modal scales (which I won’t go into here), other scales from around the world like the pentatonic and blues scales and many more besides.

I also create exercises based on sections from famous solos I’ve studied, which are often a combination of scales and arpeggios. These open up my practice sessions and give them an authentic ‘jazzy’ feeling, whilst boosting my dexterity and helping to develop my own style. I might post some of these up in the future.

One of the ultimate aims with practicing scales and arpeggios is knowing them so well that they become subconscious – you no longer have to think about them. For jazz this is especially true, as the basis of a great deal of improvisation is scales and arpeggios.

Physical Preparation:

One writer on the subject invites us to start by simply placing our hands on the piano and spending 5 minutes just relaxing, hands not necessarily on any notes, but resting on the keyboard purely to get comfortable at the instrument. I rather like this idea, though often don’t follow the suggestion if I’m in a rush!

It’s a good idea to use a metronome or drum loop to practice with. This helps to identify difficult areas (when you pause, suddenly you’re out of time) and gauges how well you’re doing with a particular exercise. Fast speeds are not essential, but a regular and accurate pulse helps enormously to develop a good sense of timing – an essential element of good jazz playing.

Additionally, I like to go one step further and tape all my practice sessions, because hearing myself back gives me a much more accurate idea of how well I’m doing and how much more work is needed. I often use a midi piano (weighted keyboard) which makes this easier by recording into Logic, although I also have microphones and a headphone set permanently placed in my acoustic piano booth.

Practice Sessions:

I often start with scales & arpeggios (to get the dry stuff over with first), spending longer on problem passages or difficult fingering. A popular method of varying these is to play them in semibreves (whole), minims (half), crotchets (quarter), quavers (eighth) and semiquavers (sixteenth notes). Often if I’m working with a brisk metronome and can’t quite make the jump from quavers to semi’s, I’ll do triplet quavers, which is half-way in between. If you REALLY want to challenge yourself you can try duple against triple notes, which is great for independence and can be good fun!

Once a player has worked through the basic introductory scales and exercises, they should ideally be performed in 4 octaves minimum, in every key. Feel free to invent variations and/or more complex or ‘jazzy’ versions as you get more used to it. This will help to keep you challenged, interested and will help to push your boundaries in the same way that increasing weights helps with gym work-outs.

Speaking of workouts, I find it very important to be aware of my breathing when practicing – in fact, it feels natural to me to ALWAYS be aware of this, even during performances. With scales I’ll regulate it by timing it with the notes, for example breathe in for one octave, out for the next, or as you get faster, breathe in for going up the scale & out for coming down.

Now we’re ready to play some real music! Watch out for the next part….