The Self Taught Pianist

“I’M SELF TAUGHT” or “I’m untrained” or “I never had formal lessons” and of course “I had a few lessons once, but I’m mostly self-taught.” That last one describes me. I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’ve probably said one of these statements before. There are many self-starters in the music world.


I remember sitting at my half size digital keyboard in my parent’s house in Florida, 1997. It was a very hot, humid Summer and I was living on that bridge in high school from Junior to Senior year and I was determined to master this thing. I had taken a semester of group piano (around the equivalent of 1 year of private lessons) at school and had grown quite fond of piano. It was not easy. I definitely wasn’t one of those piano whiz kids who got everything the teacher told me. And after class was over, that was the end of formal instruction. My family didn’t pay for private classes. Money was meant for food, mortgage, and gas.


Still, I wanted to keep playing. I decided that with my basic understanding (VERY basic) of note reading, I could teach myself. This was before YouTube was a thing so I did it the old fashioned way. I watched performers on TV and the piano players at my school very carefully. I was watching for technique. How they held their wrists and how tall (or not) they sat. I would go home and mimic their moves to the sounds of “Ode to Joy.”


I experimented with chords that I “made up.” If I liked their sound, I would memorize them and try to combine them with other chords. Eventually, I had my first original song! At this point, I still barely had any idea what I was doing, but I was making music, and that was all that mattered. I’m sure you can relate! After 10+ years of teaching, I hear similar stories all the time. When I tell someone I’m a piano teacher, I hear similar versions of the story I just told you. These adults also love to experiement on the piano, but often feel like they don’t know what they’re doing.


The Bliss of Ignorance


Sometimes, not knowing everything can be fun. It makes music seem magical. Like, you just wave your hands over the piano and POOF! A song appears! It can be so exciting to make a discovery like that! But after a year or 2 of playing like this, don’t you want to know a little more about what you’re playing? Wouldn’t you like to understand why certain chords sound nice together? I know I did.


I haven’t taken any formal lessons since that group class. Everything I have learned was done on my own. I bought method books and studied them, challenged myself with difficult classical pieces, and figured out how to read a fake book.


Now with YouTube, blogging, podcasts, etc, it’s easier then ever to teach yourself. If you get stuck at some point, you can hire an online teacher (like me!) for a few lessons to get things rolling again. If you are a self taught pianist, and you feel like you’ve maximized your own teaching, here are some things you can do to move up a level:


Buy a piano method book and learn how to read music. If you already understand a little note reading, buy the next level up as well, just in case you need more of a challenge. I highly recommend Faber and Faber’s Piano Adventures. Method books are notorious for having terrible music, but this power couple has stepped up to change that. I love their pieces, especially as you get higher up in the Levels. Do a little everyday.


Find a song just a little too hard for you to play in just 15-20 minutes. You want something that will take days or even weeks to master.


Find a chart in a fake book with chords you don’t recognize. I recommend a Jazz standard! As opposed to Rock or Pop, in Jazz you will get to explore Diminished chords, Major 7ths, Flat 5s… all kind of crazy goodness! You’re knowledge will definitely increase if you study Jazz. Don’t know how to use a fake book? Read my post here.


Learn a new Improv technique. Do you default to the SAME rhythm and chord progression every single time you improvise? Do a search on YouTube for Improv, of check out my own video here, and try someone else’s technique. It’s always good to fill your bank with different rhythms and chord progressions.


Finally, listen to music you normally don’t listen to. This is important. If you only listen to Jazz, then everything you create at the piano is going to sound like Jazz. That’s not totally awful, but it doesn’t make you very interesting. When you listen to more than one sound, it gets mashed up in your memory and becomes influential to your playing. That’s how new and interesting sounds develop. Try it. Don’t pick a genre you hate. Just look for something that normally isn’t your first pick.


If you’ve been playing regularly on your own for a while, don’t believe for a second you don’t know what you’re doing. If you’re making music then you’re far ahead of many! Don’t stop learning. Keep watching videos, reading this blog- in fact, you can SUBSCRIBE to this blog here! Follow my Facebook page Go Play Piano. I post articles and inspirational photos everyday.

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