Updated: Oct 22
Let me guess: you've always dreamed of playing the piano like a pro, but you never quite knew how to get there. Maybe you've tried different ways of practicing but kept losing motivation, or perhaps you're not short on motivation but simply want better results. In this article I want to help you out by giving you valuable tips that have helped me improve my piano playing greatly over the years, all without the help of a teacher.
After years of obsessively teaching myself how to play the piano, I feel like I've gotten a good idea of what works and what doesn't. No matter the genre, be it jazz, classical, videogame soundtracks, you name it, there are certain rules you want to follow in order to improve your piano playing quickly. Apply these rules consistently, and you'll start seeing amazing results within weeks!
1. Practice pieces that you enjoy
My first tip might sound obvious, but I can't emphasize enough the importance of practicing pieces that you enjoy. Don't worry too much about spending time on pieces that you think are beneficial for your technique, since this mindset will only burn you out quickly. Instead, practice pieces that you love. It'll be way easier to practice consistently this way, which will most likely improve your technique the most in the long run.
Think about a song or piece of music that you really love. Now type it in Google, followed by "cover" or "tutorial". I guarantee you that there will be a decent version out there for you to learn from, probably for free. Try making use of a Synthesia video on YouTube (a video that shows falling piano notes), or even better, download (or buy) the sheet music of the piece you're looking for. Now go practice! I promise you, there is nothing more inspiring than being able to play your favourite music.
2. Practice pieces that you think are too hard
This is arguably the most valuable advice I can give you. You see, the more you challenge yourself, the faster you'll improve. Compare it with fitnessing: the person that pushes hardest and eats best, can generally expect the most gains. Of course, you shouldn't overdo it to the point that you become unhappy. But make sure to step out of your comfort zone constantly and go practice those pieces that you are so afraid of!
Often times you'll find that if you actually take your time with a piece and not give up too easily, you can make insane progress on it, even though you believed the piece was way out of your leauge. Breaking this 'mental barrier' often enough will open your eyes to the incredible reward of discipline and perseverance, which will benefit you greatly in all areas of your life.
Even if a piece turns out to be too hard for you right now, you'll still have learned a lot from it. You'll have gained new knowledge that you can apply to other pieces as well. Besides, pieces that you practiced in the past probably seem a lot more manageable now than they did before. In my experience, this is the fastest way to improve. For now, just leave the piece that is too hard for you and go practice other pieces. When you're ready, come back to the hard piece and check out your progress. You'll be amazed!
3. Start using sheet music, asap
I know many self-taught pianists out there hate the idea of sheet music and music theory, but trust me, those of you that do are missing out. As a self-taught pianist myself, I too used to not care about this for years. It was only until I forced myself to get into reading and writing sheet music that I became aware of the immense power it holds.
Let me put it like this: a piece can be practiced way faster from sheet music than from any other type of tutorial out there. Sheet music is like a language. It takes time to understand and master, but once you get to a certain level, it becomes second nature. You won't have to keep pausing some tutorial video to see how a piece needs to be played, but you can just read the music like you're reading this article and start practicing.
Don't feel intimidated. Sheet music may be a language, but it's not as complicated as English or Spanish. There are YouTube videos out there that explain the fundamentals of sheet music in a matter of minutes. Just watch some of those and start practicing your future pieces using sheet music. Are you still struggling with something? Just google it. You'll probably start slow and those YouTube tutorials will seem a lot more appealing, but after a while you'll never go back.
Being able to understand sheet music also opens up another door: writing down your own music. If you ever feel the need to arrange or compose music, sheet music is the best and only way to record your ideas. Spread your art with the rest of the world!
4. Master basic music theory
I used to be great at playing complex music on the piano, without actually having a clue what I was doing. Maybe you feel the same way right now. Besides understanding sheet music, getting into music theory really helped me solve this problem, as it will probably solve yours too.
There is no need to dive deep into this! Unless you enjoy getting to know everything about music theory, just make sure you get a good grasp on intervals, chords, key signatures and rhythms. In the beginning it seems unnecessary hard to learn, but just like the sheet music, it will make your future life a whole lot easier when it comes to practicing and enjoying music.
One of the best free ways to practice music theory is by using the exercises on www.musictheory.net.
5. Train your ear
Some of you might think that playing music by ear is some rare gift, but I can assure you it isn't. The people that can play anything by ear have simply practiced a long time for it. The trick really is to just keep trying! Here are some steps you can follow when interpreting a song using your ears only:
1. Find the melody of the song. Do this by replaying the song a few times (slow it down if possible), after which you will try finding its melody on the piano note by note. To help yourself out, you can use your voice to mimic the melody of the song (you really don't have to be a good singer for this). The piano notes that merge with your voice are the correct ones.
2. Find the bass notes. Do this by replaying the song a few times again, but this time don't get distracted by the melody. Try listening to the lower end of the music instead. What are the notes that the song is built upon? Play these notes on the piano with your left hand and combine them with the melody in your right. A great way to check if you've found the correct bass notes, is to play your version alongside the song itself. Does it blend well? Or do you hear some dissonance? If so, try using other bass notes until it sounds absolutely right.
3. Add chords to the bass notes. This becomes significantly easier when you have some basic understanding of music theory, since you'll be able to try out the different chords you know of. Listen closely to which one fits the song, simply by playing them alongside the music again.
4. (Bonus) Give the song your own twist. There are tons of ways you can make your version more than just a copy of the original. You can truly make it your own! If you're interested in a course that teaches you step by step how to approach this, besides how to use this skill to create an actual sustainable income, please vote here to let me know: www.thomasjonkermusic.com/virtuoso
It really is a process of trial and error. Just keep trying until it becomes easier and easier. Besides playing actual songs, I also highly suggest you train your ear using the hearing exercises on www.musictheory.net. By doing both regularly, you'll slowly but surely be able to recognize intervals and chords in all the music you listen to.
6. Practice different genres of music
What truly makes the piano a great instrument, is the wild variety of styles you can play on it. All of these styles demand different types of skills from the player. For example, there are techniques that jazz musicians regularly use but classical musicians have never touched, as well as the other way around. By exposing yourself to more than one genre of piano playing, you essentially become a multitalented musician. You'll gain extra knowlegde and will have a broader frame of reference, which in turn will allow you to tackle on new pieces more easily. It will also make your instrument and hobby a whole lot more fun!
7. Get enough sleep
To become better at something you have to be great at two things: practicing and sleeping. Keep in mind, both are equally as important! If you practice a lot but don't get enough sleep, you're not going to see the results you are truly capable of.
It's mostly while you sleep when your brain creates and strenghtens neural pathways for the things you spend your time on in life (like playing the piano). This is why a passage you're struggling with on the piano on one day, usually feels easier the next day. In order to become a great pianist, you need to give your brain the time it needs to work on your neural pathways. In short: you need to sleep well.
I can tell you from personal experience that if I practice well and also have a great night of sleep, my progress is significantly better than when I skip the last part.
Besides progressing faster with a good night of sleep, playing the piano is actually easier when you're feeling rested. If you're tired, you'll experience sloppiness in your playing, which will make you feel like you're going backwards. This might demotivate you and cause you to play less. So if you're reading this at night, thank you for reading, but it's time to get some sleep!
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