I started studying music at the age of five and a half. My older sister was taking piano lessons. When her teacher left our apartment, I would get up on the piano bench and start picking out the notes that were part of my sister’s lessons.—Marvin Hamlisch
My story isn’t all that different from Mr. Hamlisch. I was four when I first started picking out hymns on the church piano. My parents waited until I was in first grade before they started letting me take real piano lessons from a real teacher. The piano seemed so very, very big compared to my little hands. When we started that first scale, it took forever for me to master the technique of tucking my thumb under my palm and reaching, stretching, for that fourth note. During that first lesson, I thought I might never be able to play real music because my five-year-old hands were just too small.
Perhaps I should have had Jon Baptiste as my teacher (ignoring the time warp factor given that Jon’s half my age). The bandleader for the Late Show with Stephen Colbert has developed a highly instructional video that teaches anyone to play piano in “Nine Easy Steps.” While his approach may appear overly simplistic, when one stops and thinks about it, he’s actually quite accurate about the whole process. Let’s take a quick look at his nine steps.
- Identifying a piano. This is more important than you might think. In this age of digital electronic everything, a lot of people look at a 33-note keyboard and still call it a piano. Nope. If you’re going to play, you need to be able to identify the real thing, to understand why and how it makes the sound that it does, and how it responds to your touch.
- Naming your instrument. Personalize what you’re doing. The pianist and the piano must become one in a very zen way, even if you’re not zen yourself or know anything about zen. The piano is to the pianist what a rifle is to a Marine. Just, uhm, don’t try jumping from a helicopter with a piano on your back.
- Caring for your piano. “The piano is not a toy.” That seemed like a rather silly statement when my mom said it because she was talking about an instrument that weighed more than our entire family and took four people just to move across the living room. The lesson is much more appropriate today when a number of the things that pass as pianos actually do look like a toy. And as he says in the video, wash your hands. Please. In college, there was nothing much worse than walking into a practice room and finding a piano with greasy keys. Ick.
- Know the notes. Too many people are intimidated by the notes. This really is unnecessary. Do you know the first eight letters of the alphabet? Good. You’re set. A-G is all you need. Well, that and knowing how they actually correspond with those symbols on the paper, but that’s really rather easy as well. This is not difficult. You got this! Piano lessons are easy!
- Bench work. Sure, Jon makes it sound silly in the video, but how one sits at the piano is a critical matter! I still shudder when I think of the number of times my teacher threatened to put a yardstick down my back if I didn’t stop slouching on the bench. Posture and position has everything to do with how well one plays.
- The pedals. This is where my early teachers differed from Jon’s approach. They used a more classical method wherein one was forbidden from touching the pedals at all! The reasoning is that prior to the advent of the Romantic period in the 19th century, pianos didn’t have sustain pedals at all. And yes, I do know what that middle pedal does, but I’m not telling. You can’t handle that level of information right now.
- Snack break! Practicing the piano can be exhausting! My general rule is to take some kind of a break, at least stand up and stretch, every thirty minutes. This is actually a good time to pull a few yoga moves because the body tends to tense up when you’re sitting there diligently working out a difficult passage. Do NOT eat at the piano, though, and if you do have a snack, wash your hands before touching the piano!
- The Triangle Offense. You think Jon is being silly here, but he’s not. If you want to master the piano, you gotta have a plan with a defined strategy for how to score. A good teacher communicates that strategy and explains why it is important. Otherwise, lessons can seem disjointed and all that stuff about theory and ear training gets lost.
- Let’s play piano! Jon might have over-simplified this step just a tiny bit. Still, it’s important that one not be afraid to sit down and play. Unless you’re a child prodigy, don’t necessarily expect dramatic results overnight. You’re going to spend a lot of time practicing and the older you are the more practice it may take. You’re probably going to take a lot of piano lessons. Still, you don’t get any better if you’re not playing at all. So sit down with your Bastien or Thompson method books and play that first lesson like a pro!
See, piano lessons really aren’t that difficult at all! You can learn to play the piano. Why not start this weekend? If you didn’t get all that, here’s Jon’s video to help explain.