How should I learn piano?
September 9, 2010 9:26 PM   Subscribe

I want to learn piano to the extent of being able to play like, some pop/rock songs and stuff from fake books. What are my options?

I'm a decently accomplished guitar player, and I studied music for a lot of years in high school / college playing different instruments (flute, saxophone, mallet instruments, drums.) I'm a self taught guitarist/bassist and I can read music, although I've never been very good at sight reading. I have a pretty good ear and can figure out stuff on guitar pretty easily, as well as being able to pick out melodies and simple chords by ear on the keyboard. I know scales and chords and enough theory to get by.

However I've always wanted to be able to play piano. I don't think I want to begin a classical piano education at this point in my life (32) but I honestly don't know the best way to go about learning this instrument that is new to me. I have a couple of small midi keyboards (25-40 keys or so) and use them to do stuff like play synth pads along with the guitar based stuff I sometimes record. That's fun but I have really no clue how to take it to the next-ish level. (next-ish level would probably start with me being able to do different stuff with my left and right hands.)

What I want is to be able to look at stuff in a fakebook and be able to reasonably play it. Or play Xmas songs or standards, that type of thing. Or to be able to use the piano/keyboard as a composition tool rather than an "after the fact" tool for my songs.

I am more than willing to take lessons if that is what I need to do, or if there is some self-study course I can follow, even better. I don't have a piano but I can probably find one to practice on, or at least a decent keyboard. Any suggestions? If lessons are the way to go, what kind of teacher should I be looking for? I'm in Baltimore if anyone has any specific suggestions.
posted by capnsue to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Speaking as a total hack on the piano, I think that you're pretty well off if you know chord structures and can plonk out a melody with your right hand. It ain't pretty, but you can sing around the fireplace to it. Stick to roots with your left (ie don't try inverting or augmenting). With a bit of practice, that should at least get you started with a fake book.
posted by Gilbert at 9:35 PM on September 9, 2010

What Gilbert said. Also...

Find another person who you can play with. Ideally, it would be someone who plays a different instrument and is somewhere near your abilities. Play primarily songs that you know by ear really well. Patience is key. I taught myself to play vibes that way- reading through the real book with another player who was equally inspired to learn. It doesn't happen overnight, but it happens much more quickly if you have someone else to comp or solo while you play chords/melody and vice versa.

If you really want to force yourself to learn, schedule some sort of performance for 6 months in the future that you must prepare for.
posted by palacewalls at 9:47 PM on September 9, 2010

I have a BA in Music but I play 90% like this - reading chord symbols and melody from fake books and making up the rest.

Here's what I would do:

Learn all the basic chords first (C,D,E,F,G,A,Bb) plus the minor versions of each. By learn, I mean you should be able to play any of them with either hand, or both, without thinking first. You should also be able to name the notes without thinking too much - that means flash cards.

Find some songs (easy piano fake book) with these chords. Practice each song a few different ways - one time playing just the root of the chord with the left hand, melody with the right. Then play chord in the left hand, melody with the right. Then arpeggiate the chord in the left hand (on the beat) with the melody in the right.

Stick to easy music that you know... I leaned on Beatles and Billy Joel. Not Zeppelin. Stick to easy keys (C, G, D, A, F, Em, Dm, Am) and learn new chords as needed. Eventually learn the rest of the chords, plus the other versions (major and minor 7th, augmented, etc.)... but stick to the easy chords and basics first so you can learn the coordination rather than focusing on remembering a million chords.

This all assumes that you can read music - if you can't read notes and rhythms pretty quickly, that's the first step. You have to be able to play a melody before you can add accompaniment to it.

With mostly these basic skills, I can open any fake book to a song I've heard and play it without practice... can do it about 90% of the time with a song I've never heard.

If you're in St. Louis I'd be happy to teach a few lessons. Feel free to email me on Mefi if I can help further. Good luck.
posted by kdern at 10:07 PM on September 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

Rock Band 3 is going to come with a keyboard, and will teach you how to play the songs for real.
posted by empath at 10:09 PM on September 9, 2010

I you really want to play take lessons for the structure and accountability.
posted by sockpup at 11:10 PM on September 9, 2010

I'd say learning simple major and minor chords in 12 keys on the piano is half as hard as learning your multiplication tables was, just for a point of reference. And the physical part, the dexterity, is a frigging walk in the park compared to how long it takes to play bar-chords on the guitar. You may have forgotten it by now, but your fingers couldn't do it at first.

You must not have tried the piano much. You'd have discovered that you can manage I-IV-V in the key of C on just your first day, pretty much of a beachhead for such a short time.

Hell; piano? Pfffft.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 11:15 PM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

My high school music teacher always played guitar chords on the piano. It resulted in all her songs sounding very much the same. So if a song was in the key of C she'd play the lower C chord alternating with the middle C chord, and when it switched to say, E, the lower E chord alternating with middle E, and so on.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:53 AM on September 10, 2010

I'm a piano hack who can't sightread. I taught myself the basics as a bored kid, and have spent the last few years sort of reteaching myself to play a lot more flexibly by attacking some of my bad habits head on. I tend to play pretty meat-and-potatoes backing-track fakebook stuff, mostly just doing roots with my left hand and chord shapes with my right. It's not fancy, it's not formal, but for pounding out a song on the piano as a supporting track in a recording or for a singalong at a party it does the job with no complaints.

And my feeling is, yeah, what you want to do is accomplishable, and having a good ear and being comfortable with hearing and thinking about chords will be a big help. I went in the other direction, piano first and then guitar, and found that a lot of the metamusical skillset transferred nicely.

Learning major and minor chord forms is pretty simple—that's one nice thing about the piano compared to chording a guitar, the constancy of interval shapes across keys and up and down the keyboard. The biggest sticking point with piano for me over the years was getting used to the black/white key topography, but if you force yourself to deal with the literal bumpiness of the keyboard early on that's really not a problem I don't think.

So, yeah, as folks have said: teach yourself the shape of a basic major chord and a basic minor chord. Teach your right hand in particular those two shapes, and then practice playing various different chords with them. Memorize where the notes on the keyboard are so that you can easily take a random note ("C! G#! Bb!") and play a major or minor chords rooted on that note.

In that sense, a fakebook or chord chart along with songs you already know is the best kind of flashcard ever. Just try and nail those chords on the downbeats to start with and play around a bit with rhythm in the spare moments as you get comfortable moving from chord to chord.

Once you've gotten reasonably accustomed to moving the basic major and minor triads around, start incorporating a couple new things:

1. more complicated forms like sevenths, major sevenths, sixths, ninths, augmented and diminished chords to fill in the gaps in your toolkit for those songs that really depend on such sounds to work well (you can fake your way past a lot of sixths and sevenths and ninths generally speaking by just playing the basic form since you're just omitting some extra harmonic flavor; aug and dim chords not so much since they're different fundamental chord forms)
2. inversions and other alternate voicings of the chords (fifth as root, third as root, octave spans) that will let you give stuff a different character and will also let you move form chord to chord without actually moving your hand around the physical keyboard as much.

It's a good idea to learn all the various chord forms and voicings on your left hand as well, but if your main priority is basic two-handed good-enough-for-now piano stuff I'd worry more about just getting your left hand happy with the keyboard as far as moving from note to note to play roots and such against whatever you're chording with your right hand. As a bassist, you're probably in better shape than me for doing interesting things down there, in fact, so as you get comfortable using two hands at once you'd probably want to think about trying to make your left hand play something like an actual bassline to spice things up. But that's down the road a bit.
posted by cortex at 8:52 AM on September 10, 2010

If you do better with formal education, instead of noodling around on your own, and live near a college or university, check their extended education classes. I've been taking a class called Piano for Pleasure offered by the university I work at for a year now. It's geared towards hobbyists, rather than people who are serious about becoming pianists, and so offers a laid-back approach -- we learn basics and basic music theory, but don't get yelled at if we fail to practice.
posted by telophase at 9:35 AM on September 10, 2010

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