How can I become a better piano player?
April 19, 2013 10:23 AM   Subscribe

I really enjoy playing piano as a hobby. I've played in worship bands for 3 different churches, and played in a few local bands as well with live gigs. But I don't think I'm very good, and I'm not sure how to improve.

I took lessons from age 6 to age 14, mostly focus on classical basics, some pop music, etc. Then I quit. I was in choir for about 10 years, too, so I have pretty solid fundamentals on how things sound good (but no theory on WHY things sound good.) In college I started playing by ear, and that's basically where I've been ever since. I'm comfortable adapting pretty much any pop song. I like playing stuff by the Killers and other similar genres. I've got the whole Michael W. Smith style of piano down pretty well.

But I don't feel like I'm actually very good. I fake my way through a lot of stuff, and can keep up with most musicians I play with, unless I'm asked to play lead. I have only a marginal understanding of jazz or blues. My honkytonk style is atrocious. What should I do to actually strengthen my play, instead of being stuck at a Coldplay level of piano mastery?
posted by Happydaz to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Have you considered taking lessons again?

Listen to recordings of pianists you admire. Go to performances and when you run across someone who sounds great, talk to them about lessons. Even if they can't give lessons they might be willing to sit down with you once or twice and work through some examples of whatever you want to work on. And even if that's not practical, keep listening to them. It sounds like you're very capable of learning from what you hear - so focus your listening on really good stuff.

If you can read music, look for some jazz/blues/honkytonk sheet music to work through.
posted by bunderful at 10:33 AM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

You could look into taking some more lessons and shop around for a teacher who specializes in jazz or pop style. If you know another pianist whose technique you admire, they may be willing to work with you.

You could probably take an introduction to music theory course at a local college, but a lot of that will probably be crossover from what you learned in your classical lessons. Jazz theory courses exist, but not everywhere, and usually not at into levels.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:37 AM on April 19, 2013

Lessons. I was in a similar, if less skilled position a couple of years ago, and I've been astonished at how helpful lessons have been. As an adult, you can tell your teacher exactly what you're hoping to get out of the lessons and what you want to learn, and if the teacher is any good, that's what you'll do.

I was also surprised that lessons--even for an adult who is generally pretty disciplined to begin with--serve as a check on practice just like they did when I was a kid. I practice and play about twice as much now that I've got a teacher than I did when I was just trying to re-learn on my own.

Good luck!
posted by Levi Stahl at 10:40 AM on April 19, 2013

Do you listen to much jazz, blues, or honkytonk (Western swing? Or can I get records of like saloon piano players?)?

You don't have a prayer of sounding authentic playing those kinds of music, without spending a lot of time absorbing them.
posted by thelonius at 10:50 AM on April 19, 2013

Not a pianist, but a musician (woodwinds). An adult who is an established player has to approach lessons quite differently. The good news is you might be able to save some cash by finding some peers to practice with, rather than a totally formal Master-Student relationship. I'm betting you're not as limited as you think you are.

I also think, based on your comments, that you're somewhat defeated by an idea that many musicians are bothered by, some "theory of everything" that a "real" musician would know. I know some pretty fine musicians, and I have yet to meet this "real" musician that can do it all. The pianists I know are either great at reading, OR they can do changes with a band all night long, OR they can play by ear, OR - you get the idea. If you want theory, take theory, but it won't "complete" you the way I used to think it might. I also realized somewhere along the way that I knew a lot of theory, I just didn't have all the academic labels down cold that no one uses. [edit - someone's going to fight me on that. Don't take it literally. :-) ]

I'm going to talk out of both sides of my mouth for a second. I say you're better than you think you are because it sounds like you gig a lot. I think we grow up with an ideal of spending a lot of time in our practice room doing the sort of platonic practicing that we cut our teeth on. But the stage or the gig is the ultimate dojo for what we're already good at.

So in that sense gigging is good.

Where it limits us is it tends to make us better at what we already are. If you play a lot of church music and you want to learn Brahms, you'll NEVER get to it unless you cut back on those gigs. It's an hour in a day problem.

So in that sense gigging is bad.

- finding someone who's good at something you want to get good at. Don't be surprised if they want to in turn work with you on things you're better at than they are.
- Consider cutting back on performance to be PRACTICING things you're weak at.
posted by randomkeystrike at 10:52 AM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

In short of getting a teacher which would be the best choice, there is you tube. So many lessons uploaded on just about any style you can think of, also a good deal of music theory that can get pretty advanced (if you keep clicking through the bad ones to get to the good). I've seen a lot uploaded that are on the subject of gospel style piano.

Doing the you tube videos is only effective if you have the discipline to practice on your own and keep at it. It's a good option if you don't have the money for lessons, but have strong motivation (which can get hard to keep up, for even advanced players).

Once you have the information, it's all about practicing. That's the only way you'll ever get better at something, the key is consistency. You'll get better playing gigs for sure, because it forces you to use what you know or risk looking like a fool (hearing a crowd's applauses usually helps). In those situations you start working on preparing much more because you know you'll publicly fail if you don't. That's a great motivator. In order to progress, there must be some sort of consequence if you don't keep up with it, otherwise it can become subject to neglect.

That's why getting a teacher is best, because you'll be held accountable for your progress. Keep looking around until you find someone you like, not all instructors are for everyone- it's personal. Have a good idea of what you want to learn (specific pieces, concepts, examples of players who embody what you think of as a good player). Finding local players and asking for lessons is a great idea and a good avenue to go for, but, know that just because someone is a great player doesn't necessarily mean they'll be a good teacher.

Having a lot of new information thrown at you can get very overwhelming, and I think this is why a lot of people give up on learning something new. A good teacher will give you what you need to know, in smaller digestible chunks at a time. You pick one thing and get good at it (learning intervals, a particular chord and it's inversions, etc). Focus on one thing at a time and work on it for a week or so (a song, perhaps- learn to play it well, then analyze it's chord changes and melodic structure). Do it over and over until you can do it with ease, then move on to the next thing you want to tackle. It's all about building. In order to add floors to your musical house (lame analogy, sorry) you must have a strong foundation. You don't start off learning jazz, you work on the basics first that build up to the advanced ideas. Pinpoint what you're weak at, and work on it until you're competent. If you endure, you will succeed. It's not a sprint, it's a long race. If you keep with it you will get better, and one day you'll notice you're closer to where you want to be. Motivation and accountability is the absolute key (whether it be gigging, a teacher, your own personal willpower).

Good luck!
posted by readygo at 12:39 PM on April 19, 2013

Try to find a teacher who's cool with "by ear". There are methods out there that are based on an auditive approach. A teacher who doesn't know about those is not your teacher.
The thing most needed is recognizable patterns (technically as well as musically) in order to make it possible for you to repeat what you're doing and to improve on it, no matter how you're doing it (by ear, by score...). From that point on you can rehearse and improve stuff, instead of, as you say, fake your way through stuff.
posted by Namlit at 12:41 PM on April 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Take piano lessons. I'm approaching this at a very different angle because I play classical piano, where, when you listen to a recording, you're listening to all piano and you can hear exactly what they are doing from note to note. In rock music I tend to have a vague idea of what they piano is doing because I'm too busy listening to other parts. But for me, I really started to improve a lot when I began obsessively listening to a lot of great recordings and I began to think about what they were doing and break it down methodically in practice. Also, practicing is the other thing you can do to improve a lot. By practicing (as opposed to playing), I mean methodically analyzing what you are doing and what you need to do in order to produce a particular sound. Give yourself a time frame of how much you want to practice per day and stick to it.
posted by mermily at 1:15 PM on April 19, 2013

I really think you should sign up for lessons. You're pretty much guaranteed to improve if you go to a weekly lesson and actually practice what your teacher assigns to you.

You probably want to get your hands on some technical books to work on every day to keep your fingers in top shape (message me if you want a suggestion). Even if it's just 20 minutes a day you'll notice a huge difference in the speed you're able to play at.

I think it could help you a lot to focus on improving your sightreading and technique by picking up some advanced solo arrangements of pop songs and working on them by yourself. Completing a piece like that can also improve your confidence as a player. If it's been a while since you played by reading music, then it's the perfect time to sign up for lessons. Pick out a few songs outside your comfort level and work on them bit by bit every week with your teacher.
posted by winterportage at 1:17 PM on April 19, 2013

Lessons won't do any good unless you have a teacher who will teach you what YOU will need.

If you can't read chords, that is step one. Any decent music store should have a booklet-or for that matter, I have a free app on my phone with all the chords. Make sure you learn at least the most common ones in all three positions.

Find someone who plays the way you want to play and watch them.

One really important thing to do is set aside an hour or two, sit at the keyboard and noodle around. Let your hands and your ears learn to work together. If you can get to the point you can imagine a song or a sound and then play it automatically you are getting somewhere.

Learning to read music is probably NOT going to help you go where YOU want to go. But if you can find someone who can teach jazz piano, even if your interests lie more in worship bands, you will pick up a lot of stuff you will find useful.

(I am a worship team piano player who just got back on my local team-so I have an idea of what you want to do. Go for it!)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:34 PM on April 19, 2013

Take lessons, and PRACTICE. How much do you practice right now?
posted by KathrynT at 3:08 PM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

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