How do I learn the piano?
August 31, 2015 8:12 AM   Subscribe

Take me through the logistics of learning the piano for a first-time adult student. Do I take lessons with a private instructor? How do I find this instructor? How much should I expect a lesson to cost? How often will I need to practice? Do I buy or rent a piano? Should I buy a keyboard instead? Headphones for home practice might be ideal in my scenario. Any other advice on logistics appreciated!
posted by nologo to Education (12 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
You can buy a keyboard with weighted keys. It'll be a cheaper (and lighter) version that still has the feel of an actual piano, and you'll be able to use headphones. Minimum time investment would be an hour per day of practice, with lessons once per week, in my opinion. It's been a while since i've had lessons so can't really comment on the price.
posted by monologish at 8:26 AM on August 31, 2015

Book 3 sessions with as many different instructors as you can find in your area. Stick with the one that you like the best. They come in different prices and teaching styles. It can take some time to find the right match. You want someone who is able to understand your personal learning style and work with you from there.

Start with a keyboard. You can go to a music store and get recommendations and try some out. They will also have leads for instructors there. Don't invest in a really expensive keyboard or piano until you know what you are looking for. I dislike the tone of my piano. My parents bought it when I was a kid and they had no musical training. It is funky and not in a good way. And I'm stuck with it.
posted by myselfasme at 8:56 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

If there is an adult education program in your community, see if they offer group lessons for beginners.
posted by JanetLand at 8:58 AM on August 31, 2015

I've taught guitar and hand drumming, and have also learned other instruments and skills. In general, if you practice 10-15 minutes a day at *anything* you will get better. But once a week for an hour, not so much. If you can:

- make a habit of playing at a certain time, like first thing in the am so you don't skip it due to work/life
- EVERY DAY!!! Not every few days!
- commit to a really short practice length - even 10 minutes instead of 15
- keep going during sessions where you have time and are still having fun

What'll happen is that as you learn more (alone or from a teacher) you'll have more and more things you can do and the 10-15 minutes will grow on its own. If you just started and all you have is one scale to practice, that gets old after 5 minutes :-)

Also, if you are making mistakes, slow down. Use a metronome and don't be afraid to play at crazy slow speeds. Speed up till you can't do it right, then back off a bit. You don't want to ingrain errors into your habits. My old drum teacher said "They say practice makes perfect. Not exactly ... *perfect* practice makes perfect."
posted by freecellwizard at 10:20 AM on August 31, 2015 [11 favorites]

Note: metronome apps are free for smart phones and tablets. I understand there are web sites that will also serve, but I have no experience with them. Much better than a mechanical metronome.

I find in the brave new world of the internet, music stores don't stock much sheet music anymore. Your instructor will have suggestions.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:25 AM on August 31, 2015

I recommend a private instructor, especially if you have no music background and aren't super-auto-didactic. Also, a private instructor will be able to make sure you don't give yourself an RSI and will correct bad habits as they pop up.

Seconding the necessity of daily practice.

Universities and music stores - whether from the people that study or work there or from their listings - will have some leads for teachers. When choosing a teacher, ask for their musical background (teachers who have studied pedagogy often have more methods and clearer curricula versus teachers who have been purely performance-oriented), and more importantly, test out a few to see which one you feel fits you best.

When you first meet with your teacher, be sure to discuss goals. Are you aiming to be just good enough to play Christmas tunes? Do you want to learn how to play classical, pop, jazz? Do you want to focus on improvisation? Do you want a solid theory grounding to back up your playing? Do you want to do everything? Or do you want to just start and see where it takes you? A good teacher will be able to help you figure out what direction you want to go in.

I pay $40/hour for my lessons, but prices vary a lot. You can sometimes get lessons in half-hour increments but that depends on how rapidly you want to advance and on the teacher's style.

Do not buy a piano until you are very good at playing it and confident you can pick out one that fits your needs and style. In the meantime, many music stores have rent-to-buy programs (where the money you put toward renting counts toward a possible future purchase). Keyboards: Get an 88-key one with weighted keys (there are different types of weighted keys. The quality depends on how much you want to spend).
posted by rebooter at 12:37 PM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'd definitely start with a keyboard, not an actual acoustic piano. Although you can get a free piano on Craigslist, you have to move it, tune it, and deal with it, and it's probably crap when all's said and done. The rent-to-own option rebooter mentioned is good, aside from your still having to pay for piano movers. It's up to you if you want to get a good keyboard now, or merely an adequate one. Keyboards are also great when you're feeling self-conscious about practicing - the neighbors aren't listening, you're not bothering anybody, your roommate isn't going to make encouraging comments that make you very self-conscious, because you're wearing your headphones and banging away where nobody can hear you at all.

If you're super-broke, 12 monthly lessons is probably more useful than 3 months of weekly lessons. That only holds true if you really practice regularly in between, though. The benefit of weekly lessons is that you have a panic every Wednesday night, "OMG my Thursday lesson is tomorrow, I've got to go over the stuff from last week!" and you sit down to cram for 20 minutes, start having a good time, and keep playing for 45. And then you come home Thursday and fart around with what you just learned, so that's already twice a week that you're forced into practicing, as well as what you remind yourself to do the rest of the time. If you're more self-motivated, the benefit of monthly lessons is that you're not paying someone to listen to you practice, you're doing a lot of work on your own and coming in for check-ups and guidance.
posted by aimedwander at 12:51 PM on August 31, 2015

Keep the instrument accessible- don't cover it, leave it plugged in, with heaphones and stuff out in the open, so that all you have to do it sit and play. Fewer barriers to practice = more practice. The advice to play for 5 minutes and keep playing that day if it's engrossing, but stop for the day if it's not, is great advice.

I loved my real mechanical metronome more than any electronic one. I found it so fun to use. Just a data point. Might be able to find one pretty cheap on Craigslist.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:11 PM on August 31, 2015

Are you musically inclined already - can you play other instruments, read music, etc? If not, I'd highly recommend getting an instructor. I play piano a bit, and I learned both through lesson books, and also intermittently from an instructor. I'm not the best, but that's mostly because I don't practice every day. Also - what your goals are is important. Do you want to just be able to play tunes at your house for your friends, or do you want to get excellent enough to perform, etc? The more "expert" you want to get, the more you need professional input early on, in my opinion.

Regarding getting or renting a piano - I think you definitely should not buy an upright piano at this time. Those are a pain in the ass to maintain, tune, move, etc. If you buy anything, go for a keyboard to start. You can always upgrade later. Also, depending on where you live, you may be able to use another facility's pianos to practice. For example, when I was in college, the music building had a lot of practice rooms, and they let the public use them at times when they weren't booked for the students. If you can find something like that near you, and try to go there every day, you won't need to buy anything.

Regarding costs for lessons - they can be very pricey. I've seen them range wildly, from like $50/hour to hundreds an hour. It depends on the skill of the person teaching, and also, your location (for example, getting piano lessons in NYC is way more pricey than the central/southern area of NJ).

How to find an instructor - you can try music stores, or local colleges. I've found quality piano and guitar instructors that way. Good luck!
posted by FireFountain at 3:40 PM on August 31, 2015

I taught myself how to play guitar about 7 years ago using a lesson plan on It came down to learning/memorizing notes and chords, practicing so I could switch between chords quickly, and then putting them together into songs. As I watched to learn more challenging techniques, like fingerpicking, that I struggled with figuring out how to do, then I did a few private lessons. In my opinion, you really don't need an instructor to get started. The internet, whether you do YouTube video lessons or just written ones, is enough to at least begin.

Pianos are expensive and not portable, so I'd look into a keyboard. Think about what kind of music you want to make. Like, you could get a synthesizer that mimics a piano if you also want to make some funky dance or electropop or something. A straight-forward keyboard to start is fine though. Consider how many keys the keyboard has and how many octaves it covers. Short little keyboards you can't go as high or as low without electronically jumping up or down to another octave.
posted by AppleTurnover at 5:32 PM on August 31, 2015

Older models of keyboards can be found for decent deals on Craigslist if that's active in your area. Do your research online, and come up with a few models that sound like a fit. You want a full 88 weighted keys, but you don't need all the schmancy soundboards that give you perfect grand reproduction.

Get the right bench! Make sure the height is right, and that your elbows are at the correct angle. This is important. You can use a chair, too, just make sure you aren't slouching against it.

Meet privately for one-on-one lessons. Every week is best, but every-other if money won't allow. Practice every day if you can, even if it's just for 15 minutes. Make sure you get a teacher that will force you to "eat your vegetables." Even if you want to play simple arrangements of pop songs, learn all your scales and do technical exercises. When practicing, do these scales and technical exercises before you go on to anything else. Training your fingers will allow you to progress much faster and further into new repertoire and make you a much, much better player.

Play slowly, do things right. Take hard passages a measure at a time, even half a measure at a time, and then practice the transition out of the hard spot into the next measure.

As a beginner, you will make amazing progress rapidly if you practice. It will be astounding how much you learn and how much you'll be able to play. It will be enormously rewarding, and you will make everyone in your life listen to "Oh Susanna!" like forty times.
posted by missmary6 at 7:34 PM on August 31, 2015

I started lessons a few years ago. I pay $30 for a private 30-minute lesson with a good, experienced teacher in her house. I bought a Yamaha keyboard with weighted keys and a headphone jack for just over $500, including the stand and a cheap (and flimsy) bench. When I was taking lessons -- I'm currently pursuing other hobbies -- I practiced every day, but for only about 15 minutes.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:04 PM on August 31, 2015

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