Re-learning piano as a grown-up
August 2, 2017 11:34 AM   Subscribe

I took piano lessons as a kid. I'm pretty sure I can still read music. I'd like to learn to play again, with an eye toward being able to play simple accompaniments and jam with people who can play guitar and ukulele, even if I'm just playing the bass line. Here's the question:

1) What should I buy to play on? I'm looking at various midi controllers and cheap keyboards. Is a little 25-key thing enough? Should I buy something with speakers in it, or just something with outputs?

2) What skills should I be focusing on learning? I'm currently thinking that I should re-learn my various scales, and then simple blues progressions in a few common keys.
posted by 4th number to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I can't really answer #2, but on #1...

If you get a keyboard and you're used to playing on an actual piano, you will want to get a keyboard with weighted keys, which has a different sound depending on how hard you press the keys. Some keyboards, the note is going to sound the same no matter whether you press softly or hammer down, so keep that in mind. A little 25-key keyboard is also not going to give you all of the octaves of a regular full-sized piano and keyboard. That might not matter to you, especially as you are starting to get back into it, but worth keeping in mind.

I don't thing we can necessarily answer some of these questions for you, particularly without knowing your budget or your goals. But I have a synth with just outputs and I typically play it with headphones, but I have also ran it through my computer for recording. I imagine most keyboards with speakers will also have ports to output sound through headphones or your computer, but you'll have to make sure.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:41 AM on August 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you want to jam with people, I think you should learn to read chords instead of just sheet music.
posted by dilaudid at 11:42 AM on August 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

What should I buy to play on?
Really depends on your tastes and wants. What's your budget? If you tell us that you may get better answers. You can spend $50 or $3k. In the long run, a nice controller and some apps are way more versatile and cost way less. Some downsides to that are 1) you'll never get real hammer-action feel, or even close. 2) you have to boot up something a muck around with it, you can't just pick up and play 3) the software will likely need to buy new software down the road as your licenses and devices wear out.

On the other hand, hardware digital pianos and synthesizers are much more expensive but they 1) feel more like a real instrument 2) should last for decades if well cared for 3) can get pretty good real piano feel with models that use little hammers to hit little switches, if you wan that.

Is a little 25-key thing enough?
No. Not if it's your only thing. OTOH a little midi controller and an ios device is a great second keyboard/synth. Then you can stack them up and play like an organist and do multi-timbral stuff.

I'd think you need at least 49 keys to be happy playing with other people. I like my akai mpk249, it's a tank that can run off usb power, and also be carted around fairly safely, but small enough to fit in a small car or worn on your back.

If you already have an iOS device and are not a hard-core purist on key feel, then the no-brainer IMO is to buy Korg Module for a variety of very good sounds (pianos, epianos, clavs, strings, synths), a camera connection kit, and a USB midi controller.

(On preview, weighted keys are NOT necessary to have velocity sensitivity, my $5 Rockband Keytar has velocity sensitivity, most everything does these days)
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:46 AM on August 2, 2017

As for what to learn, check out this book, which will give you a refresher on theory and teach you how to play with others and improvise over lead sheets/fack books.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:49 AM on August 2, 2017

Response by poster: For budget, I'm open to spending about $200, but less is better. Used is fine, not-pro-quality is fine. If the thing I get has no speakers, I suppose I'd need a little mono speaker to output to as well. Weighted keys are certainly not required, though velocity sensitivity is.

My goal is to be able to accompany amateur and amateur+ players of common stringed instruments as they play pop songs of the last 70 years or so. Lead sheets seem like a valuable tool here.
posted by 4th number at 12:10 PM on August 2, 2017

If you want to accompany I think it is worth it to get a full-size keyboard with pedal and weighted keys, truly. You can probably keep an eye on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist and do this and stay within your budget; I see people unloading musical instruments at surprisingly low prices there pretty regularly.
posted by charmedimsure at 12:17 PM on August 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ok, for that price and use, I think you just want keyword "digital piano", bought used on ebay, craigslist, or Anything a few years old at the $150-250 range will sound pretty good. I've heard good reports about that Alesis but I haven't tried one.They will (almost) all have speakers and weighted keys and velocity sensitivity. You can read all of their manuals by googling the full name + manual. I'd personally only want 61 keys for portability reasons, but YMMV.
posted by SaltySalticid at 12:26 PM on August 2, 2017

Definitely go for a full 88 keys. 61 at the bare, bare minimum. Weighted, eh, unless you play on a real piano all the time and need the feel, you can probably skip.

As far as playing, honestly... I never really "got" piano until I started playing guitar and learning lots and lots of songs and seeing how they're put together. You need a small library of chords (I, ii, IV, V, and vi in a few keys -- A, E, G, C, and D, mostly) and you're pretty much good to go for the vast majority of pop music. Learn to bang out a backbeat by playing octaves in the left hand and chords in the right and you can fake almost anything.

(Don't tell anybody, but most keyboards have transpose functions ... while you're learning you could totally get away with playing in C and transposing into other keys.)
posted by uncleozzy at 12:36 PM on August 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

There is no way 25 is enough. I have a 49-key and it's fine for the most part. Weighted is nice but will cost a premium. If you think you might use it as a controller get one with MIDI/USB. Many cheapish keyboards of the Yamaha/Casio flavor have both USB and built-in speakers.

I do what you do - jam on keyboard with other people on a weekly basis. I have an Oxygen 49 running into my iPad and Korg Module for surprisingly good piano sounds.

As far as what to learn? Definitely chords, and yeah if there's a particular style you want to jam in then learn that. I totally wing it on solos and often fuck it up, but who cares really?
posted by O9scar at 3:26 PM on August 2, 2017

Best answer: So I'm doing this now (but from a childhood background in brass).

I have a full digital piano that set me back about $800 Australian so probably half that for you (it's a Casio Celviano AP250 if it matters). I can't really imagine playing on anything smaller, though if you need portability it's useless. For accompaniment you want to be under / supporting the singer / lead instrument so your left hand is starting around bass C and moving up toward middle C.

As for method, I've been using Simply Music, a program developed by Australian Neil Moore. Neil's philosophy is that making somebody learn to read music and understand music theory in order to be able to play the piano is like making a toddler learn to read and understand formal grammar before you'll let them speak. It's better to learn piano the way a toddler learns language - by copying and then stringing together some very basic building blocks, and then varying those larger pieces in turn.

So you start with your right hand - "five fingers over five notes" - and you've learned a song. And then you add your left alternating between a couple of notes while you're on the right and you've got something that's short but sounds great and is confidence building. And then some white key chords slip in, and after just a handful of lessons you're smashing out I - IV - V blues stuff, and some ballads, and a couple of accompaniment standards like Amazing Grace and Danny Boy. And once you've got a repertoire of about forty songs, then you learn to read music.

But even there it's a far cry from the Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit / FACE / minim crotchet quaver stuff of my band camp youth. You learn to look at a piece, intuit where that is on the keyboard by using ten marker notes (the Cs to start with, but then also F and G). And once your hand is in place and you've got a picture of the highest note and the lowest, you don't need to know the names of the notes, only the interval. So it's just 'start, up a third, down a second, up a fourth, down a second, down a second, down a third...'. And these intervals are tied to your fingers, and before you know it you're moving through drills and the alphabet is nowhere near to be seen. It's not even 'treble C' to start anymore - it's 'my hand is here and this finger moves to that one moves to that one and my hand is resetting'... and off you go.

So I guess I can't recommend finding a Simply Music teacher enough, or failing that, just getting the digital downloads and watching the videos. I went from zero piano knowledge to being able to accompany Amazing Grace with some basic but interesting chords (so C to C7, right hand chords on different left hand bases, major to minor to major resolutions) in three half hour lessons, and I've got zero hand eye coordination. Zero. My kids are learning it too and other family members / friends whose kids are learning piano using another method are just consistently blown away by the gap in what my kids can do vs theirs.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:19 PM on August 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

making somebody learn to read music and understand music theory in order to be able to play the piano is like making a toddler learn to read and understand formal grammar before you'll let them speak

YES! My theory is pretty good, certainly not conservatory-level, but good enough (I earn a not-insubstantial part of my living writing music), and I got there largely by learning to play songs and seeing how they fit together. There are obvious patterns in melody and harmony that only become obvious once you've heard and played them a hundred times. Studying scales and modes and all the wankery that many beginning musicians worry about instead of just playing doesn't get you there.
posted by uncleozzy at 4:38 AM on August 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

You might not need a full 88 keyboard, but 61 to 76 keys should be good enough.

And just focus on learning how to read sheet music properly again. I've been playing piano for over 8 years and have never learned about music theory, and tbh, it's no necessary.
posted by infortunity at 6:34 PM on August 10, 2017

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