For many beginning musicians, the piano is the first instrument learned. If you ask a professional oboe player, trumpeter, or violinist if they play any other instruments, they will likely tell you the story of how they started out on the piano and then branched out to their main instrument. Why is that? What makes the piano such a good foundation for further musical study?
One of the main reasons for its ubiquitous nature is that the piano provides everything to the musician in an easily understandable, sequential order. When the 5-year old, who is just beginning to show interest in music by humming their favorite tunes or banging out rhythms on pots and pans, is brought to their first piano lesson, they are shown a keyboard that is arrayed from left to right in alphabetical order. There are no frets to consider, no valves to learn. This doesn’t mean the young child can’t learn the right combination of motor skills to achieve the note they want using different frets or valves- the piano just eliminates one of the steps in creating that sound.
In one sense, the piano is also a very easy instrument to play. If you press your finger down on a key, it immediately sounds like a piano. The same is not necessarily true if you picked up a violin or a flute for the first time and tried to produce a sound. Once again, this doesn’t mean that the beginning student can’t learn how to navigate their new instrument- the piano just eliminates the potential frustration of not being able to instantly create a pleasing, recognizable tone.
Another good reason to begin your musical career at the piano is that it helps solidify your understanding of musical structure. The pianist routinely plays both melody and harmony- it is a chordal instrument, allowing the music student to become acquainted with musical progressions in a way that a single line instrument might not emphasize.
The piano might not be your instrument of choice, but it certainly provides a well-rounded foundation from which to begin any course of musical study.
An electronic keyboard is often the perfect choice for a beginning piano student. Compared with upright or grand pianos, keyboards are more affordable, take up less space, and have technology applications that are appealing to students of all ages. Below are tips for purchasing a keyboard provided by music educator and pianist Theresa Gigante:
A keyboard that has weighted keys mimics the feel of a real piano and allows students to play loud or soft based on the amount of force they put onto the keys.
An 88 key full-size keyboard is the best; however, it is completely acceptable for a beginning student to use a keyboard with around 66 keys.
The ideal setup for a keyboard is to have a proper stand, music rack and seat for the student. Having this arrangement will foster correct technique and facilitate practice at home.
A sustain pedal can often be purchased as an optional accessory for an electronic keyboard. Having the sustain pedal will enhance the sound of the student’s playing, even at the beginning level.
Musicians of all instruments will often say that their first experience with musical education was taking piano lessons as a child. What are some of the reasons that the piano is such a popular instrument for beginning students to learn?
It’s easy to start playing right away. Any student at any age can push a key on the piano and the note will sound. Other instruments require more complicated finger, arm, or breathing patterns to make a sound. Since the piano is easier to physically play, beginning students of piano will learn the fundamentals of music at a quicker pace than other instruments.
It’s a fulfilling instrument for beginning students to learn. Because you can play more than one note on the piano, the music that a student will practice on piano is satisfying even at the beginning level. In addition, many pop and rock songs can be played on the piano.
Musical concepts are visually apparent on a piano. The majority of fundamental concepts of music theory such half steps, scales, and chords are much easier understood on a piano than any other instrument.
Piano students can successfully transition to any other instrument. Music students who begin their studies on piano can transition to any other musical instrument that they would like to learn. Since piano students will have learned how to read music in both bass clef and treble clef, the fundamentals of rhythm, as well as many other music basics, the transition will be smooth to learning the new instrument.
Piano students often have a curiosity about the three pedals that pianos have. What do these foot pedals on a piano do?
The right pedal is the most commonly used pedal by any type of pianist. It is often referred to as the damper or sustain pedal. Unless otherwise indicated in the music, this is the pedal that is expected to be used while playing. When the right pedal is pushed down, it prevents the dampers inside the piano from falling on the strings. The result is that any key(s) played will continue to sound while this pedal is being used; when the pedal is lifted, the dampers fall on the strings and the sound will stop. Pianists use this pedal for a variety of reasons including the ability to play several keys at once, connecting sound which would be difficult to do with just their fingers.
The left pedal is often called the soft pedal or una corda pedal. This is the second most used pedal on the piano; some upright pianos and electric keyboards come with just these two most commonly used pedals. The left pedal is used to get an overall softer volume on the piano. Normally, when a key is pushed on the piano, the hammer strikes three strings all for the same note. The left pedal shifts the hammers so that when the key is played, the hammer only strikes one of the strings (una corda) and the volume is softened.
The middle pedal, commonly called the sostenuto pedal, is most challenging of the three pedals. For grand pianos and electronic keyboards, the middle pedal is somewhat similar to the right pedal. The pianist chooses which keys to sustain by pressing the keys and then pressing the middle pedal. The chosen keys will continue to sound, while all other keys on the piano will continue to play as normal. Because the middle pedal is rarely used, many upright pianos have a different type of middle pedal. For these pianos, the pedal acts as a ‘practice pedal’. Pushing this pedal will greatly deaden the sound so that a student can practice very quietly and not disturb others in the room.
If your electric keyboard does not come with a pedal, you can often purchase an attachment that will plug into the back of your keyboard. The pedal attachment will function exactly like the right pedal on the piano. The advantage of having this pedal for your keyboard is that you will get to explore different sounds on the keyboard and get practice with the most commonly used pedal of the piano.
Below are four tips to vary your music practice routine and stay energized in your playing.
Mix up your practice routine. If you are studying multiple songs, you can vary the order that you play the songs. On one day, you could play each song for a set amount of time before moving to the next. At the next practice session, you can play each of your songs once or twice in a row and then repeat the whole set.
Avoid always playing from start to finish. On certain days, you can focus on just practicing the more difficult sections of a song. Then, at the next practice session try playing all the way through.
Listen to your songs. Look for different performances, recordings or live versions of the songs that you are learning. This can renew your inspiration to work on the song or come up with some new ideas of how to play a certain section.
Remember that you don’t have to play to be practicing. There are many other music activities that you can add to your practice routine that will benefit your playing. If you are learning to read music, you can practice sight reading and note names. You can also focus on just the rhythmic aspect of your songs by clapping or drumming.
For many beginning students, practicing scales may seem like the least interesting part of their practice routine. However, as professional musicians of all genres and instruments know, a proficiency in the relevant scales can carry your musicianship to the advanced level.
Music is based on a scale, which is a set of notes in a predetermined order. The scale that music is based on varies depending on the genre, but the scale will determine the set of notes and patterns to be played in the song. The scale can be used to compose a melody, to improvise a solo, and to accompany other musicians.
Practicing scale patterns on instruments helps students gain the muscle memory necessary for each scale. Gaining this proficiency with scales can take a number of years, depending on the instrument. The reward for doing so is well worth the effort: a student who becomes familiar with different scales will have an easier time improvising music in any desired genre of music like jazz, rock, pop, and even classical.
The quality and consistency of practicing is more important than the length of time practicing. For beginners, just a few minutes a day is all that is needed. The key is having a practice routine that you and your child stick to over the long term. Below are a few tips for effective quality practicing:
Repetition is important in learning any skill, but it can be boring. An easy fix is to have fun and creative games for practicing your songs and exercises at home.
Start small – Music is better learned in smaller sections rather than playing the whole song over and over. Identify the most challenging parts and play through them until you are comfortable with them.
Most children don’t like playing the difficult parts and often end up skipping over them. You can help by asking them to stop and find the tricky part. You can even guide them to find a way to fix it.
Sometimes learning a song will be difficult and it takes time. Praise and encourage your child daily for their efforts. Allow them to take a break or play another song if it is too frustrating.
Include time for your child to play songs that they know well and enjoy. Improvisation and composition of new songs can also be included. Listening to music that your child enjoys, looking things up on the computer, or watching a music DVD of any genre all count towards your child’s at-home learning.
There is so much that can be said about practicing a musical instrument. Practice at home is the key to turning weekly music lessons into a lasting ability to play an instrument. The role of the parent is especially important with young beginners.
For children ages 4-6, the music teacher will need your help to guide your child in practicing at home. Make sure that you understand everything that is taught during the lesson, what your teacher expects to be done at home, and how you can be involved. Essentially, you will be learning music alongside your child.
For beginners age 7+, you may not need to be as involved in every part of practicing. We still recommend that you set a routine for practicing, ask your child what they are learning, and listen to and praise what they do. After 1-2 years of music instruction, your child will be more able and willing to practice on their own.