Teaching Yourself to Play the Piano

(Unlike the majority of this website, the following advice is aimed mainly at piano learners, rather than teachers).

I could sum up this article in three words: “Don’t do it!”

I suppose it’s pretty obvious I’d say that: I need to justify my existence … and I need to pay the bills. However, I hope I can be reasonably subjective in putting forward my arguments for having a piano teacher rather than teaching yourself – be it from a book, a cd, an App or a website.

These days, learning to play piano online is becoming increasingly popular and you can even find some (reasonably thorough) free online piano lessons. I would certainly say it’s better to take piano lessons online than not to take them at all and obviously if free piano lessons are your only option then go ahead. Nevertheless, there are certain things which an online piano tutorial can never provide.

Firstly, there’s the feedback and motivation which you receive from another human being … a human being who will treat you as an individual. Books, courses or other non-human ‘teachers’ provide a ‘one size fits all’ way of learning … whereas of course, in reality we are all very different. The advantages of individually-tailored teaching apply to so many things in life – not just to learning an instrument.

I know absolutely nothing about fitness training as it’s never really interested me, but I would imagine working out with the help of a personal trainer is far more beneficial and enjoyable than just reading fitness books and going off to the gym on your own. Having got to know a bit about your personality and current fitness level, a personal trainer might realise, for example, that 20 press-ups a day would be sufficiently challenging for you, while a book or website might recommend 40 – which could put you off even trying – or, worse still, do you more harm than good. A personal trainer might also be able to help motivate you on days when you were feeling tired, lacking confidence or generally ‘low’.

Piano teachers – good ones – try to do the same thing. They listen to your questions and concerns and try to find alternative ways to explain things depending on your preferred way of learning (some pupils, for example, benefit from understanding the theory behind scales and keys whereas others find this too complicated and learn more quickly by memorising patterns).


Teachers sympathise with your problems – whether they’re personal or piano-related – and encourage you to try your best in spite of them. Of course, totally focussed, strong-minded people may feel they don’t need anyone else to ‘push’ them – but those of us (probably the majority) who are either slightly lazy or self-doubting certainly do.

Even those who are able to motivate themselves may not be as successful in learning to play as they think they are. Without a teacher’s guidance, it’s very easy to develop bad habits and although you may have read plenty of advice about hand position, fingering or phrasing, you could be doing something incorrectly without even realising it.

Of course, if you don’t mind the fact that the piece you’re playing doesn’t really flow or that you’ll never achieve the correct speed, that’s fine. However, if you want to learn properly, you really need someone to point out your faults before they become habit-forming.

That is not to say that there isn’t some value in using the ‘teach yourself piano’ material available. In particular, books such as Piano for Dummies are rated very highly on Amazon UK and Amazon US. I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for trying to learn piano using books or the internet to avoid the cost and inconvenience that weekly one-to-one lessons would incur.

In fact, I’ve actually attempted the DIY method of learning an instrument myself, trying to pick up guitar-playing techniques from a book and dvd: sadly I failed. I’ll probably never find out whether individual guitar lessons would make a reasonable guitarist out of me … but I imagine any decent teacher would be able to help me more than I could help myself.

Practise What You Preach

Even those who do learn piano with a teacher will – at some point – abandon lessons and ‘teach themselves’. Personally, I was reluctant to do this as, even after passing my grade 8, I still felt the need for feedback and encouragement. I am also aware that I’m not as disciplined about my practising as I should be and don’t always practise what I preach.

The things which I advise and don’t always do myself include:

1) Always know what key you’re in. (Amazingly, if you ask pupils preparing for higher grade exams – even the best and most confident – many haven’t a clue about the key signature of their pieces).
2) Work on specific bars – don’t just start at the beginning and play the piece through.
3) Take the score away from the piano and analyze it. Look for repetition and sequences.
4) Say accidentals out loud. When playing complex pieces, it’s easy to forget which notes were sharps, flats or naturals at the beginning of the bar by the time you reach the end. Sometimes saying them out loud can help.


Hopefully, I’m getting better at some of these things and, although I didn’t teach myself to play the piano in the first place, I do feel I’m teaching myself to become a better pianist (… but only by following the example set by my own piano teacher!)

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