David Hicken ~ Pianist & Composer

Advice For Pianists

Piano students should mostly study music that was originally written for the piano.  Learning music that was written by pianists for pianists will improve a pianist's skills much more quickly than playing other types of music.

Music that was written for another medium such as a band, a string quartet, an orchestra or even a trio, which was then written out for piano, is known as a transcription.  Transcriptions can be awkward and difficult to play because they incorporate a number of elements that a piano composer might not have included in a piece for piano alone.

Many of today's piano students want to "have fun" during their piano studies, which they (or their parents) believe can be accomplished by playing modern pop songs.  First of all, mastering the piano is not fun.  It never was and never will be, but instead takes work, time and dedication.  Once you get to a certain level, then yes, it can be a LOT of fun, but usually not while learning.  Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's talk about these pop songs.

Many of the songs that you hear on the radio today utilize a bass player, guitarist, vocalist, drummer, keyboard player, possible percussionist and or solo instrument such as saxophone.  The song that you enjoy so much uses each of these instruments in unique ways, and when an arranger transcribes the song for solo piano, a number of decisions have to be made.  There are elements that have to be left out because they simply can't be played with two hands, and yet there are other elements that need to be left in so that the character of the song remains.  The bass line is always very important, but so are some of the rhythmic aspects that the guitar and or drums play.  Merging those rhythms with the necessary chords is not only challenging to write out, but can often be very difficult and uncomfortable to play because they are not 'pianistic'.  In other words, the music requires a way of playing that pianists would not usually do.  Finally, how does one deal with the all-important melody?  Many piano students purchase pop songs only to find that the melody isn't included in the keyboard part, but instead it is in the melody line that is written above.  What then?  The most challenging aspect of modern transcriptions for beginning pianists is the constant use of syncopation.  Students are often just not ready to tackle the types of rhythms that are commonly found in these songs.

Some may argue that the challenges posed in the above examples are good for students.  Others may point out that the song can be learned using the chord symbol approach whereby the left hand plays the chords and the right hand plays the melody.  However, the fact is that many students become frustrated when learning transcriptions and very often do not complete them.  Time spent on a regular piano compositions would have been time better-spent, and would also have given the student a greater sense of confidence.  When a student cannot master the latest pop song, and gives up in the process, it doesn't help his or her self-esteem at all. 

Now I am not saying that a pianist should not play transcriptions.  Maybe your goal is to be able to play through the entire Beatles catalog, in which case, good for you.  However, a traditional and formal approach to learning the piano is the only one that works, so if you want to become a great pianist, learn the right way, and then later you will be able to play anything - including transcriptions.  Playing transcriptions for fun on the side is good, and using them for  sight-reading practice is better still.  However, having them as part of your training with a piano teacher is damaging and a waste of time. 

A good piano teacher will fully understand little "Suzie's" love for the "Little Mermaid" soundtrack, and will probably encourage her to listen to it a lot as well as sing along.  However, a good teacher will not incorporate any of the songs into the regular piano lessons, and this is a tough pill to swallow for many parents as well as students.

Many of the assignments that piano teachers give to their students are not meant to be fun, but are necessary elements in piano training.  Students of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven never asked to learn particular pieces, or to study in a certain way - they didn't dare.  They went to their lessons and did exactly what was asked of them.  Today's students as well as their parents are often having too much of a say in how their lessons are conducted, and unfortunately the younger and more inexperienced teachers go along with it, much to the detriment of the student. 

A good teacher knows exactly what you need as a piano student much better than you do.  This may include exercises that you find boring, theory that you find challenging, as well as music that you simply dislike.  My advice to you is to keep quiet and just do as instructed.  Trust your teacher, and realize that she doesn't want you to learn the latest song by Adele, because although it may entertain you, it won't help you too much as a piano student.

If you have a teacher who hands out multiple photocopies each week and teaches mostly songs (transcriptions), it really is time to find yourself a real teacher.

Happy practicing!

David Hicken

All of the concepts that I write about here are detailed in my eBook "Secrets To Better Piano Playing" .  Click the image below to find out more.