How To Teach Yourself Piano – Becoming A Self-Taught Pianist
If you want to teach yourself to play the piano, you’re not alone – new people are taking up the piano every day, and many are deciding to go it alone. This article looks at the different ways of teaching yourself to play, and what you need to do get started. It’s on the long side, but I’ve tried to break it up so it’s easy to read.
I suggest reading this article first: Should You Teach Yourself To Play The Piano? – because self-teaching isn’t the best option for everyone. Then if you decide you definitely want to teach yourself, come back to this page to learn how to proceed. This post is in two parts: the first section looks at four popular and effective types of piano instruction you can use to teach yourself to play, and the second part outlines the main steps involved in becoming a successful self-taught pianist.
Piano courses come in four general formats: tutor books, piano DVDs, online piano lessons and piano lesson software. These all have their pros and cons, so you’ll need to think a bit about how you learn (e.g. do you like to read, or watch videos? Would you prefer the interactivity of software?), as well as your budget (some options are more expensive than others, although all are cheaper than regular in-person lessons).
The traditional – and still popular – way of learning piano is to follow a tutor book. Most tutor books assume you’ll be taking lessons with a teacher, but you can still follow them alone. There are also some books that are designed especially for those who are teaching themselves to play.
The Piano Handbook, available
Piano lesson books generally assume no previous knowledge, and cover everything you need to know – how to sit and hold your hands, how to read music, piano notes and chords, exercises etc. – in sequence. They have written instructions supplemented with photos and/or illustrations. Modern books often come with a CD too, so you can hear how the music and exercises should be played – this is invaluable if you’re teaching yourself, since you won’t have a teacher there to demonstrate for you.
The advantages of piano method books is that they’re cheap, widely available, and there are plenty to choose from. They’re usually professionally written and produced, so you can be confident that you’re getting good quality information. It’s also easy to find your way around the book, and refer back to previous sections if you need to. Most books contain familiar melodies – folk songs, carols etc. – these may not be especially interesting musically, but learning tunes you already know makes the process a bit easier in the very early stages.
Piano tutor books do have their downsides, however. The main one is that they’re static – you have to rely on written descriptions and images to figure out how you should be doing things, which isn’t usually as clear as having someone actually show you. Some people also find the somewhat limited musical range of many beginner piano books boring – although more modern books often have a wider variety of musical styles.
5 Popular Piano Method Books
1. Alfred’s Self-Teaching Adult Piano Course
2. Adult All-In-One Course: Level 1
3. John Thompson’s Easiest Piano Course Complete
4. The Piano Handbook: A Complete Guide for Mastering Piano
5. Piano For Dummies
Piano teaching DVDs are another popular option. These give you the advantage of video instruction – not only can you hear how the music should sound, but you can see how you should be playing it too. This is especially useful for self-taught pianists, as it’s so important to learn the correct posture and hand positions.
Learn and Master Piano, top quality
piano training DVDs
There’s a lot of variety in piano video lessons – you can get DVDs which just focus on a particular aspect of piano playing, but as a beginner, it’s best to look for a complete piano DVD course. These will usually contain several DVDs, and often an instruction book too. Learn and Master Piano is a very popular example of this type.
DVDs are good as you don’t need internet access to use them, and you can easily watch on your TV as well as on the computer. Like the other self-teaching options, they’re much cheaper than private lessons. However, they can be a bit awkward to navigate sometimes – it’s not quite as quick to refer back to specific sections as it is with a book.
If you go with this option, look for a top quality DVD course that offers both professional instruction and good production values (so the material is clear and easy to follow, with good sound and image quality).
4 Popular Piano Lesson DVDs & DVD Courses:
You can find just about everything online these days, and piano lessons are no exception. In fact, internet piano lessons are becoming more popular all the time, with new lesson sites popping up quite regularly. Some of these have a lot to offer; others, not so much, so if you want to teach yourself piano online, it’s important to look for quality.
With a good online course, you’ll normally get a combination of video and written instruction (generally in PDF form), as well as audio tracks to demonstrate the music, and often jam tracks that give you the chance to play as part of a group. Many courses also have interactive software which can help you learn various skills such as reading music, aural training etc.
Rocket Piano, available for
Most online courses are aimed at beginners, but some include relatively advanced material as well, making them good for intermediate players who want to improve their skills. Some courses focus on particular types of music, so make sure you get one that teaches what want to learn. As a beginner though, it’s best to look for a generic course that teaches you the fundamental skills you’ll need to play most genres, and gives musical examples from different styles, so you get a broad grounding to start off with – you can specialise later. Rocket Piano is a good example of this type.
Some online piano courses are downloadable, so you can use them offline, whereas others require you to log in to a membership area to access the material. Good quality, reputable courses will generally offer a free trial, or will provide some lessons for free, so you can sample the course before buying – this is a great way to find out if you like their teaching style or not.
Internet piano lessons are generally more expensive than tutor books, although still much cheaper than private lessons (you can also find some free piano lessons online – though these are generally less comprehensive and well-structured than a professionally produced course).
5. Online Piano Lesson Courses
1. Rocket Piano (I’ve got this one – it’s not perfect, but I like many aspects of it, especially for the low price – sign up for the free lessons, and see what you think)
2. Piano For All
3. Instrument Master
4. Piano Coach Pro
5. Play Piano Tonight
eMedia Piano & Keyboard Method,
available from Amazon
A fourth option is to learn with the help of piano lesson software. Now, some online courses such as Rocket Piano offer software as part of the course, so there’s sometimes a bit of an overlap with the online piano lesson category, but you can also get courses that are entirely software-based. These are interactive, and can be a great way to get fully engaged as you’re learning, and they often give you feedback on your performance too. Most piano software costs less than $100, so it’s also a cost-effective alternative to private lessons.
6 Popular Piano Software Packages
Making Your Choice
Which of these four formats offers the best method of teaching yourself piano? This is impossible to say really, since everyone has different preferences. Personally, I think online courses are the most enjoyable and effective, since they give you the written instruction you get from books, as well as the video lessons you get from DVDs (as well as audio files and often software too). This kind of multi-media approach can make learning more fun and interesting, as well as more effective. The quality of online lessons can be a lot more variable than books, software and DVDs though, so you must make sure you go with a reputable site if you choose this option.
If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the choices, I suggest at least checking out Learn and Master Piano (DVD set with book & CDs) or Rocket Piano (downloadable) – both are very popular and reputable products that have helped a lot of people to teach themselves piano.
So now you know about the different types of piano teaching material that are available. Once you’ve made your choice, you need to start using it as part of a structured piano learning regime. Here are the basic steps that you may want to follow, as your skills improve.
1. Get a decent piano or keyboard
It’s important to learn on a decent quality instrument, otherwise it’ll just sound horrible and you’ll become discouraged. Learning to play piano should be fun after all! Pianos aren’t the cheapest instruments around, but you don’t have to spend enormous amounts to get a decent entry-level acoustic piano, especially if you get one second-hand. If buying an acoustic piano, it’s best to have a piano technician look the instrument over first – especially if it’s second hand or a freebie. Many used pianos will need some minor work (as well as tuning) – this is normal, but you don’t want to get stuck with an instrument that needs a lot of money spending on it to make it playable.
An alternative is to go with a digital piano or electronic keyboard. You tend to get what you pay for here, especially if you’re looking for a digital piano that mimics the sound and feel of an acoustic, so get the best you can afford.
Another option is to rent a piano – both acoustic and digital pianos can be rented from local music stores or online suppliers, and are a great solution if you’re on a tight budget, want to try different types/models, or aren’t yet sure if the piano is for you.
2. Get A Good Piano Lessons Course
We looked at the main types of piano lessons you’ll be choosing from earlier in this article. Whether you prefer to use a book, DVD, software or online course, it’s important to choose one that covers all the skills you’ll need to learn, and stick with it.
Some people try to learn by just picking up some chords or melodies by ear, and finding bits and pieces of information from different sources. While learning by ear is great, taking this piecemeal approach isn’t a very effective or efficient way to learn piano, as you waste a lot of time, and also miss out on many of the technical and musical skills you need. It’s much better to follow a structured lesson plan when you’re starting out – you can still take in extra info from other sources, but it’ll make more sense when you have a solid foundation of core piano skills in place.
A good piano lesson course will cover general musical skills like improvisation, playing by ear and aural training, as well as learning piano notes, traditional notation, scales, musical expression, etc, and most also cover different musical styles.
3. Establish A Regular, Effective Piano Practice Routine
Once you’ve got your piano (or keyboard), and your piano course lined up, it’s time to start learning. You should follow the instructions in the course as closely as possible – it’s best to learn ‘the rules’ thoroughly at this stage – you can always break them later on! And to progress through your piano course, you’ll need to practice regularly.
This means setting some time aside to practice every day. It’s ok to take a break occasionally (especially if you have any discomfort in your hands or arms), but days off should be the exception not the rule. Start with about 20-30 minutes daily, and build up if you want to, as you get more used to playing. Don’t fall into the trap of playing for hours at the weekend and neglecting the piano during the week!
Practice should also be mindful – really pay attention to the sounds you’re making, and maintain correct form at all times (recording your playing can help here too). Play as well as you can at all times, and don’t just go through the motions, or you’ll end up ingraining your mistakes. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes though.
Your lessons will dictate what you practice, but a good practice session will normally cover not only musical pieces, but scales, arpeggios and other technical exercises, as well as other skills like aural work, sight reading and improvisation. In the early days you’ll spend time learning to read music if you don’t already, but once you’ve done that and have learned to find your way around on the keyboard and become more advanced, you’ll probably give more attention to the finer details of playing the piano – phrasing, articulation etc. Remember to spend some of the session practicing with a metronome too – it’s the best way to develop solid rhythm skills and avoid sloppy playing.
4. Adopt The Right Mindset
Attitude is a crucial part of learning any instrument. This could be a huge post in itself, but basically you need to be very self-motivated to teach yourself piano playing. You’ll be full of enthusiasm to start with, but most people find that this fades a bit after a while, and there’ll be days when you just don’t feel like practicing. Are you self-disciplined enough to do it anyway? (Personally, I find that once I get going on days like this, I start to enjoy it and want to keep going – but getting started can be tough. It’s easier when you’ve got a regular routine going though, like brushing your teeth.)
You also need to be optimistic and keep yourself focused on where you want to go with the piano. This optimism is vital when you run into difficulties, and start to feel like you’ll never get anywhere. The piano can be a tough instrument, and you have to be able to keep going through the plateaus, where it feels like you’re not making much progress.
It helps to approach your piano playing in a spirit of fun too – you’re ‘playing’ the piano after all, not ‘working’ it. There will probably be some aspects of learning piano that you find boring or difficult (such as scales, for many people), but it’s important to find ways to make these more enjoyable, as well as to have some music or other things to practice that you naturally love playing. The most successful pianists are those who simply love to play, so if the piano starts to feel like a chore, it’s time to re-examine why you’re learning in the first place, and look for ways to make it more enjoyable. Don’t worry about making mistakes either – they’ll happen, so strive to improve your accuracy, but avoid being a perfectionist who beats yourself up for every wrong note.
Keep a sense of perspective too, especially if you find yourself feeling impatient. Mastering the piano is a lifetime’s work – many people want to learn to play piano fast, but while you can learn to sound quite decent fairly quickly, developing true skill takes much longer – and no matter how good you get there will always be areas where you can improve. Accept this, and enjoy the journey, rather than being in a huge rush to get to the destination.
5. Expand Your Knowledge With Other Sources
If you just want to play the piano at a basic level, so you can play your favourite songs etc., that’s fine – a decent beginner’s piano course will usually teach you what you need to know, and then you just need to practice enough to keep your skill level up. But most people will probably want to continue to improve on the piano, perhaps even to professional level – if that’s you, there’s a long journey ahead, but a very rewarding one!
When you’re first starting the piano, I recommend sticking purely with the course you’re using. This should contain a good mix of music, exercises, scales etc. Trying to take in information from elsewhere could lead to info overload at this stage. But once you’ve completed your initial training and got a good array of basic piano skills under your belt, it’s a good idea to look around for other sources of information, in the form of books, DVDs, online material, piano magazines etc. This might mean moving on to a more advanced course, exploring other musical styles, or getting hold of some of the classic piano technique guides such as Hanon, to help develop your finger dexterity.
At the same time, it’s a good idea to regularly listen to piano music played by professional players. If you’re studying a particular piece, try to get hold of a few different recordings of that piece, and study the differences in interpretation – this will help inform your own playing, as well as developing your ear skills. You might want to pick up some books on musical interpretation, or advanced practice and study techniques.
Keep practicing your core musical skills such as playing by ear, improvisation, sight reading etc as well – this work should be ongoing, as there’ll always be room for improvement.
Another tip is to explore some of the many piano forums online – these can be a good source of advice and support, which can be invaluable when you’re learning alone. Just don’t spend so much time reading forums that you neglect your playing.
Also, be aware that some people may reach a point where they start to feel stuck and could really use some input from a piano teacher – if you get to that stage, it’s worth seeking help if you want to continue to develop as a pianist, because in some cases, self-teaching will only take you so far.
6. Play With Others
The piano is generally seen as a solitary instrument, and most people focus on solo piano music, but you can really benefit from ensemble playing too. So if you have the opportunity to accompany others, or play in any kind of group that requires a piano, take it! This doesn’t have to be a formal thing – if you have friends who play instruments, try getting together for a jam session now and them. This works especially well if you’re all at a similar ability level.
You might also be interested in piano masterclasses, where many students come together in a group to study some aspect of piano playing with a teacher, or give a recital and get feedback from the group on their performance. Although traditionally the preserve of advanced students, masterclasses exist for pianists of different ability levels. You might also find piano summer schools and other events run by colleges, music schools etc – piano magazines often have information about these (one I like is Pianist Magazine).
If you don’t fancy meeting up with others in person, you can still get a lot of the benefits of ensemble playing by playing along with jam tracks, piano karaoke tracks and the like. Some piano courses such as Learn and Master Piano and Rocket Piano include these as part of the teaching material, so you can get experience of ‘playing in a band’ right from the beginning. There are also lots of tracks available online, in a variety of musical styles. And of course you could play along with your piano music recordings too.
Hopefully you now see what’s involved with teaching yourself the piano. If you’re a beginner, probably the most important thing at this stage is finding a good course of instruction to follow. Just take your time exploring some of the available options – read reviews, try any free sample lessons that may be available, look for one that appeals to your own way of learning, and trust your gut. And once you’ve got a course you like, follow it closely, practice daily, and above all, have fun!