How I learned to play piano as an adult
Two years ago, my wife surprised me for my birthday with a digital piano. I’d mentioned my desire to learn a few times and, ever the muse, she called my bluff.
She was right. At 38 YO, I tumbled rapturously into the world of piano. The honeymoon phase is over, and yet I remain motivated to play every day and am still loving the journey.
After two years, I can play many pieces I’ve always enjoyed listening to (e.g. Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata 2nd movement, Liszt’s Consolation No. 3, works by Chopin, modern works from Amelie). Plus many others that I can sit down and play from memory!
My sound isn’t pro (shocker!), but dammit, I am having FUN.
You, mega-savvy Traipsing About reader, can do it too!
Adults CAN learn to play piano
I share my achievements not to brag (many pianists young and old far outshine my abilities), but to offer hope to adult learners. If you’re telling yourself, “Oh, I could never learn to play,” let me persuade you otherwise.
My theory: kids are “naturals” at piano because:
- They don’t over-complicate things, focusing on foundational blocks that are small and approachable. (The same thing happens with language.)
- They play because they love it (or have a parent encouraging/requiring it).
- Adults carry the load for them! They’re able to practice more undistracted hours while someone pays the mortgage and cooks for them.
Adults don’t have these luxuries. We want to play songs that are too hard for us, we question if the time investment is worth it, and we simply don’t have as much time to practice.
I’m an adult. (It snuck up on me.) I’m married, run a business with employees, own and maintain a home. I have far too many hobbies. Friends do annoying things like interrupt my piano reverie to invite me on bike rides. *sigh*
And yet by carving out time each day to learn to play piano, in two years I’ve reached a level where it’s deeply satisfying, and beautiful for people to listen to (or so they pretend). A skill I’ll enjoy for a lifetime.
My goal every day is simply to get my hands on piano keys. I don’t obsess about doing all the scales; I just.try.to.play. (Here’s my post about my routine.) I get interrupted by life and sometimes I’m not focused. Of course I miss days (it’s hard to take a piano on a bikepacking trip!).
But usually, I make it happen. And I’m improving, bar by bar, piece by piece, week by week.
How I’ve made progress on the piano as an adult
Three things have led to me feeling successful and sticking with piano for two years:
- Deliberate practice
- Hiring a piano teacher
- Not biting off too-difficult songs
When I started playing piano, I’d do some scales, arpeggios, whatever to warm up. Then straight into repertoire, which consisted of just trying to play something, over and over. I had no plan, just “start at the beginning and wear this down via submission.”
Picture me with a catapult outside a Song Castle. If I lobbed enough rocks at the walls, eventually I could break it down! The problem: I wasn’t being thoughtful about where or when to throw the rocks. Sometimes I attacked Song Castles that were WAY too big for my artillery.
Since then, I’ve learned to use deliberate practice to simplify things and hammer concepts into my brain in smaller chunks. (Yep, learn like a kid!)
I break songs down into their smaller parts (e.g. only working on 2 bars at a time, or breaking an arpeggio into block chords, or an octave into only the root note). I slow songs to 50% to start and only increase the tempo once I can lights-out play it. I might play the same bar 25 times in a row, firehosing it into my brain.
It feels slow in the moment, but I learn songs not just better, but faster, one bar at a time. Deliberate practice builds a stronger structure, brick by brick, versus throwing up a stick built house that blows over in the wind of live performance.
Hiring a teacher
There are SO many resources for online self-paced piano lessons. They’re affordable and easy to use. They help. I use them.
Let me encourage you to also hire a teacher.
Mine, a Brazilian named Antonio, offers me feedback and insight on my playing a video course could never provide. “Hey, what if you shifted your wrist 10 degrees? In most renditions, pros play that piece like ____. Perhaps this fingering for that passage works better for your hand?”
Not only are online lessons more affordable, they offer the benefit of being portable. When I travel in my van, I can bring my keyboard and still take lessons.
My progress accelerated dramatically when I hired Antonio for a weekly lesson. He corrected things I’d never even considered. If every pro had a teacher when they were learning, it’s probably worth it for us amateurs.
Don’t get too big for your britches
Many intro piano songs lacked the complexity I wanted. Right out of the gate, I wanted to play the beautiful songs.
When the Saint’s Come Marching In? Shiiiit. March on OUTTA here: I wanted to play Chopin’s Nocturne in Eb, baby!
The problem: I had zero piano skills. I couldn’t even read music or play a scale!
I was learning how to bungee jump by wingsuit jumping. Less risky on a piano (no bridges to smash into), but certainly a waste of time.
I spent HOURS learning the melody line to the Chopin nocturne…with zeroooo chance I’d be able to actually play it with the left hand added in.
My teacher helped me understand which songs would push me vs. shut me down. Instead of expending hours on a piece I had no chance of playing, I started grabbing achievable pieces. They still took work (I’m looking at you, Consolation No. 3), but I could do it!
Your future self will thank you
Recently a memory from college popped into my brain. I had just test driven my dream car (a Lexus IS300) I had zero chance of affording. The sound system was top-notch, crystal silky magic.
Later, I chatted with a friend about how I couldn’t wait to own a car like that and listen to classical music while I drove.
“Don’t turn into an old man TOO fast,” she cautioned.
Now I’m an almost-old man at the ripe age of 40 and I get to listen to classical music while I drive…but I can also PLAY a bunch of it!
Sure, it took focused work and required shifting time from other activities.
It was worth it. I’ve launched a ship I can sail on for the rest of my life, a journey into a whole new language—nah, WORLD— I hadn’t visited before.
And one of these days in the not-so-distant future, I’m going to take a successful crack at Chopin’s Nocturne in Eb.
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