Why do you want to learn to play the piano? To play pop piano like Lady Gaga? Funk like Stevie Wonder? Boogie woogie like Jools Holland? Beethoven like Vladimir Ashkenazy? Improvise like Keith Jarrett? Jazz like Oscar Peterson or Nina Simone? Rock like Jon Lord or Rik Wakeman? Write like Elton John, Ben Folds, David Bowie, Tori Amos or Norah Jones?
You can certainly learn to play the piano like them.
But the only way you, with your hands, your body and your mind, will ever really learn to play the piano is your way. And I would love to help you find out what that is.
How hard can it be?
In a few weeks or months, I can teach you how to play any song, in any style. I can explain why and how the song works. And I can show you how to use that knowledge to start writing or improvising your own music.
There are just 12 notes on the piano keyboard and (usually) only 16 places in a bar you can play those notes. How hard can it be? If you’re talking about pop and rock songs, it can be very easy indeed. (Jazz and classical are much more complicated and will take you years or lifetimes to master.)
Here’s a video that shows you how most pop songs only use just a few chords – often, the same ones.
When I’m playing at a wedding or party, a young child will sometimes come over and see what I’m doing. They will see 88 keys and pieces of paper with letters and symbols that don’t make any sense. Argh!
So I point out that, actually, there are only seven white notes and five black notes. A pattern that repeats from one end of the keyboard to the other (see above). Suddenly, it’s not so overwhelming.
Then I tell them they can make music using just the black notes. So they only have five notes to worry about. I get them to play any two black notes with one hand and any two with the other. And I assure them they can’t go wrong. It all sounds great.
One lesson and they’re away, making their own music. They can now play the piano! And they’ve started a relationship with the piano that will last the rest of their lives.
Three ways to learn songs on the piano
You can learn to play the piano by ear, by eye, or by learning to read music. I think it makes sense to develop all three skills.
Traditionally, you start the hard way – by learning to read music. This can take ages, be very boring, and can end up causing a problem you don’t want… There are Grade 8 pianists (that’s a very high level of ability) who can only play when there is music in front of them. Notes on a stave. They can’t even follow chord charts (see the image of “Blackbird”, above). Even though they can play all the scales and arpeggios, they can’t just sit down and play.
Can they really play the piano? Or are they “just” very good at reading music written by other people?
Although I can read music – and it can be the quickest way to learn some things – I don’t teach my beginning students this. Because I want them to be playing the songs they love straight away – not in six years’ time.
How to really learn a song on the piano (all levels)
If you want me to be your piano teacher, I will ask you what song you want to learn. It doesn’t matter how difficult it is, we will work with it and the song will teach us how to play it.
The first thing I will do (if I don’t already know it) is learn the song myself. The method I use, and which I will teach you, goes like this:
- Learn the melody in the right hand (the theme or vocal part) by playing along to the song on YouTube. (This will tell us what key the song is in, and we can look at the scale for that key later.) YouTube has a great function where you can play videos at slower speeds. This gives you more time to work out the tune. To play the melody smoothly, we have to decide which fingers to use so we don’t strain our hands. (This is one reason it’s good to have a teacher.)
- While learning the melody, we start to notice the bass part. So we learn that next, in the left hand. (New pianists will find their first real challenge here, playing something different with each hand, often not at the same time. Together, we will break it down as much as we need to, until we can really play it.)
- With the melody and the bass, we can be pretty sure what the chords are, and we know the song structure (eg, Verse, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Middle 8, Chorus, Chorus). We check a couple of websites to see if we’re right (UltimateGuitar is pretty good). Then we choose other notes to play in the right hand, to make the song more interesting. Depending on the size of your hands and how strong they are, we will find a way of playing the song that works for you and sounds the same – or even better – than the original.
- We write down the chords, as a reminder to us and for other musicians who want to play along with us.
- Then we start thinking about the next song to learn.
Playing with other people
Using the above method, we learn the song completely. So we can play solo, or with other musicians. (This is what I do when I play weddings – alone, in a duo, and in a band.) We might find that we play the song in several different ways, depending on who we’re playing with.
- If we play with a bass player, we leave that part to them, and play the melody with the right hand and the chords with the left hand.
- With a singer, we leave the melody to them and play the bass with the left hand and chords with the right. (If we play a solo, we just play the melody as we learnt it, with some variations that work using other notes from the same scale.)
- When there’s a full band, we can play the part as written on the original recording, or play it in a way that is more interesting. There’s a good chance we know the song better that the original keyboard player, who may have had only a few minutes to learn the song (if they were a session musician), where you’ve had as long as you like!
Important things you learn from me
I play a lot of songs, in a lot of styles – rock, pop, blues, classical, funk and all that jazz. (I’m currently working on boogie woogie, because I have a gap in my knowledge. Latin is also on my list of things to learn. And I want to brush up on my bossa and look at a tumbao.)
The advantage of having me as a teacher is that I can show you what these different styles have in common. I get very excited, for example, when I notice that a piece of Bach is, essentially, a blues. I can show you chords and tricks that have taken me decades to discover, so you can add them at the beginning of your piano-playing life.
I explain the importance of using the correct fingers, using the weight of your arm so you don’t suffer from fatigue, and help you see that, actually, your body plays the music while your mind needs to stay out of the way. (This, for more advanced players.)
Overcoming laziness and surpassing your teacher
Where I see you are being lazy – for example, not using your left hand enough – I can steer you towards songs that will help in interesting ways. Like working on the funky bass line in “I wish” (see video below) or looking at stride piano.
With my method, you will quickly learn how to teach yourself piano. You might even drop out after a short while and teach yourself. That’s the point. I’m teaching you how to learn on your own.
Teaching yourself through YouTube
On YouTube, you will find loads of excellent teachers and videos to work with. Sometimes, annoyingly, you will find videos with the wrong chords, or the right chords in the wrong key (I’ll explain what that means when we get to that point). And sometimes there won’t be a video of the song you want to learn. In which case, you can come back to me – or use the skills I taught you to learn on your own. It’s all good.
Here are a few of the teachers I turn to when I want to learn something. No doubt you’ll find your own.
Taking it to the next level
As humans, we are creative beings, and there may come a time where you want to take your musical knowledge in a new direction.
You could, as Hozier apparently did, go to a quiet part of the house and write some astonishing, fresh songs. (Remember – using the same 12 notes as everyone else.) Or, if you’re not a songwriter, you could take songs that have already been written and find a new and interesting way of playing them.
Here’s a great idea from Chase Holfender, where he takes a song written in a major key and arranges it in a minor key.
A few years ago, I had the idea of taking hard rock songs and playing them in the style of lounge jazz. A friend mentioned Richard Cheese had done that. Here’s an example.
I also came across the channel for vkgoeswild – a classically trained pianist who does brilliant covers of well-known rock songs for solo piano. Like this:
I also discovered Postmodern Jukebox before it became absolutely massive. Here’s one of my favourites, but all the videos are good.
With the Covid-19 lockdown, I finally started looking seriously at my idea. The first track I tackled is “Smoke on the water” and this is where I am with it so far. I hope it amuses you as much as it does me.
Don’t do this
This is how I used to learn songs:
- Find a YouTube tutorial that shows how to play the song.
- Check the chords, usually on UltimateGuitar and/or iReal Pro.
- Write a chord chart in pencil and play along.
- Put your chord chart in a book, go out and play the song.
What’s wrong with this? You don’t know the melody. You don’t know the bass part. The chords might not be right. If you lost the book, you’d be lost. You haven’t really learnt the song.
Do this instead
This is how I learn songs now:
- Listen to the song several times.
- Learn the melody in the right hand.
- Learn the bass part in the left hand.
- Check the chords on UltimateGuitar and YouTube. You will notice very few people have got the real chords right. Use your ear to make sure.
- Write a chord chart for your book. By hand or in iReal Pro. You know the song so well, you may not need it. But other musicians can use it to play with you.
And if you want to be really professional – learn the song in every key. I haven’t done this and I may never do this. But I can see the benefits.
Want to learn to play the piano with me?
To ask about availability and to book piano lessons online, contact me today. Lessons are currently €15 for 30 minutes.
I have my phone in a clamp attached to a mic stand, which is stuff I already had around. (The clamp was for an iPad mini, the mic stand I already had, and the thing that goes into the mic clip came with an mp3 recorder I bought last year.) I’m sure you can work something out with what you have…
When you’re ready, let’s rock! Or funk! Or pop! Or jazz! Or boogie woogie! Or something you haven’t invented yet!
If you’ve found the information on this page useful in any way, please tip the next musician you hear playing live. Thanks in advance…