Unlike K-12 school students, piano students usually spend just one hour per week with their teacher. The time between lessons is spent practicing what has been discussed in the lesson.
We live in a culture that emphasizes external sources of information (and motivation), like teachers and books, for learning just about anything. When learning to play the piano – a process which never really ends – we’ll certainly benefit by relying on teachers, mentors, and sources of authoritative information such as books, recordings and scores. On the other hand, because it is a process which never really ends – unless we quit – then becoming the best self-learner we can be will help us make the quickest possible progress. (Being a self-learner is not the same as being self-taught, which for an instrument like the piano comes fraught with many dangers.)
A self-learning pianist has the ability to solve some musical problems and learn some new material on their own. Obviously, if we don’t become a self-learner, we may be 100% dependent on a teacher forever. The best teachers help us become a more proficient self-learner, rather than leaving us completely reliant on them forever.
What are the most important skills and knowledge areas for the piano student who wants to be a proficient self-learner?
Basic Reading and/or Ear Skills
The two primary ways to learn new music are by reading or by ear. Which one you emphasize – reading or playing by ear – partially depends on the styles you want to play, and the playing level you aspire to. Hobbyists who want to play a variety of styles may be able to get by with reading music only, though there are many reasons to develop a good ear anyway. Piano students with professional aspirations to play contemporary music that hasn’t been notated, or the style or feel of which isn’t easily communicated through notation, must learn to play by ear. This is how the best blues and jazz players learn. The most “compleat” blues and jazz players read too, though!
Related abilities for a proficient self-learning pianist include being able to read and play proficiently in all 12 keys. Obviously, becoming a self-learning pianist is a gradual process, and there is no point at which you can say you’ve arrived and no longer have any need for external guidance whatsoever.
The competent self-learning pianist will have solid rhythm skills. These include a broad knowledge of rhythmic notation and the ability to correctly interpret it. A proficient self-learner will be able to diagnose and correct rhythmic issues such as an unsteady pulse, obvious rhythmic mistakes, etc.
A self-learning pianist needs knowledge about and experience with enough technical issues to apply solutions to technical problems in new repertoire as they arise. Piano technique may be one of the most difficult areas in which to become a proficient self-learner, unless you’ve studied and thoroughly assimilated a comprehensive approach to technique such as the Taubman method (or if you’re simply a natural!).
A related and very important ability is being able to finger a written piece for the best technical and musical results.
The most obvious yet oft-neglected area of focus for self-learners is knowledge of how to practice the piano efficiently and resourcefully. Many teachers – perhaps most – will teach students practice techniques implicitly by having the student practice a piece hands separately in the lesson (as one example). Fewer teachers offer explicit guidance and information about practicing that may be just as useful as implicit instruction.
Such information includes a basic understanding of the way the brain learns to play the piano and how to apply that understanding consistently while practicing.
Yet it’s not enough to know how to practice; the self-learning pianist must also do it. This means consistently applying good practicing techniques, such as playing slowly, practicing only what is necessary, using one’s ear to diagnose technical and interpretative issues, etc.
The five skill sets of reading, ear, rhythm, technique and practicing will help any piano student build a foundation for being a proficient self-learner. The result is less wasted time between lessons and faster progress overall, along with the feeling of confidence that comes with a deeper understanding of how to learn at the piano.