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Stage 4 – practise those new concepts

By now you have a solid understanding of the basics of music. And here is a secret for you. Many musicians don’t know much more than this. The only reason why they are working musicians and not you is because they have more experience using these concepts. They have practised it over several years so that they are confident using them. They just process it faster. It’s like the difference between understanding a language when someone speaks it and being able to speak the language yourself.

Everything that is in the way of you being able to play the piano with confidence is practise. This section includes a lot of material that you can use in the right order. And I have included books I would suggest for further practise.

So to reiterate, it’s much better getting comfortable with these concepts instead of learning more. Master this first, then you can explore further concepts.

Books

At this stage it would be a good idea to get a book. Which book to get depends on what musical genre you want to get into. Below I have included a list of books that are great for teaching you the most popular umbrella genres of music and to get enough practise material:

Jazz

Playing Jazz standards is one of the best ways of getting better at jazz and becoming fluent with chords. Playing pieces from these books is the way to do it:

The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire

The Real Book

The Jazz Standards progression book

Pop

This will give you a lot of practise:

The Ultimate Fake Book

Classical

I recommended some in stage 2 which still applies. I will update this list very soon with more books for classical music.

Please note that jazz and pop have a lot in common. So the books here can easily be mixed.

The most important lesson

This is as far as this guide goes in teaching you musical concepts. Why would I stop here and not teach you more? There is a reason why I’m not going further than this. This is where the most important lesson comes in. It’s much better becoming confident playing a few stuff than learning a lot of different concepts and not being able to execute any of it well on the piano.

So if you want your hard work learning the piano to pay off, you want to become really confident with the basics. And here is the most important reason why this is the case. There is no need to learn more than the basics. 80% of all music that has ever been created uses the basics that you will learn in this article. If you want to learn more than that it will take a whole load more time, but it won’t and that much more to your playing. I can’t stress this enough. Become really confident with the basics instead of learning too much.

There is something comforting about this as well. You become a lot less overwhelmed by realising how little you have to learn to become confident playing the piano.

Another reason for this becomes evident when it comes to playing for other people. When you perform and play in front of other people, nerves are inevitably going to kick in. Your playing level will drop drastically. This is not a beginners trait. It happens to most performers out there, whether you’re Stevie Wonder, Beethoven or a concert pianist like Lang Lang. These pianists know that their performance level is lower than their calm comfortable practise level. So they make sure that they only perform stuff that is below their skill level. This is a very important concept in performance that not many people tell you.

More about this below.

Even though we have covered everything you need, there is one thing we haven’t talked much about. And that it exercises. Exercises is the secret ingredient that will get you to the next level quickly. a bit like They are short, musical phrases or patterns that are designed to improve one specific aspect of your playing. Some exercises are for strengthening your fingers, others are aimed at improving coordination between your hands. And you also have exercises for getting comfortable with different chord progressions. If there’s something you’re struggling with, it’s a sign that you need a couple of exercises that will help you overcome this specific challenge you’re facing. If you want to become good at playing the piano instead of just “ok”, these exercises are a must.

Finding the right exercises can be tricky. And this is actually one of the main reasons why piano teachers exist. If you ever get stuck, one of our teachers can help find exercises that will get you to the next level. Finding pieces which are perfect for you is difficult, and you might need some guidance.

However, there ae some exercises that most people who are learning can benefit from, regardless of what it is that you’re specifically struggling with. Here are a few to get you started.

A power exercise that develops several aspects of your playing:

Get better at chord inversions in a fun way that sounds like real music:

To overcome  the difficulty of playing with both hands:

How to overcome plateaus

There is a whole field of knowledge dedicated to how to overcome plateaus. It’s called skill acquisition. Following some of the basic principles from this field is what you need to overcome plateaus.

The most common reason why we reach a plateau is because we enter something called the “ok plateau”. This occurs when something has become easy enough so that you turn on autopilot instead of having to consciously think about what you’re doing. You stop improving when you’re not challenged enough. 

Learning and improving is supposed to be hard work.

So here is what you have to do. Identify in what part of your training you have plateaued.

You might need to find an exercise that trains this particular aspect. For example, if you find it hard to go quickly from a certain chord to another chord, you need to repeat this over and over while consciously focusing on being able to do this faster. Exercises that are tailored for your specific need will speed up the process of overcoming this plateau. Finding the right exercise can be hard without a teacher. Booking a few lessons with an expert might be what you have to do in order to overcome this plateau.

How to perform

Here is the golden rule about performing. You always perform at 60% of your skill level. Another way to say this is: Your skill level drops 40% when you perform. Always perform below your capabilities. As I mentioned earlier, any great performer is aware of this.

The more confident you are, the less of a chance it is that you make any mistakes while performing. This is what performing is all about – decreasing your chances of messing up in front of other people.

If you want to be able to play well in front of other people, you need to practise performing as a separate skill to piano. I know this sounds weird, but that’s how it works for most people. Playing in front of others feels very different than playing just for yourself.

The best way to get better at performing is to regularly be exposed to a performance atmosphere while you’re playing. It’s about getting used to playing with the nerves you’re getting from playing in front of other people.

Normally, we don’t find ourselves in this setting. So we have to construct it. This requires some imagination and is about pretending you’re performing in front of other people. Even though it’s fake, it works, since it’s about the mindset you’re in while you’re playing.

When you have practised a piece a lot and you feel it’s ready to be performed, say to yourself: “Ok, I am going to perform this now. And if I do any major hickups so that I have to stop completely, [this bad thing] will happen”. For this to work, you have to completely buy into it. You have to treat this exercise seriously. I do this myself when preparing for real performances.

I go a bit more in depth into this in these two articles:

How to combat your performances nerves

How to perform well even if you’re nervous

How to actually get to practise

Starting something is the hardest thing. Right before you’re about to practise you might often feel a strong urge not to practise because you feel like you’re making a huge commitment to what to spend your tie on right now. This is why a lot of people put off practising. But once you’ve started, it’s easy to keep going.

The best way to overcome this barrier/mental block is to make the transition into sitting down at the piano as easy as possible. Keep the piano in an easy to locate place. Eliminate all the small things that will make it just a tiny bit harder to practise. Don’t cover it up with anything. Have the stool ready. The sheet music should be open on the page you’re using and easy to navigate through. Also – keep this guide on a tab on your device, or bookmark it.

The best thing is to have an acoustic piano with the lid open, because you don’t even have to turn it on then.

Your brain is designed to protect you from pain. That’s why it’s resisting to do something you might not want to do right now. Because forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do is mentally painful. It’s also why it’s hard to eliminate procrastination. Don’t make such a big deal out of it. Just sit down and practise.

It’s also a huge help to have a dedicated practise time. Keep this time sacred and never deviate from it.

Conclusion

The aim with this guide is to teach you how to play the piano for real without taking any shortcuts. Learning a complex skill like piano is hard work, and I’m not hiding that in any way.

Even though you have a guide written for the sole purpose of learning the piano without a teacher, it’s still possible that you hit some hurdles along the way. Paying for a few lessons with a teacher is definitely better than wasting a lot of time walking around in circles with your practising. Even though you can learn the piano by yourself, the best way to learn is still by having a teacher.

If you do need a teacher, you’re in the right place. After all, that’s what we specialise in – finding high quality teachers for people interested in learning an instrument. We take great care only listing experts who know their craft really well. If you want to give it a try, you can browse through our list of piano teachers. Look through the ones in your area. And if you’re not based in London, a lot of our teachers have also become used to teaching online now, as you can imagine. So your area is less important.

I am planning on releasing a “stage 5” of this guide that will cover what to do next. This will include a deep dive into different genres. Until then, you have plenty of material to build a strong foundation. We would love to hear from you if there is something in this guide you find confusing or isn’t covered in enough detail. Also please get in touch if you have any other questions about learning how to play the piano or have suggestions for anything else that we can cover in this guide.

Now go and practise what you have just learnt in this guide.