Piano

Can adult learn piano?

I learned to type on a computer keyboard with 104 keys, why can't I learn to play on a piano with 88 keys? This is what I was thinking when I decided to start learning piano in 2016. I was totally naive and ignorant about many things that makes piano playing difficult: the keys have weight and one needs to control the dynamics; two hands need to play together to coordinate and to be independent; etc.

Now that I learned more about piano, yet I'm more convinced that it is never too late to start learning. As many articles and YouTube videos has talked about, child learners and adult learners both have their advantages and disadvantages.

  • Children usually have more free time, while adults need to worry about all kinds of things. I tend to feel very guilty practicing piano in the morning before I have done anything work related for that day.
  • Children are more easily motivated. But adults, having listened to lots of great music all the years, could better judge how bad their own performance is, therefore usually feel more frastrated.
  • Adults are more intellectually developed, therefore they could more easily understand what is going on with the music.

And many others. But for either adults or children, it is a difficult skill to learn. If you want to be a professional player, that is a different story. But if you just want to play as a hobby, go for it. The process might be with frustrations, but if you like playing piano, will also be with joys.

Resources and tools for learning piano

Note: I'm still a beginner in piano. But here are some stuff that I found useful during my own learning process, just FYI. But please use your own judgement.

Piano

An acoustic piano is the best. If you don't have access to one, a digital piano will also work. But a keyboard might not. Here are some similar instruments that might be a bit confusing for beginners.

  • MIDI controller: usually small and un-weighted. For example, Akai LPK25 has only 25 keys and is very portable. They do not produce sounds directly, instead, you need to connect them to other device such as a computer to make sound. Depending on the device and softwares, there might be a slight delay between the key action and the actual sound. Usually those are used in composing or digital music creation instead of performance. But there are also high end MIDI controllers that aim for realistic grand piano feel, such as the Kawai VPC.
  • Keyboards: usually un-weighted or semi-weighted. They are very versatile instruments that can produce various sounds and effects, but different from pianos.
  • Digital pianos: they try to mimic the sound and the key weight in acoustic pianos. There is still a significant gap between the best digital pianos and the best acoustic pianos, but within the same price range, a high end digital piano might be better than a low end acoustic one. Apart from being cheaper, digital pianos also allow you to practice with a headphone without driving your neighbors crazy. The price range is around $400 ~ $10,000. The touch and sound quality could vary drastically, so do not buy super cheap ones from a never-heard-of brand. Notable brands include Yamaha, Kawai, Roland, Casio, Nord, etc.

Piano Teacher

One can definitely learn piano by him or herself. But I think having a teacher makes the learning process 100 times more efficient. Without some way of feedbacks, I might not know where or how my performance is bad, or worse, I might not even think it bad. I might eventually figure out the best thing to do but potentially after a long struggle.

Most of my 45-minute lessons are me playing homework exercises and the teacher giving me feedbacks. It is hard to quantify what exactly have I learned each lesson. But during the summers when I am away from school and have no access to teachers, my progress had been suffering a lot.

Taking lessons from a piano teacher could be expensive. But I'm not going to discuss about when and where one should spend moneys as it will inevitably lead to the question of the purpose of life. :D

Music scores

One of the advantages of learning about classical music is the availability of scores. IMSLP is the best place to find your favorite classical pieces. However, sometimes there are different versions with different fingering, dynamics annotations or even different notes, due to editorial modification, transcribing errors and other historical reasons. Ask your teacher for a recommended version, or go for versions marked as urtext editions.

There are some apps providing digital scores, which has audio associated with the scores. Note the difference between MIDI rendered sound, which usually do not have dynamics and sounds pretty bad, and recording of actual performance that is then aligned with the scores. The advantage is that you can look at the current bars being played in the score while listening to the audio. There are also some more advanced tools that can detect your performance and do things like automatic page turning. I will list some of the tools in the softwares section below.

Pop music usually do not have full scores. One will need to search for transcribing or arrangements online. The variance of the quality of the scores could be quite large though.

Recording

I was told it is very important to record your own performance and listen to it regularly. Most smartphones nowadays can record audio tracks. The sound quality is not very good, but for casual recording for your own reference, it should be good enough. The app Music Memos from Apple is a very handy tool for recording music on your phone. For a higher quality recording, if you are using a digital piano, you can record as MIDI because most of the digital pianos are also MIDI controllers. Many of them can also record directly to a USB flash disk. For recording performance on acoustic pianos, one can use a portable multitrack recorder, such as the Zoom H4N PRO.

Softwares and other resources

Learning apps » I had used an app called Yousician that could listen to your performance and tell you which note you played wrong, too early or too late. It also has integrated courses that teaches you the basics in a progressive way. The achievement system and interactive interface could be fun to play with. I would like to see more innovations in this direction, but right now there is only a limited number of things it could do. The fact is that playing piano is about so many other things than just being able to press the right key. So I think it is helpful but cannot replace piano teachers right now.

Interactive scores » Musica Piano and SyncScore are two main platforms for interactive scores that I use. They both display the music scores with an indicator that shows where it is currently playing. Musica Piano has a more accurate indicator than SyncScore. But while Musica Piano is subscription based (with the option to purchase a bundle of some famous pieces for permanent use), SyncScore is a set of paid apps that you only need to purchase once. SyncScore also have music for other types of music like Cello Sonatas and String Quartet, etc.

Amphio created two very high quality apps, one is for Beethoven's 9th Symphony and the other is for The Liszt Sonata. The app shows and visualizes scores, live performances and analysis of the musical structures. Highly recommended.

There are also other more interactive apps. For example, in addition to play the built-in audio at various speed with synchronized music scores, Tido Music can recognize your own performance and sync the score in real time and do things like automatic page turning. It also contains video tutorials from professionals with camera views from different angles. Tomplay is an app that you can turn on and off different audio tracks and play with it, which is extremely useful for people who needs to practice performing with an orchestra. Although it seems for Piano solo pieces, there is no separate sound tracks between the left hand and right hand.

Sight reading » Rhythm Sight Reading Trainer is a good iOS app for practicing sight reading for rhythms directly on your phone. It does not yet have a two-hand mode for piano-like performances, but the single-handed exercises could already get quite difficult (for me). Another app for practicing your sense of rhythm in general is Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, which I find very difficult.

If you need to practice recognizing single notes on a music staff (like me), an iPhone app called Notes by Ryan Newsome is good. Although I'm not sure how useful it is to practice on your phone, as oppose to practice directly on a piano. It seems experienced players map music notations directly to specific keys on the piano, instead of mapping to the note name, and then from note name to key.

I feel there should be a high quality app for practicing general sight readings. But I'm not aware of any yet. The problem is that it does not make sense to sightread a purely random sequence of notes. A big part of sight reading practice is to get familiar with common patterns and structures that occurs in real music. So one need to practice with real music or at least sequences that have coherent local music structures. Maybe the situation could be improved in the near future when generative models for music (e.g. Magenta) starts to make sense.

Music theory related » musictheory.net is a very good source for learning about the basics of music theory. It has an iOS app for offline access, and an accompanying app called Tenuto that generate random exercises for you to practice. In the end, one cannot do much in music theory before memorizing and getting very familiar with the basic musical structures. Two good reference apps for chords and scales are Piano Chords and Scales and Piano Chords, Scales Companion.