Question: Hello Albert,
Firstly I want to thank you for your marvelous website. I’ve only just discovered it a few days ago and it has already had an immense impact on me. It makes me understand what’s required to reach my goals on the piano, and also it really encourages me that you became such a wonderful pianist and musician after starting so late! It gives me a lot of hope. If you can, why can’t I?
I’m different though, I started playing when I was eight. This doesn’t really mean much however as until I was about 14 I only practised about 5 minutes a day, and I just hated piano, avoided it at all costs, but having mum as a piano teacher made me do it anyway.
At about 14 I really started to enjoy it though. Despite my lack of practise at 14 I was still at a reasonable level, playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 27, No. 1, Chopin’s Waltz in E minor, and a few other pieces of the same difficulty. From 14 to late 15 I was practising not much, only an hour a day because I was so busy, but I did enjoy it.
From late 15 to now (a year later, I’m 16, almost 17 now), I’ve suffered from clinical depression and haven’t done any practise, or anything at all, but I am breaking out of that now. I have really fallen in love with classical music though, and want to maximise my potential as a musician.
In the past, I was entirely mechanical. I had a terrible ear and never worked on it, no knowledge of theory (except the scales), was a horrible sight reader, and everything was just fingerwork, I could play a bit but was really not a good all-around musician.
After looking at your site I really want to start anew. Developing the correct way from the start, developing all the necessary skills like ear training and music theory, good practise habits, and hopefully become a great musician and pianist, I want to be concert standard, to play all the repertoire that I love (in my case, a huge array of repertoire, and extremely difficult)!
All this finally leads me to my question. Basically, where do I start? What is the natural progression from someone like me to becoming a great musician? How should I develop my practise? What should I be working on first and when do I move on from that?
Thank you very much.
Albert’s reply: Thanks for sharing these details, Josh. There are primarily two pieces of advice I can give you.
First, be extremely disciplined in your practice. Leave no gaps. There is no room for error. Be exceptionally cautious as you work. Learning music demands a systematic methodology of practice and training.
Second, you must find the best teacher in your area if you’re at all serious about learning piano. If there’s a music conservatory near you, find out the names of the top teachers. At your stage you need a preparatory teacher, and conservatory professors aren’t always able (or have the time) to give you detailed, step-by-step training. The professors there should be able to recommend the best preparatory teacher for you.
You may or may not be able to study with your piano teacher mother. I know some musicians who have successfully taught their children, and others who send their children to colleagues for lessons. There are always different dynamics, and every person and situation is different, so there’s no “one size fits all” prescription for such things. Regardless, your mother will surely be a wonderful musical resource for you.
One of the things I emphasize on key-notes is that there is no difference in methodology between amateur and professional musicians, only difference in intent. A professional needs the highest attainable level of each skill and prepares his or her pieces for public performance. This requires the utmost in self-discipline and concentration. An amateur is not at liberty to practice carelessly by virtue of being amateur! Careless practice will only lead to frustration and poor playing.
As for what to practice, you can never study enough Bach—and you can never study Bach enough. Learn to sing each voice, both as you play it and separately. Nothing will develop your contrapuntal ear better than practicing Bach.
You’ll also need a very solid technical foundation. The most musical foundational etudes are Chopin’s though these should in principle not be used to develop technique but rather for polished, beautiful performances once you have a finished professional mechanism. (That is admittedly a tall order!) In addition to your scales and arpeggios regimen, there are etudes by early piano virtuosi and teachers such as Burgmüller and Cramer, and even some musical ones by Czerny.
Finally, we need to accept that not all talents are equal. I was fortunate enough to have had dormant facility that enabled me to acquire a professional technique despite starting late. I was also highly deficient in some musical areas, and these required great attention. Every person is different and has a different array of talents. That is part of the beauty of being human!