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How Hard Is It to Play Piano?

Question: Is it hard to learn how to play the piano?

– Danielle (Austria)

Albert’s reply: I think playing the piano is like learning English: I’ve heard it said that English is the easiest language to learn to speak… poorly. The piano is the most immediately accessible musical instrument yet perhaps the most difficult to master.

By comparison, the violin is totally inaccessible to beginning students… yet perhaps the most difficult instrument to master.

Pianists don’t have the extremely difficult problem of producing the proper pitch, the way players of melody instruments do. String players need to spend years learning to produce exactly the right pitch (called intonation), without making the instrument screech. On the piano, the pitches are given, since each string is tuned in advance to a particular pitch.

To compensate, the piano is a polyphonic instrument. This means that it can play many notes at once, thus increasing the complexity many times over.

Similarly, playing the piano necessitates coordinating the hands, which are mirror images of each other. This further compounds the complexity of mastering the instrument, especially when a voice is split between the hands, as in most fugues.

In piano playing, it’s essential to abstract the actual music from our means of playing it. The piano isn’t properly played from the fingers; rather, the locus of music is properly the mind. The mind must assimilate the music and communicate it to the fingers, not the other way around. This is why piano theory and ear training are so essential to music education.

There is no end to the challenges that playing the piano presents. Anybody who claims it’s easy is unscrupulously trying to sell you something or is simply not a qualified professional pianist. The most accomplished concert pianists in the world will all attest to the fact that the challenge never ends, no matter how much one progresses.

While there is no limit to the technical and intellectual demands of playing the piano, the emotional demands are equally great. Here is where no amount of training and learning will suffice, since our emotions are by definition an intimate part of ourselves.

I believe that emotion in music ultimately comes down to the player’s sensitivity to the many layers of consonance and dissonance in complex musical artworks and the subtle temporal and dynamic inflections that they necessitate. While these can be pointed out to music students by artist teachers, whether the student will ultimately assimilate the subtleties of art and transcend the technical means acquired by years of training depends on the individual and the ways and extent to which he or she translates emotional experiences to music.

Communicating the deepest emotions that can be expressed in art is the ultimate reward towards which all musicians aspire, and it is the piano’s ultimate challenge.

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