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Mastering Piano

Question: In every area – technique, ear training, reading music, etc. – what’s the progression in each, from beginning to mastery?

Say with technique, developing a mechanism – mastering scales, learning to shape phrases – (I really have no idea about the progression).

With ear training – mastering intervals, melody, harmony, or whatever?

What would be the entire progression in each area?

Thank you. I appreciate it.

– Josh (Australia)

Albert’s reply:

While it is quite impossible to give a complete progression in every aspect of piano playing, I can offer some guidelines for mastering piano in the areas you mentioned.


Piano technique is the ability to say what we want to say at the piano, to realize the music as we wish. Technique is not an end in itself, but simply the means to an end: music. Good piano technique is therefore not a result of mechanical practice, but of musical practice.

That said, there is no end to the mechanical difficulties that composers for the piano have invented over the centuries, and the professional pianist must be equipped to meet the mechanical demands in the music he or she performs.

Since technique is so intertwined with musical expression that the two are ultimately inseparable, it is impossible to give any but a very rough guideline for progress in this area. You may be able to play all your piano scales in sixteenth notes at 176 to the quarter, but are they truly even? Are you able to vary your touch, playing any degree of legato or non-legato? Do you have the utmost control over dynamic shadings at any tempo? Ultimately there is no purely objective measure of piano technique, only limitless refinement.

Speaking very generally (and personally), I consider scales to be the foundation of technical mastery of the piano. It is not imaginable for a virtuoso not to be able to play scales brilliantly.

The next area of technical mastery – I prefer to speak of foundational elements of piano technique – is arpeggios or broken chords. Start with all triads in root position, going around the Circle of Fifths: C major, G major, D major, etc. Play them in sixteenth notes, in four octaves rather than three in order to avoid accenting the thumb on each beat.

Then learn all seventh arpeggios, particularly dominant sevenths, in root position.

Finally, learn all inversions of the triads and seventh chords, with standard fingerings for each. (I’ll eventually prepare a chart of all standard fingerings for arpeggios.)

I consider the final area of pure mechanical mastery of the piano to be double notes. These are two voices with the same rhythmic values that are played simultaneously with a single hand. Famous examples – some of the most difficult piano pieces in the entire literature – are Chopin’s Etude in Thirds, Op. 25, No. 6 and Schumann’s Toccata. In the former, the two voices run in parallel always at a distance of a third. In the latter, the two voices make up alternating larger and smaller intervals. The article on chromatic minor thirds shows an example of double thirds.

Ear Training

Ear training is an area in which more objective measurement is both possible and useful. It can be divided into two main areas: The first is general sensitivity to sound; the second, harmonic comprehension.

The first step in developing one’s sensitivity to sound (by which I mean music) is to listen to a lot of music – in other words, listening to what others play. Do you hear the subtle differences between different performances of, say, the “Moonlight” Sonata?

The next level of sound sensitivity – that applicable to musicians – is the ability to listen to what you play. This is amazingly difficult to master, and it takes years of lessons and expert feedback. This is one of the main aims of private music lessons.

Harmonic comprehension starts with interval identification. It is best done using intervals within the major scale. You should be able to recognize each scale degree: When listening to a pitch, is it the first note of the scale? Second? Third? The lesson Interval Ear Training has a full description of this method.

The next level of harmonic comprehension involves hearing intervals using nonharmonic tones. These are notes that are not within the scale.

Next, be able to identify any interval at all, whether played melodically (one note at a time) or harmonically (together).

The next step in mastering piano is [chord ear training][10]. This involves developing the ability to identify the main chords when played. Chord ear training starts with the basic triads – major, minor, diminished and augmented – and moves to the seventh chords – dominant seventh, diminished seventh, minor seventh, major seventh and others.

The final step in musical listening comprehension is chord progressions. Learn to recognize all [common chord progressions][11] upon hearing them.

This skill implies that you’re familiar with the chords and chord progressions, which brings us to the final step in mastering ear training at the piano: being able to play what you hear. The more immediately you are able to do this, the greater is your skill.

Sight Reading

The first step in [learning to read music][12] is to identify any note on any staff immediately at sight, the way any literate person can recognize any letter as soon as he sees it. I am continually amazed at how few piano students are able to recognize the notes on the staff without having to stop to think, and then they wonder why they have difficulty [reading piano music][13]! This skill is so important that I have dedicated an entire course to mastering it, [How to Read Sheet Music][14].

The next step is learning to find notes on the piano, independently of rhythm. Can you locate individual notes quickly? Chords?

Rhythm should be treated separately at first. This can be accomplished by tapping rhythms while reading music. First tap one hand at a time before attempting to tap the hands together.

Next comes the ability to realize both pitch and rhythm (with rhythm taking priority) at the piano. This is the essence of sight reading, when done with a piece never before seen or heard.

Exceedingly few pianists attain the highest level of sight reading mastery. (I am not one of the distinguished few!) This is score reading, the ability to read many staves at once (including C clefs which are not used in piano music). This includes full orchestral scores with transposing instruments, meaning that you must read in one key and play in another!

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