I don't like sight-reading! And how I tackle other common problems

The same phrases echoed as a piano student, I now hear as a piano teacher but from a different perspective. Many of these I have voiced myself when growing up, and I've been seeking methods to overcome these common obstacles.

No matter if a student is a child or adult, these phrases are said by all alike. Attached are my approaches to these struggles.

I don't like sight-reading!

From observation from students who have transferred to my from another teacher/ studio, the dislike of this skill comes from the poor habit of learning only exam pieces and hence associating sight-reading with exams only. In my studio, students learn new pieces on a weekly basis, and sight-reading is part of their practise routine. These pieces will always be at a lower grade level to make it enjoyable and not beyond their ability.

Practise is boring

There is a false preconception that the more practise time will always equal success. Spending more time than is appropriate for the ability level, not understanding what is expected from daily practise or not actioning out the practise plan, can all have a negative impact on motivation and progress. In my studio, I set clear practise plans for individual students and reinforce the importance of parental support. This is structured into manageable activities with their associated duration and frequency during the week.

What's the point of scales?

If scales are taught only in conjunction with exams and the purpose of learning them not understood, they are thought of as monotonous exercises with no value. On the contrary, learning scales have multiple benefits. Strengthens and improves finger agility for hand co-ordination. It's a way of hearing and seeing in action music theory that links well with composition. Scales acts as an 'easy win' to boost confidence because they are short.

I've been learning this piece for weeks and it still sounds bad

Either the piece is beyond your current capabilities, you're practising in mistakes due to not having a regular feedback loop from your teacher, or it is a 'challenge' piece designed to be worked on over 1-2 months. You should communicate this with your teacher, understand and make note of corrections, or discuss whether an easier arrangement is more suited. To bring a piece up to performance level that you hear in professional recordings takes time and requires 'polishing' work once the basics have been learnt.

I'm an adult, why can't I play this easy song?

There are many pros and cons to being an adult learner. Unfortunately one of these cons is not allowing yourself to learn as a beginner. Anxiety can hold you back in addition to comparison against others. Whilst as an adult you are capable in doing 'adult things' (job, car, house), learning piano takes patience and commitment. Piano troubles may be linked to hand co-ordination, reading sheet music, understanding music theory.

Treble notes are easy, but bass notes are more difficult

Most of the UK population is right-handed, and most method books start teaching note reading using the treble clef played with right hand. Treble clef and right hand often carries the main melody hence it is naturally easier to learn.

My keyboard is too short

A full-size piano contains 88 keys hence your keyboard should reflect this. I recommend upgrading to a model that is full-size, to not limit your learning. Without a full-size, you physically cannot play all the notes.

My piano sounds bad

If you own a keyboard, it's time to upgrade to either a digital piano or acoustic piano. Acoustic pianos will always be better than digital. If your acoustic piano sounds bad, it likely need tuning or servicing, so contact a local piano tuner. If your digital piano sounds bad, it may be an issue with the settings, so check with the manual and contact the retailer.

This piece is too hard

Complexity of pieces naturally increases as you progress, however this increase should be manageable and well communicated between teacher and student. The purpose is to keep interest, grow musicality and develop technique to continue advancing forwards. All in logical and manageable steps based on the student. However is the piece is strongly outside your comfort zone or well beyond your grasp that you cannot sight-read even the first few bars, then that is a problem. Discuss this with our teacher. A good teacher should listen to your concerns, explain and adjust to either a different piece if needed.

I don't see the point of counting

Music is not just about identifying notes, it's also about rhythm and hence timing. Different types of notes are held for different lengths of time, and tie in with the time signature. Without counting, the piece will sound completely different and may not sound good. In my studio, counting and note types are taught from early beginner stage. Once a mid-beginner, students should have the ability count independently in music.

My back hurts after practising piano

This should not happen, and I advise you speak to your teacher and a medical professional. During lessons and during home practise, you should sit at a height adjustable piano stool and play without tension. To check the correct height, your elbow should be level height with your wrist when your hands are placed on the keys in the playing position. Shoulders should be relaxed. Both feet need to be on the ground or on a short footstool at the pedals.

Can't I just have lessons and not practise?

Practise is a key part of learning. Lessons are to learn new concepts and skills. Practise is to reinforce it and embed into muscle memory. To have lessons and not commit to practise, it a waste to energy, time and money. In my studio, I expect every student to practise smart between lessons.

I only want to play pop music or classical music is boring

Pop music can be simple to learn, with chords and repeating melodies. And for teenagers or young adults, it's often a common avenue into music. Whilst in my studio, we do learn pop music, piano lessons are 50-75% classical music because it serves as a strong foundation to build upon. Classical music has incredible range, from the dark and dramatic, to the light and sweet. Hence if the student is seeking to learn pop music only, I suggest finding a contemporary pop specialist teacher.

Piano is too popular, everyone knows how to play it

True, piano is a popular instrument due to it being present in all schools, widely played on stage and long history. Being a popular instrument has it's advantages because there is a huge selection of music written for the piano, great coverage of piano tuners and choice of music teachers. It allows for duets and music jams to happen more often. Learning piano is a great first instrument, and makes learning other instruments easier due to understanding of musical concepts.

I don't know what to practise

This is a problem amongst self-taught beginner piano players. There are too many resources on the Internet (SimplyPiano, FlowKey, Skoove, PianoNote, PianoPlayground etc.) that creating your own individual structure for progress can be difficult. A good piano teacher should create and monitor your practise plans with you, so that time spent at home is both enjoyable, a bit challenging but rewarding and allows you to recognise your advancements. Practise should include: technical exercises, scales & arpeggios, current repertoire, sight-reading, theory, aural, other (improvisation, composition).

I'd love to have a grand piano!

Grand pianos look impressive, however in the UK realistically they are not suitable for everyone. Things to consider before purchasing are: your initial budget (at least £10k), tuning costs, physical room size, logistics (can it fit through your door), longevity, home property (detached house at least). Buying a grand piano is a serious lifelong investment and the way you use the instrument needs to reflect this.

I don't want to let my teacher down

It's great you are thinking like this, it shows you are motivated and care about learning. But also consider: you don't want to let yourself down either. Learning piano is a personal journey with you (the student) at the centre. Inherently, you are the one learning, practising and attending lessons. So the desire to learn and improve must come from yourself and no-one else.

I'm too old to learn piano

The best time to start learning was yesterday. The second best time to start learning is today. Excluding conditions which incapacitate your ability to coordinate fingers, or understand concepts... you are never too old to learn to play piano. There are pros and cons with being an adult learner, and it cannot be compared to being a student learner.

My hands won't coordinate with each other or fingers are too stiff

Patience. Learning for complete beginners will begin with playing hands separately to get used to the feel of the piano and reading sheet music. As you progress in piano, techniques required also progress, and naturally coordination will improve. A good piano teacher should structure learning to address this.

I keep playing in the wrong octave

A common mistake due to memorising only certain notes from the staff and not understanding the stave lines reflect intervals on the piano. This will improve with time and corrections from your teacher. Without smart practise at home, this is difficult to improve at a good pace.

I keep forgetting the sharps or flats in the key signature

One of the most common issues for all students (beginner to advanced). Even early advanced students will occasionally forget. One of the first things to look at when playing music or preparing to sight-read, is the key signature. It may help to draw a circle around notes which the key signature affects, to remind yourself during playing.

Learning theory is boring

Theory explains how music is structured and helps you become a better player. To make theory seen as a natural part of learning music, it should be taught during lessons and linked well to the repertoire for students to make the mental connection. Otherwise leaving it until Grade 5 to be crammed for the ABRSM theory exam is stressful and confusing. In my studio, theory is taught during lessons and as part of weekly assignments.

I just want to play fast

The fixation to play fast seems to be voiced often by young child students, because it looks and sounds impressive. However to play fast, it requires the playing to be developed both in rhythm, timing, technique and stamina. Learning just to play fast actually draws focus away from other areas that also need to be developed to make a well-rounded musician.

Lessons are too long

Lessons should be varied, and that is true of my studio. Options include: evaluating lesson structure, finding a new teacher to suit youGames, aural, music appreciation, polishing current repertoire, learning new repertoire, sight-reading, improvisation, composition and theory are all covered. Typically in the UK, the shortest music lesson length is 30mins. If the student is not able to sit, behave, follow direction and focus for this duration of time, they are too young for lessons. If the student is mentally over-tired by the end of the lessons, discuss with your teacher.

Why is it taking me so long to learn to learn? Playing piano is difficult!

Learning any new skill takes time, and piano is no exception. Musical prodigies are exceptionally rare. To learn the basics will take 1-2 years where you'll be able to play simple tunes with both hands. Normally at 4-6 years is when playing being intermediate. And 6-10 years is the length of time it takes to become early advanced. All this relies on strong work ethic from consistent practise and continued motivation.

My fingers aren't big enough or can't stretch that far

For younger students, their hands will naturally grow in palm span and finger length over time. For advanced pieces (e.g. Liszt, Rachmaninoff) the piece may need adjustments to accommodate for physical limitations.

Jazz, blues and boogie woogie music doesn't make sense

This music genre often has syncopation, offbeats and unusual structures that take time learning for any student. In my studio, simple jazz is introduced at late beginner level, to expand horizons.

What's the point of exams?

For most students, exams are incredibly motivating because they benchmark the progress and ability. It provides structure and a good rate of progress is 1 graded exam per year. A good teacher should not only ensure students are well-prepared for exams, but also teach repertoire outside the exam requirements. In my studio, students aren't restricted to only learning exam pieces. In actuality, we learn new pieces on a weekly to fortnightly basis in the form of sight-reading and new repertoire.

I play well in practise but can't perform on stage

Performing is a different skillset to practising or playing during lessons. The addition to an audience or knowing the playing is being recorded, can add anxiety, nerves and lack of confidence. A good piano teacher should work with students to develop performance skills to overcome nerves, anxiety and mental blocks. Regular performances in the form of recitals, competitions, festivals and exams should be part of a studio's activities.

I don't like piano anymore, I don't want to learn it

There will be inconsistencies in practise and motivation for everyone, it's human nature. Those with a natural musical ear may excel as a beginner, but slow down during intermediate because progress now is linked to work ethic. It's common for students to give up on lessons during the late intermediate stage (Grades 5-6) due to other new interests, peer influence or large life events. At this stage of low motivation, consider either a short break from piano lessons, learning another musical instrument, finding a new teacher to best fit the student or the last option... quit piano. Quitting piano is a very difficult decision, because of the energy, time and money spent on lessons, the instrument and books. Always discuss this first with the teacher. Lesson direction may change to avoid taking graded exams, and instead focus on new and fresh concepts.