Updated: Jun 8, 2018
Learning the piano from scratch at a basic level is really not difficult at all.
There are 4 pitfalls to avoid as a beginner, and once these are understood, you will progress at a much faster rate.
Unfortunately, I've seen beginners fall into these 4 traps all too often, which can really affect the person's initial progress. Ultimately, it leads to them giving up out of overwhelm or frustration. This can be due to poor direction from a teacher, learning from teaching material that doesn't attempt to address these pitfalls, or because the pupil is simply not able or willing to apply good advice when it's given.
WHO IS THIS POST FOR?
If you're in the early stages of learning the piano, perhaps having had lessons for a month or so, here are 4 mistakes that you should avoid in order to form a good understanding of the basics. If you're a piano teacher, you'll have seen these mistakes being made before, and will probably have methods in place to help your pupils avoid them.
1) LEARN THE NAMES OF THE NOTES ASAP - BY HEART.
Learning the note names sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised how often some pupils need reminding to spend quality time in getting to know them.
The written notes are like a recipe, telling us all the ingredients within a piece of music. They also allow us to play music that we've never heard before... to varying degrees of accuracy. This depends on the difficulty of the music and the sight reading abilities of the pianist, but overall, being able to initially read the notes accurately means that the piece can be practised and refined much quicker. Written notation also acts as a memory aid for pieces we have already learnt, but perhaps haven't played for a while.
Learning the note names is very straightforward. Visit my Note Naming Practice page to help you learn these note positions really quickly. If you spend a little time each day on it, you will be fluent with basic note naming in no time at all. Bookmark it on your smartphone, and you can practise anywhere.
2) NEVER WRITE IN ALL THE NOTE NAMES.
Writing in the note names is often irresistible to a beginner, and I can understand why. They think that if they do this (as in the example below), they can avoid reading the notes, and they will learn the piece faster. While on the surface and in the extreme short term this can be true, it actually acts as a huge barrier toward identifying note names fluently. In the long term, it will limit them to only ever being able to play very simple pieces with the aid of the notes being written in first.
If the letters are written on the notes, you will probably ignore their position on the stave and never really learn what the note is. It also stops you from reading the note patterns properly, and this will slow down your playing. To read music more fluently, it is not necessary to think of each note name before you play it.
So as an example, if the learner sees a note with the letter 'F' written on it, they don't tend to read the letter AND the note position as a pair. They simply read the letter 'F', as this is easier than looking at the position of the note. This results in the actual note positions not being learnt fluently enough to read music well.
How do I know this?
Well, if you then rub out the note names, the beginner is completely lost as to what the note is, and where it lives on the piano. It also in many cases takes them a lot longer to identify the name of each note. It may seem obvious that this would happen, but the point is that they haven't learned anything by writing in the note names, and teachers that allow this are slowing down the progress of their pupils.
This is the reason why it's really worth taking the time to learn the note positions on the stave (in small clusters) from your very first lesson. Writing in the note names does NOT help!
The exact same thing can be said of writing the key names on the actual keyboard of the piano. Again using 'F' as an example... a beginner is more likely to just look for a key with the letter 'F' written on it, rather than learning to memorise that an 'F' is a white key on the left of three black keys.
Take away the letters, and the pupil really struggles... so what's the point in using them in the first place if it hasn't taught them anything?
3) JUST READING FINGER NUMBERS DOES NOT WORK
Finger numbers (the thumb of each hand being finger 1, and working outwards to 5) are often written above or below the notes in piano music. This helps to navigate the from one key to the other in the most efficient and musical way.
With numbers looking like a nice alternative to reading the notes, beginners are often tempted to ignore the actual pitches and patterns, and simply press their fingers down to correspond with the numbers without moving their hand position.
For example, if you just played the finger numbers in the music below without any reference to what the notes were doing, the result would be something completely different to what the music is asking you to do.
If a beginner sees a note marked with finger 1 for example, they may have to move their hand or tuck their thumb under their hand to form a new 5 finger position (as in the music above). This is why it is important to read the actual note position first, move you hand or finger if needed, and then play the correct key.
4) AVOID STICKING WITH JUST ONE PIECE FOR TOO LONG.
As a piano teacher, I often hear pupils say, "I've struggled to practise this week because I don't know how it goes". My answer is always something along these lines:
"Notation was invented to help people play or sing music that they don't know by reading it from a page, rather than by listening to someone else play or sing it first. Just as you can easily read a book that you've never read before, the whole point in learning to read music is that you don't have to know the piece already in order to learn it.
Whilst knowing a piece of music before you see it on the page DOES help toward guiding the fingers in the right direction, you should not rely on this like a crutch when learning unfamiliar music."
The ability to 'sight read' (read music from the page and play it as well as you can without ever having seen or heard it before) is EXTREMELY important and useful to develop in a beginner. The more music a beginner can read at sight, the easier and quicker they will find it to learn new and longer pieces of music, which can then be studied, practised and enjoyed.
If a beginner sticks with the same piece for too long, they will eventually become so familiar with it, that they won't be reading the music any more, which means their skill of reading notation will start to become rusty.
This doesn't mean that they have to stop playing it, but starting a new one to keep their reading fresh might be a good idea.
Where there is absolutely nothing wrong with learning a piece from memory, it is essential that a beginner experiences a high turnover of fresh, unknown music. This will help with their note recognition, and keep their sight reading skills finely tuned.
WHAT TO TAKE AWAY FROM THIS POST...
Knowing about and understanding these pitfalls will give the beginner a better chance at progressing faster than they otherwise would have. By avoiding learning a mistake and stopping it becoming part of the practise routine, this will give the pupil a much smoother ride, and more enjoyment in the process.
A good teacher of course will already know about these 4 areas, and will be helping the pupil to avoid either making the mistake before it happens, or correcting them before they get integrated into their early development as a piano player.
I hope all that's been helpful, and happy playing!