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"Which is Best for Musical Mastery: Self Teaching or Private Piano Tuition?"

Updated: May 13

It seems like a bit of a no brainer - given that I myself am a piano teacher - that it may well be in my best interests to promote the services that can be provided by people such as myself in your journey of piano and musical discovery. However, an alarming number of those who are self teaching are doing so not because of how casually they wish to learn (casual learning is absolutely fine) but instead because of how sure they are that they don't require the services of a piano teacher (i.e. they believe that self teaching is sufficient to get them to achieve their goals that me not, in fact, be as achievable as they believe because they are relying on themselves).


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I'm not here to argue about the financial burden of music tuition. Yes, it is pricey. Yes, you may leave some lessons feeling like you've been overcharged because your results might not be immediate. However, let's explore the reason why piano (and other instrumental and vocal) tutors charge what they do - and why it is, in fact, best for you to utilise the services of one to progress your piano learning and ability.


Discipline



We'll start with a very simple one.


If you are learning an instrument, you'll ultimately be doing it for yourself. And if you decide to self teach then that's a great start, however the only person you'll ever need to please is...yourself.


This obviously sounds desirable, but when it comes to the practicality of learning it actually has its limitations;


Being disciplined is not just a case of setting a timer for 30 minutes a night to practice. It isn't even just the habit of goal setting and achieving. It actually relates a lot more to the structure of your lesson schedule. Let's say, for example, that you have a weekly lesson (which is fairly standard). Now you have a job to do. Aside from the fact that you have a week following your lesson to practice and learn things covered in that lesson, you have the motivation of being able to do it for somebody else as well as yourself - so that they too can be pleased with the progress.


I can't begin to tell you how rewarding it is to see improvement in my pupils!


This is why the teacher / pupil relationship is so important; you need to be learning with somebody who encourages and is always on your side. If they are, you'll want to do well for them. It's a simple trait human nature but in the context of learning really does reward!


If you're worried about the notion that motivation alone will not improve your standard, read on;



Habits



I'm sure you've heard this one mentioned many, many times.


Let's say that you're learning from a book. Let's say that the book has one diagram to reference for how your hands should be positioned at the beginning of a piece. There you are, that's your starting point. Now play the following piece and...well, hand position may never be mentioned again.


Your book propped up on the music stand won't stop you to correct hand position if it falls or falters, 'nor will it be able to advise on a better fingering technique if you're either not following the one set (whether deliberately or not) or struggling with it. The book can't hear how quietly you interpret piano, 'nor how cleanly you lift the pedal between measures.


But a piano teacher...well, they can!


And not only can they tell, but they also know what to do either correct it, otherwise know exactly how to go about telling you to work on it (adjustments to technique don't necessarily come straight away, although I dare say if a pupil has very bad technique some adjustments do create a 'lightbulb moment'!)


Don't forget, we learn our technique too, so we know what we're talking about. And the sooner technique etc. is corrected and perfected, the more naturally you will progress through different stages of complexity.



Secondary Ears



This ties loosely into the previous point, and actually it isn't exclusive to beginner pianists. All musicians of all standards can benefit from being heard and reviews by others.


There is definitely a strong case for recording and listening back, and that certainly develops your ear, but little things might allude you. And this goes beyond not realising you're playing a wrong note. At risk of prompting an Eric Morecambe paraphrase, Perhaps you are playing all the right notes. However, notes might not be coming through quite how they should. Maybe your left hand is too heavy and the delicate melody is getting lost. Maybe your pedalling isn't subtle enough and there's a clashing of sound because certain notes are still resonating.


Whatever it may be, your ears aren't necessarily hearing your mistakes - even on a recording after the event. Performer bias may kick in, not to mention that your attention isn't 100% on listening to the music when you're also performing the music, as now we have to think about what notes we play, how hard / soft, what our feet are doing etc.


So a second pair of ears can help, and adjustment to the technique required to bring out the best performance is something that you will seldom find in a self taught player.



Pace



Pace is, in this context, the speed at which you progress through the learning process.


Can you learn quickly? Yes.

Can you learn slowly? Yes.


Is it your decision as to which one you do?


No.


Sorry, but that's the brutal truth.


What you can do is control how quickly or slowly you personally learn by ensuring a regular practice time and structuring it well. However, the whole crash course, 'learn piano in 60 days' etc. that has been trending on the like of YouTube is not only not necessarily true, but it also damages those who are learning (whether it be self teaching or private tuition) because it creates an expectation that we should be progressing faster.


Unfortunately, we as humans all work differently. Therefore, your 60 days may be 7 days. Or 360 days.


When you self teach, it is extremely tempting to gloss over things. And people do. For example, with piano you ought to learn a lot of music theory. Granted, a lot of it does come naturally as you go through, but if you're learning from a book or even a video and they start mentioning music notation, scales and technical exercises, key signatures etc., many people will skip through them. Then be surprised that they're not as good as they should be.


Similarly, they will learn practice pieces from books or online courses to a reasonable extent and not to a final performance extent. Every piece you focus on, no matter how boring or seemingly simple, you should be able to play confidently, with or without metronome and honouring everything asked for such as tempo change, dynamic, pedalling etc.


Sometimes I can spend an entire 30 minute lesson with a pupil developing a simple 8 - 10 bar exercise. If you're not ready to move on and you have a teacher, a good teacher will not allow you to move on if it is deemed too soon for you.



A Change of Instrument



Many of my pupils use electric pianos or keyboards, and this is fine - especially for the beginner pianist. But if you are learning piano, it is really beneficial to get used to playing on the real thing. Even if you have a piano at home, learning on a different instrument is a great way to explore the instrument and get a feel for different tones and different touches.


Whilst this point doesn't really apply to a lot of other instrumental pupils, it is something that will be amiss from self teaching. In this instance, you focus solely on playing well on your own piano / keyboard. Then when the time comes to show off your skills at, say, a party with a piano, it can be a little more misleading.


Many piano teachers do home visits, however this isn't something I actively encourage unless you have good reason to not go out. Instead, consider visiting your piano teacher's home or school and learning on a fresh instrument.



No Stones Left Unturned



Absolutely not! Much as my pupils think they will get away with the odd wrong note - they won't! They must strive to be the best they can be!


Occasionally I might reorder lessons against the books they are working from if there is a particularly difficult section, or one I think is illogically ordered, but overall we work through and don't move until we're happy with everything.


And by happy - I mean happy! Because...



Encouragement



Arguably the most important of all...you are your own worst enemy! But ironically if you teach yourself you start to get this potentially false sense of skill and achievement. Visiting a piano teacher and having regular lessons will not only make you more motivated and feel like you are achieving, but in turn your piano teacher will encourage you and praise you through the good bits! Because, whereas we're all prone to mistakes, it's important to get regular positive feedback as well!


 

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