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Tips for Nervous Beginners...

...I toyed with the idea of putting the key word - 'piano' - in the title there, but decided against it as I'm pretty sure (over 70%) that there are numerous situations in life to which these can be applied. However, I'm going to write the rest of this blog using piano examples and with the mindset that I am, as you are no doubt aware by now, a piano teacher.


And like any teacher, I get pupils who are nervous or unsure.


So this post is for those people. Words of advice, reassurance and guidance from somebody who, in fairness, has been there himself!



piano Jack Mitchell Smith teacher pianist Macclesfield Cheshire
Copyright © Brian Law Photography


It is Merely a Musical Instrument



My first point may sound a touch obvious, but it is essential to remember that nothing bad will come out of you learning the piano.


Put it like this;


If I were an instructor for any mode of transportation, whether that be something as commonplace as driving or much more specialised such as flying, there are very real dangers that need addressing. You require constant focus, constant attention. Head in the game at all times - often pre-empting as well as dealing with the here and now.


If I were a trainer for some form of weapon, there would be very real dangers involved here too.


And even sports training can cause physical issues if not gone about in the right way!


So when I say that a piano is 'merely' an instrument, I don't do so with the intention of undermining how amazing a thing being a musical instrument is, but more so to do with how little damage you will do for not playing the right note or playing a bit out of time.


None!


Last time I checked, pianos are not weaponised, and surprisingly there is no plan to weaponise them. Therefore, you can play piano in absolute safety and comfort! No danger to anyone, including yourself.



The Lack of Judgement



For many people, on the other hand, it is more the judgement that they feel they will get when they start to perform for others whether this be friends and family who may just happen to be in the house, actual performances or...of course...the teacher!


Here's the secret about any good piano teacher:


A good piano teacher will not expect something unrealistic of any of their pupils.


So, if you go away with some exercises or a piece of music set by your teacher and you come back - regardless of how much or how little practice you put in - not able to do it or do it as well as you feel you should given that the expert has set it, it is actually not your responsibility to fix this. It is the teacher's.


In this instant, a teacher will identify problem areas, offer assistance with your technique, suggest exercises to better your performance or other area as needed or - and here's the thing - they'll strip it back and recognise that you need something a tad more basic.


And there's absolutely no shame in that. Walking before you can run is always the best approach, and this is true of new beginners or people who are relearning the piano after any amount of time away from the instrument.



"Strong and Wrong" is OK



As I have previously identified, the piano is not a weapon. Therefore, it will cause you no pain for playing the keys a little harder.


However, one of the most common things I see amongst beginners is a trepidation in playing the keys, preferring to somewhat 'stroke' them instead.


There are times, of course, when the dynamic will be beautifully enhanced for this technique, however it is a technique that requires control and the control is not necessarily something that the pupil has mastered yet.


Therefore, hitting the keys harder and creating a consistent dynamic for your exercises and practicing your pieces is fantastic. And you might find as you adopt a more 'firm' approach to your playing that you don't play the notes as accurately to begin with. However, you are strengthening your fingers and - providing you do in fact continue with this technique - it will become the new norm enough that you can play much more confidently.



Over-practising is a Silent Killer



If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times:


Don't. Over. Practice.


And the reasoning behind this simple, golden rule is twofold;


  • your fingers and hands can get tired, as can your posture and your focus. This isn't just true of piano playing. It's true of anything from revision to physical training. In doing so, you'll notice a decline in your standard, meaning that despite the fact that you are repeating the same thing over and over, it isn't necessarily going in because your brain starts to shut off and your fingers just don't have the energy. This in itself is a good enough reason, but if you don't recognise it then you can definitely find yourself a victim of frustration, leading to stress at having not been able to practice 'substantially'. And stress then leads to...


  • ...lack of enjoyment. The association of not being able to play and it being hard work because it's causing you physical and / or mental fatigue and / or pain can seriously jeopardise your feeling towards the piano. And you need to remember that, fundamentally, the reason you are learning piano should be because you want to learn to play, and the reason you want to learn to play should be because you think it's a beautiful instrument, you like piano music, you enjoy playing etc. etc.


So never put yourself in this position!


Recognise as soon as possible if you are getting stressed and take a break. And breaks can do more good than over-practicing! If you take a break and return to the same problem area the following day, you may even find it less of a challenge than you did the previous!


It may sound daft to suggest to not do something to help you with your practice sessions, but if that's what you need to do then that's absolutely fine!



Set Realistic Goals and Expectations



This one has never been a problem for any of my pupils, but it is one I caution anybody wishing to start piano to consider.


Anybody can learn to play piano. I firmly believe that. However, you need to consider what you want to learn piano for, or why.


If you wish to be a concert pianist, fantastic. But you have to consider all things, such as;


  • age

  • how often you can practice

  • health

  • any deadlines you need to meet


Anybody wishing to be a concert pianist will need to devote an awful lot of practice to playing and a fair amount of study to understand theory and reading music, have good eyesight, good control of their mental health under high pressure situations, no unmanageable / unbearable pain in hands (and feet, preferably) and not only the desire but the ability to learn to learn pieces of music in short amounts of time (this partly ties into frequency of practice).


Learning casually is a great way to go, but it is still a good idea to have some sort of goal by the end of it. This can be the form of getting so far in a workbook, learning a specific piece of music or working towards an exam. However, these must also take the above into account. For example, working towards exams take a good amount of practice. Can you fit this in? Is it worth you waiting for the end of an exam syllabus year to start the new one if you are worried about the deadline you have to meet if you are unsure or consider yourself a slower learner?


Often I get new pupils who just wish to learn casually, and this is fantastic as this is a canvas that can be built upon jointly between both them and myself. Keeping an open mind is a really good tool to have, as you may find you have strengths in areas you didn't even consider! For example, a classical grounding is all well and good but once you've got that you may find you have a really good grasp of the jazz technique, even if you've never considered that before!



We're All Still Learning!



Oh yes. You might think that I can play off the cuff any piece of music that is set in front of me.


I can't. My practice journals are testament to that.


You might think I'm as good a pianist now as the best in the world!


Absolutely not!


You may think I'm as good as I'm ever going to get?


No...


Although I could potentially call it quits not and play purely for pleasure and never broaden my performance catalogue (which is absolutely fine if you feel you have got what you want out of the instrument), I am still very much taking on new pieces to learn and doing exercises to improve my technique.


And you know how you might be struggling with that exercise that's only on the second page of your workbook?


I feel the exact same way about some of the exercises and pieces I'm learning!


What's the difference?


The only difference is that I'm farther advanced, and - speaking relatively - we're both going through the same thing.


If you persist, you will achieve and one day that very exercise or piece will become what you might term 'child's play' to you. But this doesn't mean you'll feel accomplished. You'll just keep moving on!


So enjoy the process, because learning piano - or any instrument, I believe - is, as I say regularly, amongst the most rewarding things you can do!

 

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