I was recently asked for some tips on returning to the piano after a long absence.

I stopped playing the piano at the age of 18 when I left home to go to university and I didn’t touch the instrument again seriously until I was in my late 30s.

It may be two years or twenty since you last touched a piano, but however long the absence, taking the decision to return to playing is exciting, challenging and just a little trepidatious.

Here are some thoughts on how to return to playing:

Stick with the familiar and play the music you learnt before

To get back in to the habit of playing, start by returning to music you have previously learnt. You may be surprised at how much has remained in the fingers and brain, and while facility, nimbleness and technique may be rusty, it shouldn’t take too long to find the music flowing again, especially if you learnt and practised it carefully in the past.

Take time to warm up

You may like to play scales or exercises to warm up, but simple yoga or Pilates-style exercises, done away from the piano, can also be very helpful in warming up fingers and arms and getting the blood flowing. This kind of warm up can also be a useful head-clearing exercise to help you focus when you go to the piano.

You don’t have to play scales or exercises!

Some people swear by scales, arpeggios and technical exercises while others run a mile from them (me!). As a returner, you are under no obligation to play scales or exercises. While they may be helpful in improving finger dexterity and velocity, many exercises can be tedious and repetitive. Instead try and create exercises from the music you are playing – it will be far more useful and, importantly, relevant.

Invest in a decent instrument

If you are serious about returning to the piano, a good instrument is essential. It needn’t be an acoustic piano; there are many very high-quality digital instruments to choose from. Select one with a full-size keyboard and properly weighted keys which imitate the action of a real piano. The benefits of a digital instrument are that you can adjust the volume and play with headphones so as not to disturb other members of your household or neighbours, and most digital instruments allow you to record yourself and connect to apps which provide accompaniments or a rhythm section which makes playing even more fun!

Posture is important

You’ve got a good instrument, now invest in a proper adjustable piano stool or bench. Good posture enables you to play better, avoid tiredness and injury

Little and often

Your new-found enthusiasm for the piano may lead you to play for hours on end over the weekend but hardly at all during the week. Instead of a long practice session, aim for shorter periods at the piano, every day if possible, or at least 5 days out of 7. Routine and regularity of practice are important for progress.

Consider taking lessons

A teacher can be a valuable support, offering advice on technique, productive practising, repertoire, performance practice, and more. Choose carefully: the pupil-teacher relationship is a very special one and a good relationship will foster progress and musical development. Ask for recommendations from other people and take some trial lessons to find the right teacher for you.

Pianists at play at a summer piano course in France

Go on a piano course

Piano courses are a great way to meet other like-minded people – and you’ll be surprised how many returners there are out there! Courses also offer the opportunity to study with different teachers, hear other people playing, get tips on practising, chat to other pianists, and discover repertoire. I’ve made some very good friends through piano courses, and the social aspect is often as important as the learning for many adult amateur pianists.  More on piano courses here

Join a piano club or meetup group

If you fancy improving your performance skills in a supportive friendly environment, consider joining a piano club. You’ll meet other adult pianists, hear lots of different repertoire, have an opportunity to exchange ideas, and enjoy a social life connected to the piano. Piano clubs offer regular performance opportunities which can help build confidence and fluency in your playing.

Listen widely

Listening, both to CDs or via streaming, or going to live concerts, is a great way to discover new repertoire or be inspired by hearing the music you’re learning played by master musicians.

Buy good-quality scores

Cheap, flimsy scores don’t last long and are often littered with editorial inconsistencies. If you’re serious about your music, invest in decent sheet music and where possible buy Urtext scores (e.g. Henle, Barenreiter or Weiner editions) which have useful commentaries, annotations, fingering suggestions, and clear typesetting on good-quality paper.

Play the music you want to play

One of the most satisfying aspects of being an adult pianist is that you can choose what repertoire to play. Don’t let people tell you to play certain repertoire because “it’s good for you”! If you don’t enjoy the music, you won’t want to practice. As pianists we are spoilt for choice and there really is music out there to suit every taste.

Above all, enjoy the piano!


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Guest post by Howard Smith


Glenn Gould once said “One does not play the piano with one’s fingers, one plays the piano with one’s mind.” Sounds plausible, but what did he mean? I’ve heard similar ideas from my piano teachers. One suggested, “spending time away from the keyboard with the sheet music.”  Another urged me to “fully concentrate while practicing”.  And, an experienced concert pianist told me that “Practice must always be ‘mind led’. Do not touch the keyboard until you are sure of things.”  

What does it mean to play the piano with one’s mind?

I should explain why I am writing about this topic. I am an upper-intermediate pianist struggling to make a solid transition to ‘advanced’. I stress ‘solid’. How come? I did little piano as a child and my gap before returning to the keys was 45 years! The cards are stacked against me. Whenever I use this cruel fact as an excuse with my teachers, they ramble on about practice approaches – of course – and the conversation always ends in the same place: “It’s all in the mind, Howard.” Well, is it? 

I must start with how I feel. It is taking me an inordinate time to bring new pieces to fruition. I won’t go into details but I will make an assertion. Unless I can get on top of pieces more readily, I simply won’t be getting through enough varied music to make progress. Imagine a tennis player who rarely played against more able opponents. The only way top-ranked players progress is to play regularly against their peers. Likewise, the only way musicians progress is to expand their repertoire. If the amateur pianist is taking weeks, months or in some cases a year or more to get a new piece under their fingers, is it surprising that their progress will be limited? No. One could easily find oneself going backwards!

I am sitting with my regular teacher and explaining the dilemma to her. She explains that it is common to take weeks and months on new work. She also explains that she generally requires her students to tackle the set pieces for upcoming grade examinations in a single term, or at most two terms. I tend to agree with her.  I don’t think you can count yourself to be ‘at’ a grade level if it takes a year or more to bring the required three pieces to a good standard. But I am no exam chaser. Far from it. My interest in this topic is borne out of my own frustration in crossing the chasm from upper-intermediate to advanced. It is also an intellectual curiosity. My teacher observed, for example, that I have no trouble moving my fingers and hands once the piece is absorbed. “It is not your fingers that are the problem,” she said. So what, precisely, is the problem? 

Another teacher talked about patterns.  “It’s all about patterns, Howard,” he said. “You must be able to recognise the patterns, not the individual notes”. I can relate to that, my sight reading is sub-standard. But I am unconvinced this is the only, or even the main, thing that is holding me back. Even after I have spent time ‘learning the notes’ the hard way (rote repetition) I still feel an impediment buried deep in my playing. It rarely feels … easy, relaxed. There is a hesitancy in my transitions, especially in more complex or rapid passages. I must admit, it does feel as though it is my mind being the sluggish laggard in those moments, not my nimble fingers. It ‘feels’ as if a signal is not being communicated from my brain to my hands as quickly as required to keep the music moving forward. Or perhaps the conjuring up of the correct signal, the moment of thought, is lacking. It is often enough to disturb the play. I can enjoy the occasional sense of ‘flow’ but it is rare for me to experience what other pianists have described as ‘letting go’.  When I do, everything falls apart, more often than not.

Teachers cannot easily see into the mind of their pupils. My starting point for thinking about this impediment can only be, therefore, how I feel while playing. And believe me, I have tried. This kind of self reflection is like trying to swivel your eyes to look inside your head. Yes, I do have a sense that something mental lies at the heart of my blocks. The question is, what? 

It’s easy to become paranoid. I am in late middle age and only too well aware that the mind is less agile than perhaps it once was. It starts with little things, forgetfulness, not remembering people’s names, forgetting where one left one’s glasses, etc. Is this what is holding me back? Am I simply the victim of biology and the ageing process? The thought horrifies me. I stepped into this ‘piano journey’ game late in life. I understood there was a diminishing ‘window of opportunity’. But every time I raise this with a teacher they assure me the impediment can be overstated, that adults have certain advantages over children. We are able to spend more time at the keyboard for example, and with developed intellects we can immerse ourselves in more of the theory and practice that tackling this instrument requires. There are stories of amateur pianists still making progress well into their late 70s and early 80s. Will that be me, I wonder? I have to believe so. 

If the ageing process is not as much an impediment than I once feared, what else could be holding me back? My career was spent in the computer industry, specifically, software development and complex systems design. That takes intelligence? What is the role of intelligence in piano playing? I’ve never met an unintelligent musician at the top of their game. There is a reason why you find super-intelligent people around music. Perhaps I have the wrong kind of intelligence for the piano? Is there such a thing as ‘musical intelligence’? Am I lacking it? My penfriend, a biologist, is quick to point out there are not different types of intelligence, just differences in the way the brain develops depending how it is applied, the object of our attention. Does the child who plays music from the age of six develop a musician’s intelligence different in kind than the intelligence required of a software engineer? Is it now too late to change the wiring? 

When I think about great pianists, when I marvel at their superhuman feats of virtuosic performance and memorisation, I have to conclude that raw IQ must play a significant role. Is that what is holding me back? Am I less intelligent than required for piano? I never was any good at those ‘recall twenty objects on a tray’ games. Or perhaps my kind of intelligence (logic and math) is simply the wrong colour for music? The thought terrifies me. Having taken the decision to step out of a career of one kind for an activity of quite a different nature, to have spent years in the journey on a quest that leads nowhere, I’m not sure how I could handle that. My friends, sensing such a possibility, urge me to have ‘realistic’ expectations. So what’s to be done? I’m not ready to give up. On the other hand, unless I can make more progress and tackle more advanced music more readily, I do not believe that playing a stream of simpler pieces could sustain me. There is a real possibility of never touching the keys again. For someone as passionate about music as I, who has entered into the spirit of the journey as fully as I, this is quite a statement to make. But I have to admit it: as I write this article, I am on a knife edge. To use a metaphor from my book, Note For Note, I may be about to fall off the escalator and never jump back on. 

What’s to be done? 

A friend from my piano circle urged me to reassess my practice regime. He was kind enough to send me a detailed systematic approach that he is experimenting with. I looked at it, but was unconvinced. I have used some of those techniques before, perhaps not as rigorously as he would advise, but I don’t think doing more of the same will help me. He also suggested that I step back and work on simpler pieces, a few grades below my current level, so as to get through more music and, at the same time, benefit from the sight-reading.  Sounds sensible, but I was not immediately motivated to do this. No, another idea popped into my mind, and it was reinforced by an experienced pianist I met at summer school. He said, “Given your age, Howard, it’s now or never.  I would recommend you tackle a few works far in advance of your grade. Stretch goals.”  His idea held great appeal to me. His theory was that even if I did not complete the pieces to the standard required for performance, I would learn a lot in the process. And so, somewhat tentatively, I chose such a piece. 

Have you ever come across a piece that, on first listen, touches you so deeply that you decide, there and then, that you simply must be able to play it, no matter what the cost in time and effort. Not ‘wish’ or ‘hope’ to play it, but ‘must’ play it, with all your soul. I have found such a piece, by complete chance. It is more than gorgeous. It is not one of the greatest works of music, nor is it so complex that a diploma level pianist would find it daunting. For me it is pitched just right. It lies far from my comfort zone but not so far as to be permanently inaccessible. And so I have set myself this goal: unless I can truly perform (not merely play) this piece by the Spring, I hereby make a solemn oath: I will never play again. 

Postscript

I’ve not yet learnt to play with the mind, but I have learnt this:  As I practice I must practice even more slowly than I had previously realised. Every note and every chord must be ‘read’ from the sheet music. I must never assume my fingers will take me to where I need them to be. I must will them to do so, by brain power alone. Every movement must be fully considered. As I move through the music I must make no mistakes. For to make a single mistake will engrain it for next time. If I am making mistakes, even small ones, this is the signal that I must slow down even more. If necessary I must not move to the next beat until the positions of the hands and fingers for the subsequent beat are correct. This correction must occur in the mind before it is manifest in the fingers. This mind-led practice is what I will strive to perfect from now on.  Whether this is what Glenn Gould or my teachers meant I am less sure. I must find out. 

As ever, I wish to learn from the piano community, many of whom will have made more progress than me. Let’s have a conversation. What do you think Glenn Gould and my teachers meant? Please feel free to comment below


Howard Smith is a keen amateur pianist and author of Note for Note, a compelling account of his piano journey. Find out more here https://linktr.ee/note4notethebook

 

In this wide-ranging conversation Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) talks to pianist, recording artist and teacher Eleonor Bindman about the world of the amateur pianist, the pleasures and frustrations of being an amateur pianist, how teaching adult amateurs presents interesting unique challenges for teacher and pupil alike, and much, much more…..


How long have you been playing the piano?

As an adult, I spent 2 years with a jazz teacher and a few additional months working with a singer-songwriter. During this period I had no classical piano training, preferring instead to focus on jazz harmony and song-writing. However, I did play a lot of scales and arpeggios, some quite creative (modes, chord-scale theory etc.) At the end of this period of rather ad-hoc and chaotic learning, I felt I could play the piano (just) but now realised that I did need to find a ‘real’ piano teacher. Technique. And I did. She diagnosed me as ‘perhaps G5’ and suggested we work together to push to G6 and G7 with all due haste. I did, but it was a lot of work. Too much, I feel. Piano coordination does not come naturally to me. Before I say more, let me explain that, as a child, I did play a little. Maybe got to G3, but my ‘gap’ and return to the piano is the ever-present chasm of forty-five years! I am, therefore, the proverbial ‘very late returning’ adult pianist. I left a lucrative career to pursue the bewitching instrument and I am only too well aware of what I call my narrowing ‘window of opportunity’. The clock is ticking. I certainly need to make more progress over the next year or two. The last eighteen months has not been easy, what with the pandemic. I chose not to do ‘zoom’ lessons. That was probably a mistake. And, to make matters worse, I suffered a cycling accident pre-pandemic, just as things were coming together for me. I was unable to play for a year. This lost time led to a loss of skills which then had to be hard-won all over again. My surgeon called it ‘retraining’. At this point I nearly lost the will to continue.

What attracted you to the piano?

Harmony. Overtones. Resonance. And dissonance. I simply love the sound. Always have; always will. The instrument is wide open to composition and improvisation. As a child, our modest upright was more an object of curiosity, an engineering marvel, than it was a musical instrument. I remember the occasions when I removed the front panel and watched, fascinated, as the hammers and levers, pecking and bobbing like birds at the taut strings, moved in synchronisation with my fingers. I was not playing the piano, I was performing a physics experiment. It was a laboratory demonstration accompanied by a cacophony of dissonance, shifting and dancing in time with the intricate mechanism. Had our piano been a musical box or fairground automaton, I suspect I would have been equally satisfied just studying its movements for hours on end in an attempt to discern its inner workings. But out of these naïve experiments came my first embryonic compositions. Some of these teenage pretensions were so complex I could hardly play them. My young mind was racing ahead, my fingers less so. And school (and my natural ability with ‘making’ and fascination with electronics) was steering me in a different direction. A career in computing during the 80s and 90s took over, and real life (children, family) intervened. Here I am, forty-five years later, regretting I had not stuck at the awkward childhood piano lessons my parents had funded. For me, the sounds and the music itself has always been the draw.

What kind of repertoire do you enjoy playing, and listening to?

I want to play the impressionists, Debussy, Poulenc, Ravel. Also Delius. But let me be clear, it’s the harmony that attracts me. It is probably not a coincidence that these composers were influencing and influenced by the emergence of jazz. My return to the piano, if we can call it that, was not a planned or deliberate act. I was out shopping. It hit me like a brick. I simply had to play. I walked into a music shop and asked for a teacher. He happened to be a jazz musician. He fitted like a glove. And for anyone who thinks less of jazz than ‘classical’, think again. One of my heroes is Dave Grusin. I’ve love to be able to play his rich brew of harmonic shifts. And as I explore the ‘serious’ composers, I hear echoes of the jazz giants all the time. Even within today’s ‘cutting edge’ jazz scene. Ever heard of Sam Crowe of Native Dancer? To improvise like Sam would be a joy …. but I’d need to study a Phd in jazz harmony as pre-requisite, as indeed he has. So, for the time being my performances are rather more modest … but the harmony has to be there. I love Satie and intend to make a decent recording; if only for the family archive. And I keep tripping over cute pieces that contain echoes of the chords and colours I love so much. You know, dominant 13ths, flat 5ths, sharp 9ths, chords in 4ths, the tritone. An example: during G6 I played Petite Litancies De Jesus by Gabriel Grovlez. It’s simply lovely. And more recently I have found Giya Kanceheli. He wrote for film and stage. His collection entitled ‘Simple Music for Piano’ is gorgeous, and within my reach. Again, I intend to record.

Much of the ‘grade syllabus’ does not contain music I particularly like. But I have completed G7 including some Mozart and Schubert. I am on a journey. Bach will be there eventually, beyond the pair of 2-part inventions I managed along side my grade work.

How do you make the time to practice? Do you enjoy practising?

I am retired. I stood down from my career to focus on music. I have all the time in the world. Any limitation is energy – mental and focus. Had my accident not occurred, and had the pandemic not led governments to close our society and activities, I think I’d be further along. Now I have to find the renewal to restart and reenergise. I fear it won’t be easy.

Certain types of practice I enjoy. I am content to repeat exercises, scales, arpeggios and the many variations required of jazz. I am at my most uncomfortable during the early stages of tackling a new work. Sight reading is poor and I don’t know how to improve it. Coordination is also lacking, especially the left hand and arm. For me, practice is a conundrum. There is always this underlying feeling that one is doing the wrong things, or taking a sub-optimal approach. The clock ticks. Time is running out. At my age, the window of opportunity will eventually close, as certain as night follows day.

If you are taking piano lessons what do you find a) most enjoyable and b) most challenging about your lessons?

Time. Thirty minutes is too short. One hour is OK but I often need more. And even with the time I have available to practice, I don’t feel a weekly lesson is viable or appropriate. I would not have made sufficient progress before ‘next lesson’. So its typically every two weeks (interrupted by the pandemic of course.) As a ‘late returner’ and as I tackle the challenge of transitioning from early advanced to advanced, I value a teacher willing to enter into a discussion of my challenges beyond guidance on phrasing and articulation; to look ahead and be my guide. I feel that a lot of what limits me now is either psychological or in the cortex – biology, the brain slowing down. If I could just ‘hang out’ with a talented pianist for a few hours I feel I could learn a lot. But I am probably being naïve. Mostly its just graft that is required.

Have you taken any piano exams? What is your experience of taking music exams as an adult and what, in your opinion, are the benefits/challenges of doing so?

Yes. I took ABRSM G4 and G5 theory. Sitting in a room with 150 children was certainly an experience! And I have sat both G6 practical and G7 performance. Hated those video things. But I do intend to go further, hopefully quite a bit further. I find paying for others in any context intimidating and have written before about performance anxiety. Why do I subject myself to this? Partly discipline. Partly to measure progress. And partly just to be able to face the daemons. This is also why I joined a piano circle. [The lessons Howard learnt from his piano circle are documented here  and appears as an appendix to his book charting his adventures in music: Note For Note ]

Have you attended any piano courses? What have you gained from the experience?

I have. It was like going back to school. Wonderful. And to be around other pianists of all ages and abilities; inspiring; but also sobering. Summer school is, for me, a good substitute for my ultimate aim: to return to college to study music in some capacity: theory, composition or practical. But as I’ve found, the road is steep to get there and my current progress (and deficit of energy or focus sapped by the pandemic to be frank) is not a good indicator of success. Let’s just call it my ‘unrealistic aspiration’ and leave it there for the time being.

Do you perform? What do you enjoy/dislike about performing?

At the piano circle, yes. It’s a test. I want to play at a level that people enjoy listening. Despite my piano buddies kind words at each of my attempts, I know in my heart that I have achieved beauty on only a few occasions. I have no desire to inflict on anyone (friends or family let alone the ‘public’) an ‘amateurish’ performance (or worse). In many ways I am quite happy playing for myself. But I’d like to think that one day I will be able to genuinely move another human being with a performance of music I treasure … or have composed? Isn’t that the mark of a musician?

I did once write a love song for my wife, and two companion pieces. They were performed at a ‘living room concert’ for a large group of our friends. I played. My song-writing tutor sang. Musically it was a modest achievement; emotionally a roller-coaster. But I loved every minute of it and I believe the audience did also. I hope so.

What advice would you give to other adults who are considering taking up or returning to the piano?

Who am I to give advice, but here goes. Only embark on such a costly expedition if you are clear that it is what you need, and must do. For adult first-timers it is going to take significant dedicated time input over a sustained period. Little of this journey will be easy. Nor will it always be ‘fun’. Look to your teachers to show you the way but recognise that even they, with decades of experience, will not have all the answers you need. Explore. I found it necessary to wallow in a good deal of self-reflection during my time on what I call ‘the escalator’ (you cannot get off). The road ahead will be more than a little rocky. Find your own shock absorbers and escape pods. And whatever you do, try to avoid self-inflicted accidents and pandemics.

If you could play one piece, what would it be?

The second movement (Adagio assai) of the Piano Concerto in G by Maurice Ravel. With orchestra or with second piano acting as orchestra. I then believe I will have learned to play the piano.


N4NfrontcoverHoward Smith is the author of Note for Note, a “Pilgrim’s Progress” for the amateur pianist, charting his own piano journey – the pleasures and the pitfalls, the achievements and “lightbulb moments”. More information here

Howard  Smith (1957-) was born in England and grew up in Kent. An internationally recognised chief technologist and management consultant, he wrote his first computer programs at the age of fourteen before entering university to study physics. His landmark book (2003) Business Process Management: The Third Wave, generated over three hundred articles in the IT industry media, was an Amazon #1 best seller in five categories, reaching the top 200 of all books (including fiction) and was featured in the Harvard Business Review. In 2017, Howard decided to leave the computer industry he loved to pursue a new life in music. His latest book, Note For Note: Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, tells the inspirational story of how he navigated his transition from the bits and bytes of the computer industry to the world of melody, harmony and musical performance.

Howard lives in Surrey, England, with his wife.


If you are an adult amateur pianist and would like to take part in the Piano Notes series, please download the PIANO NOTES adult pianist interview.