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.

Guest post by Javen Ling, founder of Alternate Tone Music School, Singapore

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“I do not have the potential to be a great pianist as I don’t have long, slender fingers”

Long, slender fingers do not necessarily make you a better pianist. While longer fingers may be an advantage in playing certain repertoire with large stretches, short, fat fingers are also an advantage when it comes to playing other music

Some of the world’s greatest pianists have small hands and stubby fingers. Instead of worrying about how your genetics have not provided you with your ideal fingers, start to work developing your technique and learn to accept your physical limitations. If a piece of music is not particularly well-suited to your hand, find a way to work around it. Every pianist eventually has to learn to live with their limitations and adapt to them.

Great pianists come in all shapes and sizes. There is no specific type of finger size or length that determines your potential.

“When I start learning a new piece, I should work from the beginning to the end”

Typically, most people will learn the piece from beginning to end and continuously practice until they can play the entire piece well. The problem with this method is having the discipline to push forward when music gets harder to play. As you approach a section that you’re unfamiliar with, you might be tempted to stray away from that and repeat the part in which you are comfortable with, rather than working on the difficult sections.

The most efficient way is to learn the most difficult sections first. This allows you to spend more time on the most difficult sections, rather than avoiding them or leaving them until later in your practicing. Thus when you start learning a new piece, scan through the composition, and determine which section/s appears the most difficult and start working on it first. As you become familiar with the harder section, you will tend to practice it more and under practice the easier sections.

“I don’t see any need to practice hands separately”

Professional pianists continue to practice hands separately even after playing a piece for 25 years or more! Many people are usually taught to practice hand separately first in order to reach their end goal of playing their hands together.

The benefit of practicing your hands separately is that you can focus on note-learning, technical sections and nuances of voicing and phrasing that might be overlooked if you practice hands together. So don’t forget about practicing separately once passed the initial phase of learning a passage. Use it as a tool to polish and improve your playing.

“Never look down at your hands when playing”

Most piano teachers encourage their students not to look at their hands. Firstly, this activity can slow down their learning, especially sight-reading skills as it inhibits them from looking ahead in the score. Secondly, students should not be too reliant on looking at their hands to find the right keys. Thirdly, the action of continually looking up at the sheet music and down at your hands can make you dizzy and might make it difficult to keep track of where you are at in the music.

An occasional glance down at the hands is PERFECTLY FINE. The trick is to not move your head too vigorously, but rather to just glance down at your hands quickly before looking back up at the sheet. By that I mean keeping your head perfectly still and just look down your nose at your hands. Lastly, of course, you should know the sequence of the keys well enough to locate them easily!

“I can easily learn the piano on my own”

With YouTube and Google, it is easy to pick up any skill via the Internet.

You can certainly teach yourself about music theory, history and techniques via the internet; however, a teacher’s experience is invaluable in helping you to improve your playing skills and technique, and advise you on common mistakes. In the long run, this will probably save you time and accelerate your learning.

Many people think that by taking piano lessons you have to go through graded piano exams. That is not the case. It really depends on what you are looking for. If you are interested in becoming a piano teacher or a piano professional, then it is advisable to take exams and diplomas. However, if you just want to learn for leisure, you don’t need to take exams and you can play repertoire which you enjoy, whether classical music, jazz or pop. Alternate Tone music school in Singapore specialises in teaching contemporary music and offers personalised lessons, which means you get to play your favourite music no matter what level you’re at!

If you’re still convinced you can get there without any professional help, that’s absolutely fine! There are many great and talented musicians who did not undergo any formal training. But in my opinion, the piano is definitely harder to learn on your own because of the structure of the instrument and its repertoire. If your goal is to play well, I definitely recommend having a good piano teacher to guide you through your piano studies.

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Last month I was fortunate enough to have a piano lesson with noted pianist and pedagogue Alan Fraser.

Originally from Montreal, Canada, Fraser is a professor of piano at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia, where he now lives with his family. Alan Fraser is best known for his writings on piano technique, including The Craft of Piano. His piano technique is the result of much research into earlier piano schools and methods, and has resulted in a deeper understanding of the complex physical, mental and emotional processes of artful piano playing. The underlying unifying theme is his analysis of the the innate structure and function of the human hand, which helps you replace tension or over-relaxation with effective hand activationit’s not so much about the hand’s shape or position as how it moves. He is also an ardent champion and senior practitioner of the Feldenkrais Method, which focuses on learning and movement, and which can bring about improved movement and enhanced functioning. Not dissimilar to Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais can permanently improve  posture, balance and coordination, and relieve tension and physical discomfort.

I was curious to meet Alan, having come across his writings online and in his book, and via the recommendations of colleagues, and I found him an enthusiastic and inspiring teacher (I was also permitted to observe him teaching another student). While some of his technique and suggestions runs counter to my own teacher’s philosophy, he had interesting and valuable advice and techniques for relieving tension and producing a vibrant sound, and I think as an adult student it is always useful to play for teachers other than one’s regular tutor.

Alan runs regular seminars and masterclasses across Europe and America. Further information about his teaching, writing and performing can be found on his website

It is standard practice for him to film his lessons, and I have uploaded my lesson with him to YouTube to allow others to observe the lesson.

Pianist, teacher and writer Catherine Shefski studied at Smith College, Massachusetts, and at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, where she was taught by EPTA founder, Carola Grindea.  Catherine has performed as a soloist and chamber musician, has taught “virtual” piano lessons, and writes an informative blog, All Piano, with the mission to “make piano lessons relevant for the digital generation”.

During my piano playing “formative” years, age eight to seventeen, I studied with four piano teachers. Two teachers at college and four post-grad brings the total to ten. Each teacher contributed something to my growth as a pianist and as a teacher. I find myself passing along choice tidbits of information to my students, clearing up confusion about musical terminology and offering practice tips.

I’d like to share just a few lessons I learned along the way, in addition to all the repertoire, which made certain teachers (and lessons) memorable.

  • Piu means “more” and peu means “little.”
  • Piu mosso means more motion and meno mosso means less motion.
  • Accidentals do not affect the same note of a different octave, unless indicated by a key signature.
  • Senza means without and sempre means always.
  • To shape the melodic line it usually makes sense to go to the long note.
  • If there is no fingering written in the score, follow the “next note, next finger” rule.
  • Una corda means use the soft pedal (one string); tre corda means release the soft pedal (three strings).
  • When you have two phrases with identical notes and rhythm, make them different by dynamic contrast or a change in touch.
  • Grace notes in Chopin are generally played on the beat.
  • F# minor melodic scale is the only scale that changes fingering on the descent.
  • m.d. (main droite) right hand and m.g. (main gauche) left hand.
  • With a ritardando at the end of a piece pay attention to the space between the notes. Should be incrementally longer with the longest wait before the last note.
  • When working on very soft passages, practice “excavating the pianissimo.” In other words, begin from nothing and then gradually you’ll get to the softest sound possible.
  • Before playing extended octave passages, try flipping your arm over and reaching an octave with your hand upside down, fingers pointing to the floor. It a good stretch!
  • Sopra means above.
  • Sotto voce meas “under voice”, or soft.
  • A staccato note under a slur is a portato. Think of it as a “plump staccato.”
  • When working for dynamic contrast, practice stopping and preparing before the change.
  • When working with large complicated chordal passages, practice squeezing the chord to shape the hand. Your muscles will remember.
  • Sightread chords from the bottom to the top.
  • To play a passage of thirds, fourths, fifths, etc. legato lift the finger that is to be repeated while connecting the rest.
  • When in doubt sing the melody.

© Catherine Shefski

http://allpiano.wordpress.com