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Common mistakes to avoid when learning to play piano

By Scott Houston
 I’m sure everyone has heard the saying that if you do what you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. Well, learning to play the piano was my first experience in applying this saying to my life. I’ve been playing since college, started teaching adults in my thirties, and I’m still at it today! 

 Throughout all my years of playing for enjoyment and teaching folks to do the same, I have identified four common mistakes to avoid if you want to have more fun and make faster progress, and they are as follows…

Mistake #1: Not establishing a routine

There are many reasons why you might pursue learning piano, but it pretty much boils down to two: business or pleasure! Learning to play the piano for fun is an inherently more casual experience than learning to play for professional reasons. 

That being said, a little structure goes a long way! Many piano beginners struggle to make progress without some kind of routine. Here are some tips for setting the right tone for your routine:
    • Think of your learning time as “playing sessions” rather than “practice sessions.”
    • Prioritize action over result. Think, “I’m going to play for a half hour today” rather than, “I’m going to play every day until I can play the song with both hands.”
    • Use your left hand to learn the chords of a tune first, and master it. THEN move on to the melody line (which is a little more complex) with your right hand, master it. Then, put your hands together! I’ve found this method to be a wildly efficient time saver AND super effective at preventing frustration and burnout.

    • It’s common sense to start with the basics and move up little by little—the challenging part of the process comes when you don’t progress as fast as you’d like or expect. When, not if, this happens, I really encourage you to keep an open mind and easygoing spirit. There are going to be things that challenge you and might even frustrate you, and that’s okay! It’s all part of the journey outside of your comfort zone, and as long as you remember to keep having fun, keep working at it, and stop being so hard on yourself—you’ll find the rewards of playing are that much sweeter.

Mistake #2: Focusing on reading music

In classical piano, there is an unbreakable link between reading ability and your playing ability—this is all because classical piano requires reading two lines of music notation and playing it with absolute technical accuracy. Modern music on the other hand only uses one line of notation and can be used as more of a “guideline” for playing. So while it is important to develop some music-reading knowledge, don’t let the tail wag the dog when it comes to actually playing. 

Maybe you’re the kind of person who loves rules and can follow them to a tee. Maybe you yearn for guidance, even when it comes to something as free as music. That’s cool. I do too. It’s a relief to have a recipe to follow. But sometimes focusing on following the rules is such a relief that you don’t pay attention to whether or not the music you’re playing actually makes sense, sounds good, and feels natural for your body. It’s helpful for beginners to lean into the freedom aspect of things to get the most enjoyment out of playing.

Mistake #3: Sitting with bad posture

Muscle memory is a big part of playing piano. Correcting your posture might feel strange or unnatural at first, but you must adjust your body so it can provide the most comfort and pain prevention at the bench! Make a checklist for the following physical cues and be sure to check yourself during your playing sessions until it becomes your natural sitting position! 

  • Force your shoulders down.

  • This is the part that might feel uncomfortable at first—but straighten your back. Doing this every time you play will eventually build your core muscles which lends itself to back pain prevention! 

  • Make sure you can reach the entire piano comfortably. If anything is out of reach, adjust your bench. 

  • Don’t let your wrists hang limply.

  • Your left foot provides support for the rest of your body, so make sure it’s firmly planted on the floor directly in front of you. Your right foot should be angled with the heel on the floor so you can use the pedals when needed. 

Mistake #4: Learning music you don't enjoy

A very common misconception about piano is that you absolutely have to build keyboard awareness with daily etudes and scales before you can start learning to play kiddie tunes or even think about learning the music you enjoy hearing. This learning path is NOT your only option! We need to consider the fact that etudes (musical studies) were originally written by classical composers to train new students. If you do not wish to become a classical piano player, endlessly practicing etudes isn’t necessary. Instead, you can use short, daily finger exercises to improve your dexterity, establish some muscle memory, and get comfortable moving on the keyboard.

As far as kiddie tunes go—there’s absolutely nothing wrong with learning “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” but the fact is, most modern music from the last 50 – 60 years uses simple enough chord progressions to learn as a beginner. Learning to play any tune is going to involve some degree of repetition, meaning you’re going to be hearing it quite a bit—wouldn’t it be a bit more rewarding and enjoyable if you’re learning a piece of music you actually like?

Through my own piano progress and experience teaching adults, I have found learning to play based on a personal connection to the tunes and admiration for the artists to be the most effective, motivating, and FUN method to develop musical skills at any age.Ready to learn to play yourself? You can find more tips and tricks on my Youtube channel or take a free Intro Course with me by clicking the button below!