How To Prevent Learning The Piano From Becoming Work

When I was learning the piano, here is what I would tell my 24-year-old self to keep it from becoming work. I sometimes find it interesting to play the “if I knew then what I know now” game … So, here it goes with a couple things on that list! (and no, you don’t have to do flips to keep it fun! I don’t think these old hips could take it anyway.)

When I was learning to play piano, here is what I would tell my 24-year-old self to keep it from becoming work.

Looking back on my life’s piano playing history, I sometimes find it interesting to play the “if I knew then what I know now” game … So, here it goes with a couple things on that list!

I’m so glad I always considered myself a “capital D” Drummer first, who happened to play a little piano on the side.

For those of you who may not know my musical history, I was (and I’m sure could be again if I ever picked up some sticks and physically got my chops back together …) a pretty serious and gung-ho jazz drummer from the time I was a little kid. I had a pretty prodigious and successful young career as a drummer/percussionist up through my college years at IU. I really got a lot of time in practicing privately and playing publicly. I honestly felt like I was pretty damn good at something I had spent the majority of my life up to that point working on. So, what does that have to do with piano?

Looking back I was never under any pressure, nor was I nervous or sensitive about how well I played piano. It was just something I did “on the side” and had fun with … Drums—that was the hard work, woodshedding, and the serious stuff I stressed about for career reasons that I hung my entire personal identity hat on. (You ever see the movie Whiplash?) Piano on the other hand? It was just for fun …

For that reason, I never had that cloud hanging over my head feeling like I should be “paying my dues” and feeling guilty for just learning exactly what I wanted to learn without spending years on the “right way” to play (whatever that is …).

Now looking back, even though (physically) I am FAR from being a great piano player from a performance standpoint, I am SO happy that things played out the way they did. Why? Because I have never once in the 30+ years I have been sitting down at a piano ever found it unenjoyable. It NEVER becomes work. Ever … Even when I spend time really grinding on something I may be having technical issues with (which yes, still happens all the time!) it is just a fun challenge for me because I never work on things I am not excited about learning to play.

I am 100% comfortable in my piano playing “skin” knowing I am usually the worst player in the room when I’m around a bunch of good piano playing buddies (which used to happen quite often when we were shooting The Piano Guy series regularly). I know exactly why it is that I play piano. To have fun! I have no competitive piano playing bones in my body and am supremely confident and proud in my role as someone who can teach others to try and get to that same state of happiness found when doing something as innately human and emotional as creating music.

“Have no fear of perfection. You’ll never reach it.” – Salvador Dali

I think if i had ever felt the pressure early on to need to play piano to prove something as opposed to wanting to play piano to have fun tackling something new I was dying to play, I would never have developed the love affair I have with just sitting down to play—for me.

Learning things on a piano based on living vicariously imitating a piano player you admire is not only fine— but highly motivating too!

Having the benefit of hindsight (and a total lack of embarrassment at this point in my life), I don’t think I ever would have really started to tackle some of the tougher things I learned early on if I hadn’t wanted SO much to “be as cool as” or “sound like” or “be able to play and sing like” some of my favorite piano playing idols back then.

Being a realist, even though hard core jazzers like Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans were (and still are) giants to me, I knew that their playing at that point was so far off in the distance from my current ability I couldn’t even begin to emulate them. BUT, there were plenty of other piano players who were big pop/rock stars playing sold out concerts with hit records that I loved and idolized as well. Nothing was stopping me from learning their tunes, and while doing so, secretly imagining myself up on a stage in a sold out arena show playing and singing my heart out. Ha!

My point is, being able to dream a little and visualize myself playing on a tune I could really “step into” mentally was hugely motivating for me. It made me passionately want to “become” the player on the record and learn all the nuances. It was light years more exciting than trying to memorize some piece of sheet music verbatim (and even then not sounding like I wanted it to sound.) It was also when I really internalized the reality of the whole concept that almost never does the corny written arrangement of a piece of sheet music correlate with what the artist was actually playing live (usually while accompanying themselves.)

I think that learning tune after tune by really imitating my favorite recordings gave me the “oomph” I needed to really dive headfirst into learning to play more “by ear,” not that I even considered it consciously when I was doing it. I never formally embarked on “learning to play by ear.” I just had the desire to imagine myself being the one on stage playing the hit tune and sounding just like the pro did while playing it. Really listening to a recording over and over and figuring stuff out simply by trial and error is something I would imagine almost impossible if you didn’t have the burning motivation to want to play it yourself.

That motivation manifested itself into my learning a bunch of tunes that are big hits and that other folks love to hear me play. That in turn, made me want to learn more, and the snowball started getting bigger and bigger. The end result is that by the time I had learned 15-20 tunes, I realized it was getting easier and easier to do with every new tune, and that without any real intention, I had gotten to a point where I could learn things by ear pretty well. It was kind of like magic!

So I guess the insight to be gleaned from these two quick peeks into my back story is that nothing bad (and a lot of good!) comes from not letting piano playing turn into “work,” and, to understand that your motivation doesn’t necessarily always need to come from a dogged work ethic, but instead can flow freely due to the fun of really wanting to learn something you’d love to play.

“Nobody looks stupid when they’re having fun.” – Amy Poehler

Now go get in a little “seat time” at your piano or keyboard and have some fun!

34 Comments
  • Patrick OReilly
    Posted at 09:04h, 14 December Reply

    Thank you, Scott! This is very encouraging information! I have purchased all six online lessons, but am just starting to get into it. Thanks for all of your great material and for making a lifelong dream achievable! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 09:14h, 14 December Reply

      … and a wonderful Holiday season and merry Christmas to you too Patrick 🙂

  • ANTHONY
    Posted at 09:31h, 14 December Reply

    EXCELLANT APPROACH REGARDING YOUR LEVEL OF PLAY.
    SOMETHING TO CONSIDER.
    THANK YOU

  • Julie
    Posted at 11:02h, 14 December Reply

    What Wonderful insight you have into mental processes of would be music players. We enjoy professional musicians playing wonderful tunes, but at the same time we realize we will never reach their level of skill, so we may think ” why should I bother”? The idea of just sitting down to have fun at the piano and not worrying about how good or bad we play is such a wonderful thing. You have given us a great gift, Scott: The freedom to enjoy the piano as it should be enjoyed. Thank you

  • Don sandford
    Posted at 11:08h, 14 December Reply

    Hi Scott: Been following your site for some time and ordered a lot of “stuff” from your store. Always wanted to learn piano even though pretty good on guitar playing by ear and having top melody note on chords via lead sheet as you do on piano. . Your book the “Next step” with Bradley S. helped a lot. But still have a hard time hearing that lead note sound in my head to make it all together to play piano by ear as I do guitar.. Maybe someday ! I hope so. Just wanted to say hello I guess and tks . Merry Xmas and a great 2017!!

  • Marie mm
    Posted at 11:16h, 14 December Reply

    I have taken private piano lessons for years. At best, I am a mediocre piano player. I am on course 4 with your program and I am finally making some real progress.
    Thank you.

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 11:33h, 14 December Reply

      Fantastic (but not surprising …) news! Yeah!!

  • Lucille
    Posted at 11:47h, 14 December Reply

    Hi Scott
    I have a couple of your books and a CD. I love the Favorites and Holiday Songs Fake Book.
    I have played only Classic music since I was a little girl and that was a very long long time ago. Now I am trying to learn my cords to play all the beautiful songs in the book. I would like to play by ear when I am out with people.they ask me to play, but I don’t know how to play by ear. Any suggestions.

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 16:37h, 14 December Reply

      Yes – keep learning chords and playing tunes from Lead Sheets. The more you do it, the more your brain can start to “suggest” a next chord from the memory you have in your head of whatever tune it is you are trying to play. I know that sounds like voodoo, but it’s the truth… Just keep playing using chords.

  • John P Senetto
    Posted at 13:13h, 14 December Reply

    Hi Scott, I’ve been taking Piano in a Flash for a year this month and can finally play “It’s a Wonderful World” from beginning to end.
    My wife is relieved, she used to think my playing all sounded alike! lol. I told her I’m having fun though! but I still have to keep the door closed.
    Merry Christmas Scott and Happy New Year!

  • mike colby
    Posted at 14:02h, 14 December Reply

    Hi Scott. You probably don’t remember me, but I happily gave a testimonial for you in Seattle a few years ago. I have many outdoor hobbies, including hunting, fishing and training hunting dogs. My two indoor hobbies include: fly tying, and Playing the piano, your style. Just about every day, I spontaneously sit down and play piano from one to three hours. If you paid me, I couldn’t play a piece the same way twice in a row. I just love playing. I sincerely appreciate all the work you’ve put into teaching others to play. Thank you. If you ever need me to sing your praises with another testimonial, just let me know. Best wishes, and Happy Holidays Mike Colby

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 16:35h, 14 December Reply

      I sure do remember MIke. Thanks (again) for the nice words!

  • Michael OHalloran
    Posted at 14:17h, 14 December Reply

    Great stuff mate, good read..
    See ya tomorra LIVE.
    I’ve been dashing through the keys to get ready for next bit.

  • Albert Mossman
    Posted at 15:38h, 14 December Reply

    I have been an off and on piano player for over 50 years, never work. Thank goodness you came up on the radar (TV) screen. The Jingle Bells video has been a great help with chords in general. BTW I suggest ending on C6 in left hand. I’ll be in Indy and Bloomington in May to see my daughter graduate from IU, wonder if I’ll meet you.

  • Katie
    Posted at 17:38h, 14 December Reply

    Loved this bit of encouragement from you Scott! I found myself agreeing with you and feeling so thankful for your words of wisdom.
    I work full time and get to the piano when I can. Ie., not as much as I would like…
    Last year I bought the lessons to learn ‘Stardust’, a tune my mother used to play when I was growing up. I had attempted to learn it from standard music sheets and although I played it once for a recital, it was okay, I knew it was nothing like what I remembered.
    Your method really opened up the music for me! I was able to play it for my Dad before he passed away this last summer, it was wonderful for both of us.
    I am inspired to keep going, and I hope you do too. Thank you so much for giving to us all a bit of this gift you have been given.

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 11:58h, 16 December Reply

      What a sweet story… I’m thrilled you got to play for your Dad … As long as I can figure out a way to keep making a living doing this I promise to stick around 🙂 Thanks so much for the encouragement.

  • Dee Romanko
    Posted at 21:09h, 14 December Reply

    Hi Scott, I’ve bought your materials on playing piano in a flash and I’m really enjoying playing my piano now more than ever, so thanks for the great tips you give and the lead sheets with the Christmas songs at this time of year, my husband actually says he enjoys listening even though I’m just practicing so kudos to you.

  • Richard Nichols
    Posted at 17:41h, 15 December Reply

    I really like your style . I keep practicing the free stuff you put on my email.
    I’ so glad that I found you. I am probably too hold to be much of a player (90) but it sure is fun
    Thanks for all your help.
    Dick

  • Chris M
    Posted at 18:34h, 15 December Reply

    Yes! This is exactly how I feel. I learned piano the lead sheet method (thanks to you) and I never play piano for any other reason except to enjoy it. I’m not a great pianist. But I can play the songs I love. Which is all I ever wanted to do.

    Thanks again, Scott

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 11:54h, 16 December Reply

      Good for you! Keep up the good work…

  • Teri Johnson
    Posted at 15:48h, 30 January Reply

    I had lessons as a child. It was always work to learn and practice. I now would like to play hymns for my church. Is your method good for playing hymns? Where should I start?

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 10:06h, 31 January Reply

      For fear that I am telling you what you want to hear, our approach is PERFECT for learning to play hymns … Really. You should just start in with Course 1, whether you want to do it alone, or (less expensively) in the 1-2, or 1-6 bundle. You’ll see the choices on the pricing page here (you can scroll down on that page to see the Course 1 by itself option): http://3.136.150.220/pricing/

      Have fun!
      Scott

  • Ray
    Posted at 19:13h, 27 February Reply

    Cool story. Very much like mine LOL! Except I studied percussion at NTSU. I have played piano all that time as well but only for fun. I still consider drums to be my main axe.

    I’m really interested in this chord thing though as I’ve learned classical type stuff by sheet music. Just takes so doggone long to learn anything.

    It was also fun seeing my cousin-in-law, Matt Munhall, on your show!

    Thanks for the encouragement.

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 16:09h, 28 February Reply

      Ha! Too funny… And as to Matt – what a sweetheart of a guy. I’ve told him more than once that it makes me sad we don’t live closer as I’m sure we’d get a lot of quality hangs in…

  • Shirley Chapman
    Posted at 18:05h, 04 July Reply

    Scott, so excited reading your posts telling about what you do. I was born and raised in rural LA, daughter of a James Claiborn Corley, who was student at Louisiana College in Pineville, LA. He was twenty years older when teaching a Singing School near her home.They fell in love married, had 9 kids (my twin and I were 6 &7, he did not survive..I was the first child he gave lessons to in family and I followed another student of his to play for our Amiable Baptist Church. He was also a Deacon for many years at this church and led the singing.Haven’t played much lately… memory problems but would love to get back to playing again. What would you recommend as a starting point for me. So excited!.Sincerely, Shirley Chapman

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 19:29h, 18 July Reply

      What a great story! If you are pretty comfortable reading all the notes in the treble clef, and you have a good understanding of what a Lead Sheet is, then you are probably OK starting with Course 2. If not, you will be well served starting with Course 1, even if a little bit of it might be a “review” of something you’ve covered years ago.

  • Alexander Susan
    Posted at 09:50h, 05 July Reply

    I love this. It reminds me of deciding to learn to skate when I was in my forties. I signed up for a class with other adults and imitated what I’d seen figure skaters do on TV. When it was my turn, I skated out to the centre of the ice and I was doing really well until I realized I “didn’t know how to skate” and I promptly fell!

  • Barbara
    Posted at 19:05h, 22 August Reply

    I am 73 years old, and have always had a desire to play the piano to accompany myself and also play for the church choir, but I’m a procrastinator. Every time I think about sitting down at the console, I get cold feet. It looks like too much work. Do you think it’s too late for me?

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 16:24h, 28 October Reply

      Absolutely not! Your situation is very similar to the majority of our students. Your age will not hinder you. As a matter of fact, your age might make it easier for you as folks who are retired tend to have more time flexibility.

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