Common Misconceptions About Learning Piano

From my experience in teaching, I have come across many people with certain misconceptions about piano playing and learning, thus I feel that there is a need to clarify all these misconceptions. While some people may find this hilarious, some will be shocked to know the truth behind these misconceptions.

About Standard

Grade 1 exam pieces are ‘nothing’; they are as easy as ‘Mary had a little lamb’!
While grade 1 exam pieces may be ‘nothing’ to an adult or a fast learner, it may be a very challenging task for a young child, especially when the requirements of the exam is not only to play out the notes, but to play them fluently with good articulation, with loud and soft, with expression and up to the required speed. And definitely, grade 1 pieces are not as easy as ‘Mary had a little lamb’, or else the exam board would not come out with such a grade (and there is even pre-grade 1!) Click on the videos below to view grade 1 exam pieces. Usually a child takes about a few months (for fast learners) to a year (for slow learners) to master grade 1 exam pieces.

Early Beginner Standard
(note: if your child learns to play pieces of this standard by rote, it is considered pre-beginner standard)

Late Beginner Standard

Grade 1 Standard

Grade 1 Exam piece

Richard Clayderman pieces are grade 8 pieces
Pieces that sound difficult or impressive does not mean that they are of grade 8 standard, especially when they are a pop piece. Richard Clayderman pieces are only of around grade 5 standard, although some of the fill-ins or figurations might sound very impressive, they are just constructed from broken chords (which are taught since grade 1). A Mozart or Beethoven sonata (first movement) or a Chopin nocturne would be of around grade 8 standard.

I can play grade 8 pieces. Therefore my playing standard is grade 8 and I can pass the grade 8 exam.
You can play grade 8 pieces with only a grade 5 standard, or with a diploma standard. It is not difficult to learn just the notes for a piece, but to play up to the standard required, you need the technique and the musical maturity required of that standard. Thus, playing grade 8 pieces doesn’t mean that your standard is grade 8, and even if you can play grade 8 pieces up to the standard required, that does not mean that you can pass the exam as there are still supporting tests included in graded exams. There are many people who can play grade 8 pieces but can only play sight reading up to grade 5 standard; however, the standard of your sight reading often tells what grade you are really at because it determines how fast you can learn a new piece with the same amount of practice.

I think I’ll do well in the exam. I only played 5 wrong notes in this piece.
Accuracy and fluency is of utmost importance in music, because music is all about perfection and the most basic thing that you should do in playing a piece of music is to play it accurately, and that is even before you put in dynamics, expression, etc. It is surprising that some people don’t know what is the meaning of fluency – to play a piece in perfect timing, from one bar to another without stopping. It is shown that the average number of wrong notes played by a distinction candidate is about one in 150. In carefully prepared examination work, candidates often play fewer than five wrong notes in every thousand. And this is why most teachers take a longer time to teach exam pieces because this is the standard expected.

I think I’ll get full marks for the exam. I never played any wrong notes.
Again, I have to reiterate that playing the piano is not just about playing notes. In fact, that is only the most basic thing expected in a well prepared piece. Each exam piece is marked to a total of 30 marks, with 20 marks as the passing mark. Examiners usually starts with 20 marks before the candidate starts playing, everytime the candidate plays with dynamics and expression, marks are added, and everytime he makes a mistake (wrong notes or rhythm, etc.) marks are deducted. Therefore a piece without any wrong notes but without dynamics and expression will at most get you the minimum passing mark.

When I reach grade 8, I will be a master of the piano.
Unfortunately, there are people who have a grade 8 cert but cannot sight-read a grade 1 piece, or to play a simple single-line melody by ear, or just to sing in tune. A total musician is one who not only can play music, but also read music, write music, create music, sing in tune and have a good inner ear. This is what I aim to teach all my students, not just to play songs or to pass exams. And to all professional musicians, grade 8 is only a basic foundations and a stepping stone to higher qualifications and standards.

About Progress

After a few piano lessons, I would be able to play out any score that is put in front of me.
Sight reading is something that most students take years and years to master. While some people might be naturally good at sight reading because of good habits of looking at the score while playing and also lots of practice, there are people who are able to play grade 8 pieces but can’t even sight-read a grade 1 piece! Usually people who are bad at sight-reading learn pieces by hearing and memorizing. (I’m not saying that it is not good to learn by hearing, in fact those who have good ears and musical sense are often able to learn sight reading faster as they can anticipate the notes before they see or play it. But one bad habit of those who learn by hearing is that they often neglect the score.) Often people get this misconception from TV when they see a pianist being able to play anything that is put in front of him, but they failed to take into consideration that the reason why most musicians and teachers can sight-read very well is because they are doing that every day.

After a few piano lessons, I would be able to play Richard Clayderman pieces.

Piano playing is a skill that can only be developed over time. While some people might be able to play more difficult pieces after the first few lessons, the pieces are usually taught by rote with lots of practice. Usually they will not be able to play it very well because of insufficient technique and they are only just playing notes.
After attending lessons for 1 year or so, I would be able to take Grade 1 exams, or even Grade 2!
Note that I use the word ‘attend lessons’ instead of ‘learn piano’ because you can attend lessons without learning anything! There are many reasons why a child can attend lessons without much progress. If lessons are in a group, this may be because the child is not suitable for group lessons. For young children (or even for some older children) this may be because of insufficient parental support. Or it may just be because the student does not practice at all. (yes, there are people who think that they can progress by just attending lessons).

Level 3 of Book X is equivalent to grade 3 ABRSM/Trinity Syllabus. Level 3 of ABC music course by XYZ music school is equivalent to grade 3 ABRSM/Trinity Syllabus. Therefore my son will be able to take the grade 3 exam after he had completed level 3 of book x or level 3 of ABC music course.
Different books by different publishers or authors have different standards. Even if it is explicitly indicated on the book that it is of grade 3 standard, it might be easier or more difficult than grade 3. Thus, if a certain book is only indicated level 3 (not grade 3), it might be only of late beginner standard. (There are many beginner books that divide the grade into different stages so as to make it more progressive for the student). Same for foundations courses in music schools – level 3 usually means late beginner stage, but even if a child ‘graduates’ with level 3 from a music course, it does not mean that his playing standard is of a late beginner standard because different people learn with different pace, furthermore in a group course when everyone is taught with the same pace and progress is not monitored closely. (Please note that I’m not against such courses, but in fact feel that they provide a very good foundation to the child, only with lots of parental support and help and only when the child completes the whole course and not until a particular level).

My neighbour’s daughter took grade 2 after learning for 1 year; therefore my son should be able to take grade 2 because he has been learning for more than 1 year.
Again this is a misconception that many people have. Different people learn with different pace. This may be because of age – older beginners learn faster than young children; IQ – people with higher intelligence learn faster; parental support – this cannot be emphasized more; interest – people with more interest will practice more and progress faster; and especially for music learning, environment and early exposure to music – people from musical families, or children who are exposed to music from a young age (ideally 2 years or younger). (Please take note that exposure to music need not be in the form of lessons, it can be just listening to nursery rhymes or to the mother’s singing). And most importantly, the pace of learning depends on the amount of efficient practice you put in. From my experience, I have students who took grade 3 after learning for 1 year and also those who took grade 1 only after learning for 3-4 years.(Note that it is normal for young children to learn for 3-4 years before taking any exams)

My child must finish every song in the book to finish each grade. So, if there are 30 songs in the book, and if my child takes 2-3 weeks for each song, he can only finish the grade in more than one year.
Piano learning is not just about learning ‘songs’. It is more about ear training, note reading, training finger dexterity and technique, and understanding music theory. It is only after the internalization of all these skills that the child can externalize it by playing on the piano. That is why I call myself more of a music teacher than a piano teacher. And for young children I emphazise more on training these skills to build a strong foundation, not just learning ‘songs’.

I don’t understand why some teachers only teach the three exam pieces for the entire year.
This has to do with progress and the amount of practice that each student puts in. While there are students who manage to learn and polish up grade 8 pieces in months, there are those who cannot even do the same for grade 1 pieces in a year. Thus, most teachers usually start the exam pieces early so that the student will not give them a heart attack one month before the exam. For me, I try not to teach only exam pieces for the first five grades, and I usually only start exam pieces after I register the student for exam (about half a year earlier) for the first few grades. However, as the amount of time needed to learn and polish up exam pieces increases with each grade, but the amount of time available to practice usually decreases with every increase in child’s age, by the time the child reaches the last 2-3 grades, unless he/she is a very fast learner or is very hardworking, he/she will usually be concentrating on exam pieces for the entire year.

I don’t understand why I must learn other pieces instead of just the 3 exam pieces.
For the first few grades (grade 1-5), students must learn enough pieces and technical exercises so as to build a strong foundation – strong fingers and dexterity, muscle memory, musical awareness – so that they can cope better with the next grade. And learning exam pieces only is simply not sufficient enough to achieve this and students may end up struggling with the next grade and give up piano altogether.

Theory should progress at the same pace as Practical.
Ideally, this should be the case because what is covered in practical is covered in theory in about the same grade, but usually for most students, theory and practical progresses at different pace and it is perfectly okay to do so. For young students, unless they have high IQ, theory would progress at a much slower pace than practical. This is perfectly normal and parents should not worry about this and spend too much time to make sure that both progresses at the same pace. This is because as the child is grows older and is able to understand theory concepts better, his theory would be able to catch up with practical eventually. I personally have students who did poorly for theory when they were a child but got merits and distinctions for theory when they were a teenager.

It is necessary to attain grade 8 theory if I can reach the same grade for practical.
Most students stop at grade 5 theory as this is the minimum requirement for taking grade 6-8 practical exams. Entry requirement (for theory) for most tertiary music institutions (e.g. Lasalle, NAFA, MOE music teaching) is only grade 5 theory. This is because grade 6-8 theory is at a much higher level than grade 5 theory (and would be taught if you are enrolled in a music diploma course in such institutions). Most students who wish to continue with grade 6-8 theory only do so after they finish grade 8 practical, because grade 6-8 is very time consuming and there is simply not enough time to squeeze it into a 1 hour lesson, unless the student is very independent for their practical (i.e. can learn notes all by themselves without any help from teacher). For me, I only encourage students to pursue grade 6-8 theory if they have met these requirements:

  • They must at least have attained a distinction for Grade 5 theory.
  • They must have a very strong interest in theory. MEP/ O level music students would be an advantage.
  • For those who want to do grade 6-8 theory together with practical, they must be good in BOTH practical and theory and must be very independent for practical as most of the time would be spent on theory.
  • Student must be independent to do all assigned readings and memorizing by himself. (there is no time for me to spoon-feed)

I am an adult learner, so I am able to learn faster than most children.
The biggest problem in learning piano for adult learners is time constraint. It takes lots of practice and patience to learn a new instrument, but most adult students simply are not able to allocate enough time to practice because they are busy with school, work or other commitments. Furthermore, adult learners are usually more self-conscious and they try hard to avoid mistakes when playing by tensing up and this results in stiff fingers and a bad tone. Although they might be able to understand theory and instructions better then children, they might end up feeling frustrated with their practice because they expect themselves to learn a new section/technique as fast as they understand music theory. What most adult students need to do is to relax, because tensing the muscles to gear themselves to a task will only decrease control, not increase it. They must learn to learn from mistakes and not to tense up to avoid mistakes, so there should be room allowed for mistakes. And, of course, they must practice more. The advantage that adult students have over children is that they are more self-motivated. So, with lots of practice, patience and a lot of passion in music, it is not difficult for an adult to succeed in learning piano.

If I can finish my university module in 1 year, I should be able to ‘finish’ learning piano in 1 year.
Learning piano is about learning a skill, and skills need to be trained over time. Even though you might be able to finish learning theory and theory of the technique required to play piano, it is almost impossible to learn to play piano from scratch to grade 8 in 1 year (unless you practice 12 hours a day). Furthermore, there are people who have finished grade 8 but are still taking lessons because learning never stops.

About Practice

I will be able to play a new piece after I have practiced it five times
Unless you are a professional pianist, or unless the piece is way too easy for your standard, if you are still a learner you will not be able to play a piece well after practicing it five times. Good habits of practicing are not only to practice until you get it right, but to practice until you never get it wrong again. The number of times varies from person to person, some people can get it right after practicing for 20 times, some practiced hundreds of time and still could not get it right. Usually those with more developed skills, memory, and sight-reading, sense of harmony and with all things being equal, good practicing habits and strong mind power would require less practice.

How many times must I practice this? 20 times? 100 times? 1000 times?
Although practice is all about repetition, it is more important to practice efficiently than just blindly repeating the piece over and over again. Therefore, it is very important to listen carefully to your playing and check that you’ve played the correct notes, fingering, articulation, dynamics, etc, every time you practice, and to repeat and try and play the section correctly if you’ve got it wrong. And after you have got the section correct, you have to practice (reinforce) until you never get it wrong again. Then, you’ll be able to truly master a piece. This is not easy, but with patience and perseverance, you will be able to do it.

I have learned this piece for 2 years; I don’t understand why I can’t play as well as someone who has only learnt it for 2 months.
This, again, has to do with practice. Assuming similar skill level and (effective) practice habits for both players, if the one who has only learnt the piece for 2 months practices 2 hours a day, and the one who has learnt it for 2 years practices 30 minutes a week, the one who practiced for 2 months has actually practiced 120 hours altogether while the one who practiced for 2 years had only practiced 52 hours. Furthermore, the one who practiced for 2 months had much more reinforcement in what he learnt because he practiced every day.

I must practice for 2 hours a day to master my piece.
Again, it is not about how much time you spend practicing but how efficiently you practice. If you are using the wrong practice methods, it is possible to spend 2 hours a day practicing and still make your piece worse. Therefore it is important to listen to your teacher’s instructions carefully, check the score carefully and to be critical to your own playing. (And that’s why parental involvement is important for young children as they may not be able to do so). And instead of practicing for a fixed amount of time a day, try and set a goal (e.g. to play with correct fingering) for each practice session and to practice until you have accomplished your goal (be it 5mins or 1hr). By doing this, you would also avoid aimless repetition and you would enjoy your practice more as it is much more productive!

I don’t understand why I cannot play my exam piece as well as my teacher!
Similar to what I’ve said earlier about playing standard, you are playing your grade 1 pieces with a grade 1 standard, whereas your teacher is playing your grade 1 pieces with a grade 8 or diploma standard. Furthermore, your teacher might even be able to sight read your pieces and play it better than you!

I don’t understand why I have to follow the score exactly if it is just a technical exercise/piece.
Every technical exercise is written with the intention of improving a certain technique. Following what is written will allow you to fully develop that technique. Of course, if it is too difficult for you, your teacher will have to simplify it for you, but if it is something that you can achieve with practice, you should follow what is written rather than to look for an easy way out. Same for pieces as every difficult section in each piece is a technical challenge that you have to overcome with practice. Once you have overcome the difficult section, you will find it so much easier if you are faced with something similar next time.

I don’t understand why I have to follow the fingering exactly if I am able to play out the notes with my own fingering.
I used to think that my piano teacher was being fussy when he insisted that I follow the fingering indicated in the book, but after I had advanced on to higher grades and started teaching, I started to understand why. Although there can be alternate fingerings in the same piece to suit different hand sizes, using the correct fingering is of utmost importance in piano playing. Using the correct fingering enables you to navigate through the piece easily, play with the correct technique and articulation, thus allowing you to be able to learn and remember the piece in a shorter time and sound better. The basic rules of fingering is to choose a fingering that suits the natural hand shape, and with the least turns, stretches and changes in hand position in a passage, while taking into account the articulation of the piece. And the most important rule in fingering is to stick to the fingering you (or your teacher) has decided upon so as to train the muscle memory efficiently. Ignoring the fingering is one of the most serious practice flaws that students make and almost always leads to failure.

I don’t understand why my child is unable to practice when I told him to do so.
The younger the child is, the more reinforcement he/she would need to learn something successfully, but the younger the child is, the more he/she is unable to learn or practice independently. Therefore, parental involvement is vital to the success of the child’s learning. The role of the parent is not just to ‘tell’ the child to practice, but to practice with the child. That is why I strongly recommend parents to sit in to their child’s lesson so that they can observe how the teacher trains the child and to repeat the same thing with the child throughout the week.

Other Misconceptions

My child does not have any potential; therefore he is not suited for piano playing and he will not ‘make it’ / My child has a lot of talent in music. He will certainly be able to become a good pianist.
Recent research reveals that music aptitute, like all human characteristics, is normally distributed in the population. This means that any normal person has the potential to achieve in music. Therefore, I regard any child with the ‘potential’ to ‘make it’ (at least through the grades) if he has a good learning attitude, is willing to listen to the teacher’s instructions and disciplined and willing to put in effort to practice. On the other hand, students who are not willing to listen to the teacher’s instructions, who insist on playing their own way, who are not willing to practice, or who just have no interest in music, will certainly not be able to succeed even if they have a lot of talent. I’m sure you have heard of quotes such as ‘slow and steady wins the race’ and ‘Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration’. And it is true that there are people who are tone deaf but have obtained grade 8 in piano.

I am not musically inclined, so I am not able to help my child in his music learning
Parental involvement, especially if the child is a young beginner, is vital to the success of the child’s music learning. Because the young child only sees the teacher for only 45 minutes once a week for his lessons, but the parent is available every day to help him with his practice and learning. There are numerous studies in general education that concluded that parental involvement improves student achievement, and that parents are critical to children’s successes during their school years. Even if you know nuts about music, you can always follow up with the teacher every week to find out how can you help, or simply help to correct your child’s sitting posture and hand position and to encourage him to practice (you don’t need talent to be able to do that). For young beginners aged 3 to 6, it is always best to sit in on lessons and observe how the teacher trains the child so that you can help him the same way.

I will be able to play piano well because I have long and thin fingers. / I am not suited for piano playing because I have fat fingers that often end up playing two keys at the same time.
You would be surprised that many famous piano-hands are often thick and heavy with a large fist and short fingers. Examples of such pianists are D’Albert, Rosenthal, Busoni and Handel. However, even if you have fingers that are suited for piano playing, ability to play well still has to be trained. Someone with fingers that are suited for piano playing will still lose out to someone who does not have piano playing hands if the latter puts in more effort in his practice.

When I reach 40 years old, I will not be able to play as well because my fingers will become stiff.
Your fingers will not become stiff if you have been consistent with your practice, even if you started as an older beginner. But if you start learning piano at age 40, or started since young but has stopped for a considerable number of years, your fingers will become stiff when you pick up piano at age 40. Furthermore, a great number of professional pianists are well above 40 years old, and some of them are still playing at the age of 80 or 90. It is certainly true that unlike dancers or models, musicians have the longest career lifespan.

I must be tone deaf because I cannot tell what note it is after it is being played./ It is mandatory to have perfect pitch in order to be a good musician.
Being able to tell what note it is after it is played without reference to any other note means that you have perfect pitch, but being not able to do so does not mean that you are tone deaf, because being tone deaf means that you are not able to discriminate between different notes, not just one single note. Thus it is possible to not have perfect pitch, but not be tone-deaf. And it is actually not very common for people to have perfect pitch. There are many musicians who only have good relative pitch – the ability to identify the interval between different notes (that is why they can play by hearing), and this might actually be a more useful skill than perfect pitch, especially for orchestra players because different musical styles uses different concert pitch.

If my child can reach grade 8, I will buy a good piano for him. A cheap, low quality piano is sufficient because the child has at least something to practice on. All pianos sound the same, it is the skill of the player that makes the piano sound different.
This is a very common misconception, and it is one of the worst mistakes a parent can make regarding a child’s music education, especially if the child has the potential to excel in it. While it is possible for one to reach grade 8 practicing on a low quality piano, it is not without agony and frustration, especially for a musically sensitive child, because he knows what can achieve by playing on a good piano, but simply could not do it on his own piano. My definition of a good piano is simply an exam model with a good sound and touch, not a grand piano. And it can cost as low as 2K to get a second hand one. By the time the child reaches grade 8 (after much frustration) and if the parent really gets a good piano by then, the new piano will only be used for one year before the child stops after grade 8. And the child certainly would have reached grade 8 much earlier or done much better for his exam if he have had a good piano to practice on because he would have enjoyed his practice so much more. The worst decision parents can make in buying a piano is to buy according to the price – to get the cheapest one for their child. Practicing on a low quality instrument simply does not do a musically inclined child any justice at all, and it might even be detrimental to his sense of pitch and tone with prolonged exposure to an instrument with bad tone that easily goes out of tune.
Many people do not understand the difference between a good and bad sounding piano because they are not piano players and have never really heard (listen) to a good/bad sound before. Listening to a good sounding piano versus a bad sounding one is like listening to your favourite music with good quality speakers versus listening to it on your laptop/handphone. No matter how good the CD/performer is, it is simply not the same experience as listening with good quality speakers. Furthermore, a piano consists of moving parts, so the difference between a good and bad piano is not only the sound but also the touch. Playing on a good piano versus a bad piano is like driving a Mitsubishi lancer versus an old COE car. No matter how fast you try to drive the old car, it can never run as fast as the lancer. Yes, it can still get you from place to place, but the cost is the time taken to travel and the cost of a breakdown.

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4 thoughts on “Common Misconceptions About Learning Piano

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