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Piano Teacher Answers the Web's Most Searched-For Questions About Music Lessons

Graham Yates is a piano instructor in Round Rock, Texas at Timbral Music Studios

Hi! I'm Graham and I've taught piano lessons for over twenty years. Recently, I opened Timbral Music Studios in Round Rock, Texas where I and several other music instructors teach, practice, compose, write blogs (like this one) and otherwise carry out our music careers to inspire the next generation of musicians.

The most important change that's happened in my piano instruction recently has been - surprise - the Covid-19 pandemic. Luckily, though it disrupted many important aspects of our lives over the last two years, I and all of my students were able to carry on uninterrupted despite having to learn new technology, new techniques for learning, and not a little bit of sheer perseverance.

For a lot of families looking to brush off those archived dreams put on hold two years ago, there may be a lot of questions about how to start music lessons. Well... armed with the web's most searched-for questions, I'm here to answer several of them! Let's begin.

When Can Piano Lessons Start Again?

The quick answer is that piano lessons never stopped. In March 2020, my students and I scrambled to figure out how to use Zoom. Luckily, I had already had some experience with this platform because of teaching several out-of-town students. With only a few exceptions, I taught remote lessons exclusively for about a year and a half.

There were lots of positives to remote teaching: for example, all of my students who wanted to were able to continue taking piano examinations remotely through the Royal Conservatory, and we discovered the power of the remote piano recital to keep our musical community connected and even make it easier to share performances with relatives who were kept distant during these times. Both remote examinations and remote recitals are here to stay, although I'm happy to say that we will have our first in-person recital in a few weeks!

Of course there were negative sides to remote lessons, too: Zoom fatigue comes to my mind first. Rather than being energized by students in the room with me as I taught I found myself exhausted at the end of many days of teaching. Now that most of my students have returned to in-person lessons, I'm reminded of many aspects of learning the piano that we missed: being able to play with students to support them including clapping or tapping as they play or coaching them as they play - this makes playing piano and learning more organic, more relational and more rewarding. I also missed being able to properly see students' posture and hand position at the keyboard as it is essential to continue to work on healthy physical habits as we approach any tool or musical instrument so that we can work efficiently, expressively and throughout our whole lives with minimal impact or injury. And, far and above any other benefit to in-person lessons is the ability to properly hear the sound they are making in real time and in the real world.

I also gained insight into students' learning by being welcomed into their homes via video every week. It especially struck me to see what instruments they played on at home, which brings us to our next question:

Can You Take Piano Lessons On a Keyboard?

TLDR: yes. Though I was skeptical as a younger, ideological teacher fresh out of music school, over time it has become clear that real learning and skill can be developed on a digital keyboard as well as on a traditional acoustic piano.

On the other hand, I have been gratified that several of my students who started out on keyboards have graduated to "real" pianos because they showed a strong interest in developing their musicianship and piano ability and realized that their keyboards were holding them back somewhat.

If a student must learn on a keyboard (and there are lots of good reasons why they must such as: cost, physical space in the house and, of course, acoustic space - pianos are LOUD, y'all!), it should be the highest quality keyboard possible. Here are a few pointers for picking out a good keyboard:

  1. It should have a pleasant sound. If the keyboard sounds like the 8-bit video game music from the 80s, do not purchase it. Don't get me wrong: I love 80s and 90s nostalgia. But in order to begin to learn the piano and enter into this instrument's 400-year history, it should sound like a nice piano when you play it.

  2. It should have the ability to play loud and soft. And I'm not talking about the volume knob. Some keyboards will blare out a tone at the same squawking volume not matter how gently or forcefully you strike the key. This is great for some styles of popular or electronic music, but it is absolutely useless for learning how to play the piano. Tellingly, the full name of the instrument in Italian is gravicembalo col piano e forte - literally, "keyboard that plays soft and loud." Practically all piano music that a student will learn - even from the beginning - takes advantage of this feature.

  3. The keys should not be too easy to press. This may be hard to tell for the average piano shopper and impossible for online shopping. Look for phrases like "weighted action" for a good start. I am very pleased with my digital keyboard, a Yamaha P-125, which I use for online teaching. I consider it to be one notch lower from the most realistic piano action available. I selected it because of the steep price increase to climb to that next notch, and the 3x increase in weight of the keyboard due to the wooden parts. Learning to overcome the slight resistance of the keys is a big part of the development of the piano and of piano technique and students who don't develop this ability complain of not feeling comfortable playing more realistic instruments at lessons or in performances.

  4. It should have its own stand and the student should have an adjustable seat. Getting the right keyboard height for the player is a big deal, and I like to tell students that the piano is the only instrument that doesn't come in child sizes. Children are expected to play a full-sized instrument from day one. Often, this means the keyboard is too high. For acoustic instruments, we overcome this with adjustable benches (or the time-tested sitting-on-a-phonebook technique). Know that when you buy a keyboard it will either come with a particle-board stand, or no stand at all. In the latter case it's important to not set it up on a table or counter. You will need to buy a stand, usually either an X-style or Z-style (named after its shape).

Speaking of sizes of humans...

At What Age Should You Start Piano Lessons?

Answer: Any age. More nuanced answer: It depends. I personally began piano lessons when I was seven, and this is the typical starting age. However, my parents had a piano in our house from the time I was born and my mother taught me to play Mary Had a Little Lamb when I was three. So dabbling on the piano was part of my childhood. As a piano instructor, I accept students starting at age four and feel I can have success in this young age group because I start them off in the Suzuki method.

But the reality is that piano lessons can start at any age. You can never be "too old" to start piano lessons, or music lessons, or any activity really. I have had students start later than seven, including teenagers, college students, young parents, middle-aged adults all the way up to someone in her eighties! We are lucky to be living in a time when many people have the freedom to try many activities so I say take advantage of that privilege and learn the skills that will help you chase your dreams.

For parents wishing to give their children the wonderful gift of the fluent ability to play a musical instrument, the earlier the better. Young children do absorb skills more easily than older ones and the piano is the perfect instrument to support other instruments students may wish to pursue once they are in middle or high school such as band instruments or voice lessons.

So here's an interesting next question:

How Many Piano Lessons Do I Need?

It amazes me to think that I was preparing for my career as a three-year-old plunking away at the family piano. Although it would be decades before I truly committed to piano teaching as a professional vocation, without the piano lessons my parents bought for me and the occasional (okay, frequent) chiding to go and practice, I would not be the musician I am today and would not have had the doors open to me that have brought me so much satisfaction, comfort, purpose and stability while almost everything else in life has changed.

I say this in order to give context to the answer that you never really "graduate" from piano lessons. I took them throughout my public schooling and then continued on through two post-secondary degrees. While I had my last formal piano lesson when I earned my master's degree, I have occasionally sought out master teachers for specific projects, to hone skills, calm feelings of inadequacy, etc. I still learn from observing colleagues and certainly those titans of the music world who are far above my pay grade!

All that to say that learning an instrument is a lifelong endeavor, and not one that can be accomplished at all in a year or two. For the piano specifically, I want students to know that until about Level 8 (or roughly eight years of study), they will be playing music designed to teach students to play the piano. At this level, the pieces they play shift into the music we think of when we think of piano music. (This is not to say that music for students is not good music, though!)

And yet - piano lessons can stop whenever necessary. If a student studies for a while and decides it's time to move on, they should not be made to feel ashamed. A little musical knowledge is vastly better than none, and it would be my hope that the experience would drive them to appreciate a world they otherwise might not have encountered and possibly have found that it has opened them up to their next passion.

How Much Should Piano Lessons Cost?

Hopefully what I've written so far has communicated that piano lessons are worth far more than 30 minutes a week of learning to plunk keys in the right order (and then trying to remember to practice). But how much should you be prepared to pay to travel this road?

Individual teachers charge vastly different amounts, and while the going rate in my area of Texas is $150 per month or higher, it's easy to search for many teachers who charge less than that.

What's important is that the teacher be skilled enough to inspire students week-to-week and year-to-year with interesting pieces, insightful knowledge of music history and theory, and with meaningful personal goals such as performances or assessments. The interpersonal relationship between student and teacher is integral, too.

At the end of the day, the cost of piano lessons reflects the teacher's expertise which includes years of academic study and professional experience, the value of regular and personalized one-on-one instruction, and the fair market rate of the geographic area.

Where Should I Take Piano Lessons?

Far and away the most common search is "piano lessons near me" or "music instruction near me." Proximity is important because you'll hopefully be going there every week for a long time! If you are a parent, you will want to take into account whether you'll be actively observing the lessons or waiting in a lobby, or whether you will be able to get a few errands done during your child's lesson.

One of my favorite memories was walking to my piano lessons after school, and then walking home afterwards. It's probably why I highly prize a lifestyle where I can walk to work, to the gym, to the grocery store, etc. Sadly, this is rarely feasible in sprawling Texas. Still, living in a neighborhood where these amenities are all within a short drive contributes to a feeling of community and well-being.

On the other hand, I have been grateful and amazed at the dedication of parents to drive their kids in from neighboring communities such as Cedar Park, Austin and Georgetown to have lessons with me in Round Rock. So I guess it's a matter of priority and personality.

I hope these long-form answers have provided insight into some of the top searched-for questions about piano instruction online. Please feel free to reach out if you have more specific questions or comments for me.

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