How to instantly make your piano playing sound more professional

The great thing about playing pop and rock songs by ear is that the sound and feel of your playing is up to you. I guess that's also the bad thing about it - there's no written score to guide you and infuse your playing with appealing licks and time-tested voicings. Here, I'd like to share a simple left-hand technique that will make you sound a lot better right away.

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The secret to coordinating your hands

Many would-be pianists have told me that they stalled out on the piano because they just couldn't get their two hands going at the same time. "First I learn one hand," the story goes, "and then I learn the other, but I can't stick them together!"

The thing is, that's not how pianists think. Flute, saxophone, trumpet - these are instruments that can only create monophonic (i.e., one note at a time) textures. The very nature of piano is polyphonic (many voices), and most of the music written for the instrument takes advantage of this.

But polyphonic does not equal "monophonic plus monophonic" - you can't just learn the parts separately and mash them together. You'll need a different strategy.

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How to play "If I Die Young" on the piano

One of the most beautiful newer songs I've heard lately is "If I Die Young" by The Band Perry, written by Kimberly Perry. The sentiment ("I'm at peace with death because I trust that I've lived well in the time I've been given") guarantees that this will be a funeral tearjerker for years to come.

Best of all, "If I Die Young" is a very simple song to play - and I'll help you figure out how!

Yes, I'll help you figure it out. There are resources online that might show you exactly how to play "If I Die Young", but I'll give you tools you can use on other songs.

If you just want to learn this song in the simplest way possible, scroll all the way down to the bottom of this post.

But if you've ever wondered how the people who make videos and tutorials learn to play the songs in the first place, you can dig a little deeper.

This is a fifty-dollar piano lesson disguised as a blog post! Read and learn.

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How to play a melody by ear

"You guys, what's that bit that comes after, 'Well, I'm not the world's most physical guy..." (Cornell University Library)

If you'd like to be able to play piano by ear, you need to train your fingers to play what they "hear."

No one thinks it's all that amazing to be able to hear a tune and sing it back accurately - it's just what the muscles that control your voice are trained to do. Over time, your fingers will gain enough experience to do this as well.

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Breaking a habit

Ali, an eight-year-old piano student, was having trouble keeping her wrists level. She kept resting them on the piano case while she was playing, thus creating tension and restricting motion. Every few seconds, I had to either verbally correct her or gently nudge her wrists up.

Because I secretly desire to be a mean piano teacher rapping knuckles with a wooden ruler, I did this:

The tape is sticky-side up, fastened with a piece of folded-up tape on either side.

This turned out to be an immediate, complete solution to Ali's problem. She never touched the tape, and I never had to remind her not to. She simply decided that she didn't want to get stuck to the tape, and reminded herself to keep her wrists up.

Proof that to break a habit, everything you really need is in your own mind.

The most common mistake most piano teachers make

I have had many students transfer to me from other piano teachers over the years. It's always the same story - they can't play anything well. Why? They've been pushed too hard, too fast.

See, the average piano teacher was her own teacher's star student. And the average piano teacher takes a star student and pushes. That is what was modeled for her, so that's what she does. The thing is, what about the other twenty students who aren't going to go on and be piano teachers? They are being pushed just for the sake of being pushed.

I take things a step further, and argue that even the students who show initial talent should not be pushed. Why should they be? They are already learning faster than the average. Give every student appropriate, incremental challenges and encourage their progress. They all have the potential to learn to play music well.

What is the main way that teachers push their students? It's not by being demanding in terms of technique or artistry. It's by giving them repertoire they are not ready for.

Inexperienced teachers do not have the ability to see tiny advances in a student's skills and understanding, or the tiny holes in a student's skills and understanding. These teachers leap forward in the level of difficulty of the pieces they assign without realizing it. It's kind of like those who complain that type is too small instead of acknowledging that they need glasses. And when a student's momentum falters, it's easy to blame the student for lack of effort instead of seeing that the situation was created by the teacher. The effect of this can turn a thriving student into a quitter in just a few weeks.

The thing to do as a teacher, if you're prone to this common mistake, is to err on the side of giving material that is too easy. If you do this, make it up in volume: give several easier pieces for the student to play. This builds fluency in reading music, builds confidence, and, of course, gives the student more music to enjoy. Resist the temptation to "see what this kid can do." If you sequence the student's material correctly, you'll have years to find out.

Why piano shopping is like car shopping

I get a lot of questions from people looking to buy pianos. Everyone wants to get a high-quality instrument at a good price. However, just as with cars, what that actually means is different for everybody, and so there is no quick answer.

Different manufacturers are associated with different attributes. Steinway and Bosendorfer are perhaps the Mercedes and Porsche of pianos, while Yamaha, Baldwin, and Kawai can be compared to Volkswagen, Volvo, & Nissan. Maybe Wurlitzer, Young Chang, and Kimball are like Chevy, Hyundai, or Saturn. Further, each manufacturer has different models at different price points, and within each model, there are various trim levels. It becomes a matter of personal preference whether to get a fully loaded Camry or a no-frills Lexus.

Once you get into the used market, the similarity between piano shopping and car shopping continues to hold up. While you take a huge hit on depreciation if you buy new, there is a strong used market in both cars and pianos because of their long and predictable lifespan. Of course, pianos do not have odometers, but there are ways to check for wear and get a sense of the degree of use the instrument has been subjected to.

If I were going to buy a used piano (and I do it a couple of times a year), I would look on Craigslist first. Just as with car ads, you will find a mix of private sellers, small-time dealers, and the occasional big-time dealer (luckily, still far fewer scammers than on the auto listings). As you might predict, you will get better prices but less convenience and information from private sellers - and dealers will be more firm on price but hopefully you will be able to check out a few pianos in one trip, saving time and allowing side-by-side comparisons. Just stay away from anything that says "antique" - tall old uprights will have a powerful sound, but will not pass emissions testing, so to speak.

Once you have explored Craigslist a bit and perhaps checked out a few pianos, you will probably have an idea of what you want to spend. However, just as with cars, you can occasionally find a good "moving special" where you can upgrade to a better piano for a below-market price. And obviously everything is negotiable, especially in the current market.

Even if you are not an experienced pianist, you can often tell if a piano is a good deal with a little advance research. What's more, you can even hire someone to check the piano out for you -  akin to hiring a mechanic to come out and check to see whether a car is a lemon. In any case, don't be afraid to kick the tires and try out the instrument a bit yourself - gut instinct is valid, so don't be intimidated if you're not a musician.