This same lesson plays itself out over and over as new adult students come in for their first lesson. They pay $60/hr for the lecture. Here it is for you, for free:
Get the beginning piano book that I wrote and give out to all first-time in-person adult students by entering your email address at the bottom of the page. The book is a collection of the most useful handouts I've used in the last 40 years.
Meet The Family
The first piano lesson is tough for the teacher. To put yourself in a similar mindset, imagine this: someone comes to you and says,
"You seem like a great person, and every time I've interacted with your family, they seem great too. I think I'd like to get to know them."
So far, so good. Seems like a reasonable person, and I'd love to introduce them to my family. But then they continue,
"And I'm really open minded..." [What!? Where did that come from? I'm starting to think this person is probably really closed-minded!] "...and I really want to get to know ALL your relatives, eventually." [I don't even know if I know all my relatives!] "I know it will take some time, like more than a month, and you don't have to introduce me to, like, Adam and Eve or even their kids, but, you know, maybe just the ones after that. Don't worry, I know it will take some time. In order to have the same exact relationship you have with your whole family, I would expect that to take more than just a month or two...even six months or...[long pause]...a couple years." [This is going to take literally forever. Your timeline is WAY off!] By the way, when did you start talking to your family?"
You answer, "Probably when I was about 3," but you're really thinking inside [Good Lord! This question has nothing to do with our goals here. I could have started at any time, but I get the sense this person isn't going to be able to process the honest answer here. And we're not even close to asking the right questions!]
They continue, "Wow! Really? 3! That's a long time. I think that starting early is really important, but hopefully it's not too late for me to get started. And I know I'm going to have to memorize stuff too. Like, I don't really fully understand what a second cousin is [Well, I actually do, but that has almost nothing to do with being a part of my family.] but my parents were divorced and both remarried, so I used to know all about step parents and stuff, but I've forgotten a lot of what that was, so you should probably just treat me like I don't know your family at all. [No problem. Done. I'm way ahead of you there.] Now, there is some good news: I do have this blank family tree that I've looked at for years, but I haven't really filled it in much, so that will help [Not really] and I printed out this blog post your sister wrote a few years back and I tried reading some of that, so I thought we could probably start there, but I'm open to some other suggestions of other posts I should read to get started meeting your family."
What started off as a sweet, doable task: introduce this person to the family, has now become an insurmountable project and there's no way their expectations will be met. As the teacher, there are a few ways out of the situation:
1. Never speak to this crazy person again.
Change your number and lock your doors. You've just learned why many piano teachers won't teach adults.
2. Go ahead and dive in on that blog post
...realizing that, if they're really dedicated to this family, as they dive in on the blog post, they'll find other posts to explore and then other people, and then, slowly but surely, they'll realize how little a single old rant from a random family member means about the whole family, and they will have spent so many Thanksgiving dinners with the family by then that it won't matter that they started at the wrong point. There are no wrong points to start from. Any place is an entry point into getting to know your family. In fact, everyone who has met your family has come in through a slightly different entry point - maybe even some through that very blog post.
However, you do run the very real risk of them pouring over this post, analyzing, even moving on to another, spending tens of hours trying to understand what it all means, only to realize this is going to take forever. This task is impossible. They'll feel like maybe you're cut out to know this family, but they're just not talented enough to process it all. And by the way, why didn't you tell them they weren't talented when it must have been obvious to you?
3. Open up your family tree with them.
You are aware that this has very little to do with actually knowing the family, but at least it's the "right way" - the "traditional approach" - and no one can accuse you of neglecting your duties. They might quit - they will almost definitely quit, but they won't bad mouth you to their friends. In fact, they will probably assume the problem was them and refer others to you. With enough effort, you'll have a rotation of fresh faces every several months that you can make a decent side income teaching people about your family this way.
Best of all? It takes almost zero effort. One student quits? Recycle the family tree with the next student, and the next and the next. Eventually you're so familiar with the curriculum that you know when each student will hit each milestone. Lesson 1: Memorizing the definitions of relationships: A 'second cousin' is a child of one's parent's first cousin. Memorize that. (You've forgotten this fact years into your tenure, but the reason you decided to start with that useless nugget is that so many first-time students seemed to mention it in their first lesson. Now it's canon.) Lesson 13? Great Aunt Sally. Lesson 32? That's when you usually share that story about when your cousin Alec broke his arm playing baseball at the 1999 family reunion, in which you set the scene for your favorite lesson: 33, where you talk about how 9-11 impacted your family. That one always brings a tear.
Never mind the fact that your student doesn't really have any level of relationship with any of your family. You're making too much money and having so much fun maintaining this seemingly successful machine (and really, many of your students enjoy it too!) that you've forgotten how scared you were when you started this whole project.
Now, when a new student comes in, you don't even address the issue of getting to know your family. They come in and say, "I'd really like to meet your family" and you confidently respond, "Great! A 'second cousin' is a child of one's parent's first cousin. That's the first principle you need. Memorize that and I'll give you another next week." ...because that's the 'right' way to get to know your family. After all, if it wasn't the right way, you wouldn't have such a 'successful' studio, now, would you?
At this point, when a student comes in, you might feign interest in their personal life or preferences or specific interest in your family, but none of that is really going to change your proven course. The sooner they finally shut up about their hopes and dreams, the sooner you can enlighten them on second cousins and get them started down the path of "Official Family Member!" (Thanks to Awards.com, now you even have certificates for various milestones - with your name and everything!)
4. Help them readjust their expectations.
"First of all, that's all insane. None of what you said is going to happen. I like you. You're obviously very motivated, and I love that. I can start by telling you a little bit about each of the people that I'm close to in my family. You don't know it yet, but the truth is, you don't really want to intimately know my whole family tree, but I can help you fill in a couple of those blanks right now before we move on if you want.
"What you really want is a couple strong relationships with a couple people and then several more weak relationships with lots of other family members. There are some family members you don't want to know at ALL, and the whole group is way smaller than your imagining. This task is immediately more accomplish-able than you think. Also, it's going to take much longer than you think, but - and here's the key to the whole thing - the impossibility of the task doesn't have to take anything away from the pleasure you receive trying to accomplish it. In fact, the process of trying to have a relationship IS ITSELF the relationship."
Approach number four is my favorite. It seems to be the most honest and is the way that real people are welcomed into the family. Sure, we might read my sister's blog post later, and there's nothing wrong with family trees - in fact, sure: Let's use it. That might be a great way to keep track of things for now, but over the next few months, let's focus on getting reasonably familiar with a few people from the family that have similar personalities to your own. Then, after you're friends with them, we'll move on to some other family members you've heard about along the way. Some day you will die without having met my relatives back to Adam and Eve, or probably even back a couple hundred years! But I'm not opposed to that. Nothing is off the table: you can meet whoever you want. But first let me tell you about some of the prominent members of the family who have the most influence. Once you meet them, you'll know a lot more about what the rest of the family is like.
Now let's talk about your first piano lesson. You walk in the door. I say "Welcome" and, looking around, you say, "Thanks. This is great! I love your place." I ask what you do for a living, and you already know what I do for a living. I ask "So what brings you here today? What makes this the right time for you to start taking lessons and what would you like to learn?" You tell me how you've always wanted to be able to sit down and play. You tell me that you took a couple lessons when you were 8, but you hated it and begged your mom to quit. You're also very quick to tell me that you've forgotten EVERYTHING you learned back then, and instruct me to treat you like an absolute beginner. You are very afraid of coming across as knowing more than can actually show. No one wants to set themselves up to look dumb.
I agree to go slow and pretend you have no experience, then redirect you back to your history, where you tell me you also played clarinet for like a year in junior high, but again, you don't remember ANY of that either. Then you tell me about the piano that you've had in your house that nobody ever plays and you just think that it would be fun to play.
"After all," you say, "SOMEONE should play it."
I agree and ask who you know, who also plays. If you're under 40, you tell me about your uncle (or was it your mom?) who played beautifully when you were growing up, and in trying to describe what kind of music he played, you get distracted talking about music genres. You assure me that you really like pretty much all types of music, except rap. If I could only see your CD collection, you tell me, I would be surprised - you probably have the most diverse taste in music of anyone I've ever seen. You then try to prove it by listing every genre of music you can think of, but your list dries up faster than you expected. "Classical, pop...jazz - I LOVE jazz! ...and...and even rock, really. I love it all. Oh - and oldies. Yeah, I'm fine with oldies too."
Then you tell me what you're looking for: you want to be able - eventually - and you realize it might take a long time - to just sit down and play something nice, you know? To just be able to enjoy playing. To play something - and it doesn't even have to be complicated - that sounds nice, you know? There is also mention of realizing that reading sheet music is really important and some token mention of terms like "theory" or "scales" is usually thrown in here. The words all come out confident, but the more you talk, the more an inner uneasiness slowly begins eroding your assurance and you feel the beginning of a fear that you got yourself in over your head.
But most of all, you're just relieved that I haven't asked you to try to play anything yet. Sphincters imperceptibly and involuntarily clench at the prospect that this part of the lesson is still to come.
This is the part where it's my turn to talk. Now, you've decided to take lessons, which means you've overcome a lot! Congratulations! Sincerely: congratulations! You haven't let your insecurities stop you or the cost or the ridiculousness of taking lessons 'at your age' (it's not ridiculous at all, but many adults feel like this is something that should have happened when they were a kid). You still decided to come in and you didn't cancel your appointment and you even brought the one piano book you've had for...gosh, you can't even remember when or where you got it. And you printed out some sheet music to a song you hope to learn some day. You've really done some great prep work! You're going to be fine! But you're not feeling it at the moment. And worse yet, you still don't really know what you want to learn. You think you have an idea, but you're likely wrong. I don't tell you that yet. Let's dive in and see if I can clarify how vast this ocean is that we're sailing in and help you decide in which direction we want to set off.
Don't forget - this is an overview. None of the individual pieces needs to make any sense today. I'm just shining a light out onto the paths to show you what's out there. You don't have conquer any of it yet!
Letters and Octaves
There are only really 12 notes. They are lettered A through G and then it just repeats. All the black notes are just variations on the white notes. And all the notes that have the same name sound the same, so anyone who is playing a whole lot of notes is really just duplicate himself in slightly different positions. Here - try a C arpeggio. See? It's not all that tough once you look at the patterns.
Even better news - you don't even have to worry about all 12 notes at the same time. Any particular song is only going to use 7 notes. Each collection of notes is called a "tonality" or - and you might have heard of this - a "key" (as in, "the key of B flat") or a "scale". Tonality, key and scale all refer to the same concept, that there are predetermined sets of 7 notes, and any song can be played in any of these "keys".
That's because people don't actually hear notes. They hear relationships. As you already know, it doesn't matter where you start a song like, for example, Happy Birthday. It just matters where you go after that. The actual notes don't matter just the relationships between the notes. That's the magic of keys, and that's why eventually we'll want to know them. There are 12. I don't know if that sounds like a lot or a little to you, but work on 1 a month and you'll know all your keys within a year! Or if you prefer, you can just always play your songs in your favorite key or two. You don't HAVE to learn all the keys.
What's even more encouraging than keys is the fact that during a particular point in a song, only 3 of the 7 notes is really important. Those are called "chords". You can start a chord on any of the 7 notes of the key, and the chord is always just every-other note in the key until you have a set of 3 notes. And honestly, you're not even really going to use all 7 chords. You'll use the 1st, the 4th, and the 5th, and probably the 6th. Rarely you'll use the 2nd or 3rd, and you're virtually never going to need the 7th chord. And this is where we watch the first part of the 4-chord song, which uses the 1, 5, 6, then 4 chords. Your respect for musicians plummets through the floor.
Accompaniment vs. Solo
Now that you know how important chords are to songs, we need to decide what we mean by "playing a song". It turns out, that's not really a thing. There's not a 'right' way to play almost any song. So when we play songs, we can focus on the melody (single note) or play the chords so someone can sing along (accompaniment), or we can try to do both at the same time (solo piano). The solo piano route is what you are tempted to choose because it sounds more impressive and it sounds the most like the song, but the accompaniment version is much easier, more practical, and is what the professional musicians are actually doing. They're not playing the melody. The singer would be REALLY annoyed by that!
You agree that the accompaniment would be more practical, but still opt to start with solo piano, assuring me that you're fine with taking it slow. I humor you for now. And I can sympathize - it does sound so much cooler!
Lastly, we need to talk about this sheet music thing. I can show you how to read music. Here you go: each line or space represents a consecutive letter on the piano. The higher the note on the paper, the higher the note on the piano. The rhythms are determined by the decoration. The more decoration, the faster the note. Black notes are indicated with sharp and flat signs, like we already said. That's about it. It's just a matter of practicing it so you can do it smoothly on the fly.
But that's the rub. It takes a WHOLE LOT of practice to get smooth at it on the fly. It will take years to become proficient, and even then, you're not going to be able to sight read sheet music like you sight read a book. But actually, it's exactly like that. Think about how long it took you to read. Hours a day every day and strong peer pressure from your family, and that's just to learn your letters leading up to preschool. Then it's 8 hours a day in school and more reading at night with mom and dad for a couple years before they'll even put a number on the grade you're in. First through 6th grade you're getting proficient, but then you hit some Shakespeare in college and realize you're a crazy slow reader! You're comfortable reading, as long as the book isn't too difficult, but the prospect of publicly reading iambic pentameter or a medical journal still gives you sweaty palms. After decades of focused practice, your reading skills are just what you would consider 'good enough'.
Now go back and read it again as if we're talking about sheet music and you have an idea of what's out in front of you. There's no such thing as a person who can 'read sheet music.' There are just people who can read sheet music that's not too difficult for them. And I'm not advocating for illiteracy in language or music - I'm just saying it's not a simple skill that you just learn and then just have. It's a huge spectrum where progress is slow in incremental.
Plus, it's not even necessary like you think it is. Fortunately, in America, illiteracy is pretty rare. But it wasn't all that long ago that reading was a rare skill. But 100% of people still successfully used the language and functioned just fine as illiterates. That's because great communication (hear 'playing great music') has very little to do with reading and writing. And by the way, back in our story about your progress through school, when were you using the language? That's right - long before preschool and all throughout your education. It never occurred to you during those years that your lack of education would in any way impair your ability to fully function and use the language.
But let's not let that deter us from starting on the sight reading. We just don't want to equate that with our ability to play the instrument.
In the end, you should work on the stuff that you want to work on. Don't worry about what the 'right' thing is to practice or what the 'right' method is or which piano book is the 'best' on to learn with. There's time to get to all of it, and we don't have to finish any of it. What is a song you really love to hear or sing? Let's get started there...