Learning to play the piano: how to study technique, music reading, hand independence and music theory

Italian flag
Leggi in Italiano

Those who begin to play the piano have to deal with four subjects simultaneously: piano technique, music reading, hand independence and music theory. In what order and how should they be approached in the first few months of the piano course?

If approached in the right way, piano study is accessible to everyone. It is important to tackle difficulties one at a time, when possible, and to try to progress in several areas at once.

This is the approach I propose to my students in order to tackle each subject at the right time, without any frustration or waste of energy.

1 The piano technique

When we talk about piano technique we are referring to the physical and manual skills needed to play. Technique includes the position and movement of the fingers, hands, wrist and arms, but also the posture of the whole body. To get over technical difficulties, it is very often important to be thinking about the right thing.

In particular, during the first years of study, your efforts should be directed towards keeping your arms and wrists relaxed. Often the effort of reading the score leads us to stiffen our arms and wrists, even without realising it. Let us try to explore this concept further.

Piano technique, relaxation comes first

In the first months of studying the piano technique, trying to impose precise positions on the hands and fingers is counterproductive because it almost always leads to more tension and stiffness.

Watch the video to discover some simple relaxation exercises for the wrist.

If you have only been playing for a few years, you should always try to take tension off your hand and wrist, rather than imposing a position that you believe to be correct. It doesn’t matter if your hand is a little more spread out or a little higher, the main thing is that your wrist is soft and your hand relaxed.

This will make it more natural to bend your fingers and use the lever principle to press keys with minimal effort. Don’t underestimate the importance of the seating height. Positioning yourself at the right height in relation to the keyboard favours a natural and relaxed approach.

Staying soft and removing tension from the hand, arms and wrist is essential to address the second major issue: hand independence.

2 Hand independence

The most challenging thing for beginners playing the piano is hand independence. Although almost all instruments require excellent coordination of both hands, the piano requires a full independence.

To tackle hand independence, it is essential to use a progressive and well-ordered exercise book. Personally, I really appreciate Beyer Op.101, of which I have also made a video course.

Regardless of which exercise book you choose, it is important to practise in the right way: slowly, with perseverance and concentration. Playing the piano can be tiring at first, so it is important to have a method of study that helps you to relieve your mind of all unnecessary effort.

In order to improve hand independence, it is essential to rely on a specific medium: reading the score.

3 Music reading

In my many years of teaching, I have often encountered pupils who were very gifted, both in terms of their ear and their manual dexterity, but who lacked the patience to learn to read the score.

It is not difficult to explain why: if you can already play something pleasant by ear and your hands walk quite well, why put yourself through the effort of a slow and boring study?

However, things are not so simple, let us try to explain why.

Playing the piano without reading music

In some cases, I tried to go along with this attitude, trying to teach how to play the piano without using any sheet music. Regardless of how talented and intelligent my students were, the results were disastrous, always.

I have wondered for a long time why reading the score is necessary to play the piano, and I have come to the conclusion that there can be no growth in hand independence without the help of reading.

Reading the score is the first device we have to coordinate our hands. Seeing the two staves helps us to coordinate the hands and gain independence. If we play by ear the independence of the hands does not improve and sooner or later we will find ourselves in a dead end, unable to make progress.

Learning to read the score, easily

A good exercise book, gradual and well-ordered, is also crucial for improving music reading. Before playing an exercise, always read the notes, out loud and without playing. This will make it easier for you when you try to play it, and you will also gradually improve your ability to read music.

If you have free time away from the piano, for example if you often travel by train or spend a few days away from home, you can get a solfeggio book and use it to improve your reading skills.

While playing the piano requires hours of practice (at the beginning, at least 30’/45′ a day), improving reading can take as little as ten minutes a day. Reading music is not difficult at all, especially if you do not try to read and play at the same time.

If you want to improve your reading skills, you can consider my Jazz Solfeggio video course.

It remains to cover the last major subject of study: music theory.

4 Music theory and harmony

The piano is an orchestral instrument and it is great to know scales and chords, how harmonic progressions work, cadences. This will give you tools to learn and understand many songs, and will also lay the foundations for the study of improvisation.

However, learning chords is useless if our hands cannot play them. This is why music theory and harmony are subjects that are not worth tackling during the first year of study. Much better to concentrate on independence and music reading, which are really essential for taking the first steps.

If your goal is not to play classical piano but you want to play songs, spending a whole year doing exercises could be exhausting. In that case, when you have passed the halfway point of Beyer op.101 you can start to learn the main chords and play some simple songs.

However, remember: in order to play a song decently, you will need good hand independence. To achieve this you will need to keep practising methodically and with commitment!

Tecnica indipendenza lettura teoria nel primo anno di studio del pianoforte
In the first year of study, your efforts should focus mainly on hand independence and reading the score.

Conclusion: the right balance between technique, independence, music reading and theory

Studying piano is definitely a challenge that requires intelligence, patience and method. If you are not in a hurry and try to appreciate every moment of study, even the first steps, you can usually get further and get great satisfaction from the study of music.

Knowing what to expect is crucial: in the first year you have to learn to read and improve the independence of your hands. This will be the basis for the next steps. Good luck with your studies, if you need any advice leave a comment and I will be happy to answer you. I look forward to hearing from you!

Do you want to receive my free lessons?

Sheet music, harmony lessons, music theory and musical analysis.

Help me to spread the love for music