When I was studying music at university my piano teacher used to tell me “Everything you need to know about playing the piano can be written on the back of a postage stamp but it takes a lifetime to learn it.” I’m not sure whether that was his saying or he was quoting someone else but it always struck me as a little strange. Why, if there was so little to know about piano playing, do we require years of lessons to become proficient? My teacher certainly talked a lot during the lessons, far more than would fit on the back of a postage stamp. What was he telling me if not all the things I needed to know about piano playing?
It wasn’t until I graduated and became responsible for my own practice that I began to fully appreciate what he was saying (it was also then that I began to see the value of having a good piano teacher). What I realised was that it isn’t the piano teacher’s job to tell you how to play the piano. Sure, there is a lot a teacher can tell you about reading music, music theory, how to practice, etc. but none of those things are specifically about playing piano. The job of a piano teacher is actually to help steer the student in the right direction and to help them avoid the mistakes and problems that many students suffer from. Piano playing is a rather unnatural activity and to play properly we often need to break out of habits that we form naturally performing other activities. The piano teacher’s job is also to listen to the student’s playing and point out what they might not be hearing. Believe it or not, it’s actually quite difficult to listen carefully to yourself while playing.The teacher will also have developed an ear for details that the student might not have.
So what does this mean for the piano student? If the teacher can’t tell you how to play the piano, how are you supposed to learn? The answer is that while the teacher can’t tell you how to play the piano, they can point out the things that the student might not be noticing and it’s the student’s task to then try to notice those things themselves and work on them during their practice.
The upshot of all this is that the bulk of the student’s learning will actually take place during practice and not during the lessons. Lessons on their own therefore aren’t likely to result in much progress. Of course, none of this is unique to piano playing but it is particularly true of learning piano because so much of good piano playing is about forming good habits and avoiding bad ones. This takes patience, perseverance, and most of all, practice!