If you just started learning piano, or your child is getting lessons for the first time, it’s important to be aware of common mistakes that beginner pianists make. Most of the time students progress much slower than they need to because they are making mistakes that misuse their precious time. Don’t be one of those people.
1. Playing Too Fast
This is definitely the number one problem among new and young pianists. Playing the piano isn’t a race. The reason that a lot of pianists, even some experienced ones, want to play fast too early is because they want to hear what the music sounds like! It’s a pretty normal feeling to have. You’re likely working on the piece because you like how it sounds.
As soon as a student begins working on a piece of music they play it at the final tempo. Why is this not a good idea? You haven’t learned the notes yet. You are inevitably going to be making mistakes while playing fast. You’ll be establishing muscle memory whether you like it or not, which is difficult to change.
After playing it through for a while you’ll go to a lesson, and your teacher will tell you to slow down. Maybe you practice slower for a little while, but you’ve already established muscle memory for the fast tempo, and it’s likely wrong.
Trying to later replace this muscle memory is like trying to replace a bad habit. It’s hard. You’ll likely never slow it down, and your teacher will have to try to teach you to play it correctly while you’re playing it fast. You may feel like you’re learning the piece quickly, but in the end you just have a bowl full of mush. It won’t ever sound good, and you’ll be missing out on the more detailed parts of the music.
When you begin a piece, you need to practice so slow that you cannot make a mistake. This is called the speed of no mistakes. If you practice that slowly, you’ll find that the piece is learned better, and you’ll actually finish it quicker as well.
2. Not Playing the Actual Music
What does it mean to not play the music? I mean, it sounds like music right? By music, I mean everything besides the notes and rhythms. Are you really paying attention to all of the dynamic changes? What about the phrasing, the articulation, and other aspects of interpretation?
Playing fast can result in missing all of these finer details of the music, but sometimes it’s just because we don’t really put much importance on them. The beginner pianist doesn’t pay much attention to these details while they are listening to music either. They do make a difference though.
Are you really focusing on what your crescendos and diminuendos sound like? With the crescendo is every note louder than the note before it, or are just the last few notes louder? How long are your staccato notes?
Staccato doesn’t mean play as short as you possibly can, it just means detached. Are you lifting at the end of a slur? You need to focus on everything from the beginning, so that you establish good muscle memory that doesn’t need fixing.
3. Expecting Results Too Quickly
This is more of a problem for adults than it is for children, but it can be a problem for both.
Why did you start piano? It’s probably not because you wanted to play Mary Had a Little Lamb or Hot Cross Buns. Yet when you start, this is the kind of music you’ll be playing. You need to learn to read music.
Reading the notes is actually one of the easiest parts of playing the piano once you learn it. If you can read music, a lot of other aspects of playing become more difficult. Even though reading music is not too difficult once you have learned it, while you’re starting out it is a rather large barrier to entry.
Your hands are capable of playing music much harder than you can read. This is shown by all of the YouTube videos that teach absolute beginners to play real music. Learning music in this way is called “learning by rote”. The pianist just copies exactly what someone else is playing.
If you’ve ever tried it before, you might be pleasantly surprised that it’s not too hard! You can start learning piano pretty quickly this way. Then why do teachers not teach like this more?
It’s not a bad way to teach, but it’s incomplete. If you only learn by rote, you’ll have to have someone sitting next to you, or you’ll have to watch a video, if you ever want to learn something new.
You must learn to read music. This means that the music you’ll be practicing will be pretty boring for a while. It’s just the way it works unfortunately. Don’t get discouraged. Eventually you’ll get the hang of it and move on to the music you want to learn.
4. Not Practicing Enough or Consistently
If you’re not going to practice much you won’t progress very quickly. Did you know that many professional pianists practice 4+ hours a day? Can you practice that much? If you’re an adult, I doubt it. You know what, that’s okay. You’re probably not interested in making music a career. Practice as much as you can. If that’s only 15 minutes, then fine.
The most important part of practicing piano is consistency. Practicing 2 hours one day a week is far less effective than practicing 15 minutes 7 days a week. Your brain needs time to make sense of everything you’re learning, and it does that during sleep. Each day will build upon itself. Practicing 2 hours each day would be much better, but you do what you have time to do.
5. Not Performing
Why in the world are you learning the piano if you never plan on performing? Performing must be part of your music education. If you have a performance to prepare for, you’ll work harder during practice. If you have a performance to prepare for, you’ll always have a goal in mind. Perform right away.
Even when you’re working on simple music, don’t be embarrassed. Play it for your family and friends. If your teacher doesn’t get you into recitals, set up events in your home where people can come hear you play. You should always be working towards a performance.
6. Playing Music That is Too Hard and Playing Music that is Too Easy
I’m actually an advocate of challenging yourself with music that most teachers would say was too hard. You have to have the right personality for it though. If you are the type of person to give up on something when it gets really challenging, then you need to avoid music that you can’t learn fairly quickly.
Playing music that is too easy for you can cause similar problems. You aren’t going to progress if you aren’t challenged. Sure it can be helpful to play simple music when you are just starting out, but just because it takes you more than a week to learn doesn’t mean it’s too hard for you.
Many college piano majors can take months to learn a piece of music. It’s okay. It’s normal. You’ll get better when you push yourself.
7. Using Too Much Pedal
By pedal I mean the damper pedal, which is the pedal furthest to the right. This pedal sustains all notes played until you let go of it. It can be really tempting to just hold it down all the time. Because a lot of notes are being held down at once, it covers up sloppy playing pretty well.
If underneath all of the sloppy notes is sloppy playing, to an experienced musician they’ll be able to tell. Actually most people will be able to tell. You may not notice because you aren’t listening critically, but that doesn’t mean you sound amazing.
This is all the more reason not to use the pedal. If you can’t hear your mistakes because they are shrouded in too much pedal, how are you going to fix them? Often when beginners hold the pedal down too much, it also ends up blurring chords together. It sounds horrible. Don’t do it. When in doubt, practice without a pedal.
8. Playing Instead of Practicing
You have to know the difference between playing and practicing. When you play, you’re having fun. You play from the beginning, often at the correct speed, and then you play to the end, or at least until the end of what you know so far.
You’re not going to get better by playing, or at least not very quickly. Practicing is working on small sections over and over. It’s trying to understand what the music is doing, and memorizing it from the beginning. It’s working on a very small group of notes to practice technique. It’s working on parts you don’t know yet. Practicing is not as fun as playing, but it will actually help you progress.
9. Not Paying Attention to Fingering
Fingering is extremely important. Don’t let anyone tell you anything differently. For the most part editors and lesson book writers do a pretty good job of putting fingerings in for you. For the most part you should use that fingering. If your teacher decides it’s okay to change a fingering, be my guest, otherwise keep them as written.
But everyone’s hands are different right? Well, yes, but not by much. You likely have 5 fingers, an opposable thumb, and a weak 4th and 5th finger. Everyone does. Your hand may be bigger than mine, but for the most part our fingering should be very similar.
Once you become more advanced you can start to make calls for changing the written fingering because you’ll have an understanding of why you’re changing it. That’s okay.
For now, though, play the fingering that is written. You’ll be glad you did.
10. Not Using a Metronome
Do you have a metronome? Great! Do you use it though? You should use it often. Studies have shown that metronome practicing not only helps rhythm and tempo, but technique too. Insane right?
Golfers use metronomes because apparently it can actually help them golf better.
Study after study has shown that metronome practice will make you a better musician. So turn it on! If I’ve learned the notes fairly well, it’s metronome time! The metronome is on for most of my practice time. At first it’s a little annoying, but you’ll eventually get used to its constant ticking in your ears.
11. Not Taking Lessons
So you think you can learn on your own right? Lessons are too expensive, and you can figure the basics out without any help. Well maybe you can, but what you’ll end up finding is that you develop a lot of bad habits. You may be playing with wrong fingering, or you might develop physical technique that can lead to injury.
Breaking these bad habits can take a very long time. By taking lessons you will avoid developing them at all.
12. Not Counting
If you’re playing music that you’ve heard before, you may think you don’t need to count out the rhythms. This is where you would be wrong. Count, count, count! If you’re playing the rhythm by ear, you are almost certainly not playing it correctly. Maybe you’re not holding out a note long enough, or maybe all the rest are awkward and you feel like there is too much silence.
You have to count through it all. If you don’t, it will be just plain wrong. You may not notice, but everyone else will. This is one of the major reasons that beginners sound like beginners.
Simple music played by a beginner sounds much different than the simple music played by an advanced pianist.
One of the main reasons is attention to detail and rhythm. It doesn’t have to be this way though. Counting isn’t too hard. Count and you’ll be more accurate. Count and your music will sound better. You don’t have to count forever though. Count when you start learning a piece and for at least a few days. You’ll internalize the rhythm. It will become muscle memory, and you won’t need to count anymore.
13. Not Recording Yourself
As a beginner you probably aren’t listening to yourself. It’s a skill that’s hard to develop. You might be thinking, “Of course I listen to myself! It’s impossible not to.” Yes, maybe you hear yourself, but you aren’t listening critically.
You don’t realize how wrong your rhythm is, how bad you sound playing it so fast, or how your tempo is changing all over the place. You need to know where your mistakes are so you can correct them. In order to do this you’ll need to record yourself regularly.
14. Not Showing That You Feel the Music Through Your Body Movements
Music is not a visual art. Or is it? If you perform for an audio only recording, then maybe moving around while playing isn’t very important. Have you seen professional pianists play though? They are really feeling the music. This may help you play better by focusing more on how the music sounds, but it’s also important from a visual standpoint.
We can’t help but to be influenced by what we see. If you are into the music, the audience will be too. Even if your playing is not as good as you would hope, you’ll be able to convince people that you are good by your body motion. Most teachers don’t actually teach this, but I think they should. It’s silly to avoid a very important part of performance.
There you have it, 14 mistakes most beginners make. I say beginners, but even advanced pianists will make a lot of these mistakes. By being aware of them, you’ll be able to work past them and become a much better pianist.
Are there any other mistakes that you find you or your students make regularly? Let us know in the comments!