Some Useful Resources for Beginning Pianists
There’s nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself. – J.S. Bach
In April of 2018 I began playing the piano, with hardly any prior musical experience. This document catalogues a number of resources which I have found personally compelling, and which I think may be useful or of interest to others. My own interests at the time of writing thsi are in learning and exploring beginner and early intermediate classical repertoire and technique. What you see below is thus very heavily skewed in this direction, and completely ignores other styles as well as more advanced material. I also do not spend any time discussing method books, as I have had only limited exposure to the them.
Finally, nearly all of the cited resources are web content, either organized as youtube channels, blogs, or subscription websites. It is quite likely that at some point some of the links will break. If you notice a broken link, you are welcome to contact me at erik (at) thisdomain and I will do my best to fix it.
Table of Contents
- Comprehensive Curricula
- Technique, Performance, and Interpretation
- Music Theory
- Online Communities
- Fun and Inspiration
There are a few sites which offer somewhat comprehensive approaches to learning the piano. These would be particularly promising for a student who doesn’t have a teacher or who is looking to supplement their studies with a structured, organized approach.
Graham Fitch is an English pianist and piano teacher. He has written and produced videos for Pianist magazine, and also runs a website, Practising the Piano, which features a variety of resources, including an active blog, several ebooks for purchase, and an “online academy” featuring tutorials and video lessons.
Aside from being a very skilled pianist, I find Fitch to be an excellent pedagogue. One thing which stands out in particular is that offers at times a very analytical approach to piano technique and practice, illustrating in a way that is accessible to the beginner how to take a seemingly complicated piece or passage and break it down into its constituent parts, which can be practiced, mastered, and then in time synthesized to recover the whole. The “Online Piano Academy” (which requires a subscription to access) has several useful examples of this, ranging from elementary pieces (like J.C. Bach’s “Aria in F”) to advanced (e.g. Brahm’s Intermezzos). I have not seen any other resource which offers quite the same level of detail as Fitch’s videos. This extends also to aspects of practice itself, with Fitch offering explanations of how to practice effectively, how to bring a piece to performance level, etc.
There is some overlap between his blog, his ebooks (which contain embedded video links demonstrating much of what is discussed), and the online website. I recommend perusing all three.
A pianist and piano teacher from Moldova, Ilinca Vartic has created probably the most comprehensive system of instructional videos online. Following along with Nikolaev’s method series “The Russian School of Piano Playing”1, Ilinca presents lessons ranging in level from the absolute beginner to early intermediate stage, with systematic lessons culminating at the level of, say, Bach Minuets and easier pieces from Schumann’s or Tchaikovsky’s “Album for the Young”. Although the course ends at this level, there are quite a number of more advanced videos, ranging from musings on piano pedagogy, to technical advice for scales, arpeggios, etc, to analyses, interpretations, and practice guides for Chopin, Bach, and others.
A recurring theme in Vartic’s videos is that all too often students of piano focus on music theory and “typing at the keyboard” at the expense of expressive quality of dynamics, articulation, and phrasing. The method she presents is holistic, and paced appropriately to cultivate mastery of all of these expressive dimensions from the beginning onward.
Allysia is a Canadian piano teacher who runs PianoTV.net, a website containing lessons at a variety of levels, along with a parallel Youtube channel. Some strengths of the videos are that they have a clear grading and often accessible discussions of various aspects of learning, practice, theory, and technique, which can be otherwise challenging to navigate for a beginner or autodidactic. Another thing which distinguishes Allysia’s videos from so many others is that they offer a lot of personality above and beyond the usual details of playing the piano. I think the accessibility of the content, as well as Allysia’s friendly and upbeat personality, could be very motivating for a student.
Technique, Performance, and Interpretation
Outside of a full “curriculum”, there are several youtube channels which have a wide variety of videos dealing in depth with particular aspects of piano playing. Here are a few of my favories.
I’ve already mentioned Graham Fitch above, who has made a number of videos for Pianist magazine. There are others though, and all are worth checking out.
Professor of Piano at Cedarville University. I appreciate his perspective on fundamentals and his desire to cut through a lot of the nonsense and confusion associated with learning the piano, as in this video on “Speed of Key Descent in Piano Technique”. 2
Robert Estrin is a pianist who runs a piano store (and occasional cosplay enthusiast). His playing is impressive, and he has a large number of informational videos, available across a few different channels:
An accomplished pianist and faculty member at the University of Utah, Josh Wright offers a substantial body of pedagogical material for the improving pianist. Broadly speaking this material may be divided into two camps: paid courses (e.g. “ProPractice Technique Series”) and freely available Youtube videos. Although I cannot comment on the paid content, Wright’s youtube channel contains a wide variety of videos, ranging from the finer details of technical practice to videos addressing “sticking points” and matters of interpretation in popular amateur repertoire (e.g. this video on Petzold’s Minuet in G. There is a lot of rich content here, and I highly recommend it.
László Gyimesi is a Hungarian pianist and educator who has made a short series of videos (available on Youtube) containing “exercises and examples of the main elements of piano technique, scales, arpeggios, double notes, chords, jumps, thrills, pedal, etc.” The videos are quite insightful, albeit a bit scattered in their treatment of technical issues. I strongly recommend this series, but suspect it will be difficult to navigate for the early beginner.
Shirley Kirsten, a piano teacher based out of Berkeley, CA, runs both a blog as well as a youtube channel containing a variety of instructional content as well as related musings about her experiences as a piano teacher. The quality varies somewhat (most of the videos are shot from a webcam, and many are segments from her online piano lessons), but there are some real gems as well.
Piano is my first instrument, so I came to it without any prior understanding of music theory beyond the most basic sense of rhythm. However, much of the basic ideas of music theory map very cleanly to the physical layout of a keyboard. I’ve gotten some mileouge out of the following.
Free web resources (along with paid apps for mobile users) containing brief lessons and a variety of exercises on elementary music theory. The exercises are particularly useful for learning notation and basic ear training, as one can quickly drill both visual and aural recognition of notes, intervals, and chords. When I was just beginning with the piano I would regularly practice some of these exercises during my morning train ride.
This coursera sequence (consisting of a few individual courses) covers elementary music theory in an accessible manner. There are two distinct features which I think are worth mentioning. First, the material covers theory relevant to not only classical but also blues, jazz, and pop piano. Second, it also includes some keyboard exercises to help translate the theory into practice. I do think that to really internalize the content of this course would require much more than the Coursera exercises, but nonetheless this is a valuable resource.
The Hook Theory books are my favorite introduction to the basic relationship of harmony and melody in popular music. Drawing on a wide variety of popular songs, the books explain in detail common chord progressions and the role of individual chords in creating various musical effects. Part of what makes the book work so well is that woven throughout the text are demonstrations using well-known music. To pick a somewhat arbitrary example from Book I, from the chapter discussing inverted chords,
The combination of I64 and V creates a strong cadential effect. This is so common in music that it has been given a special name - the “cadential I64”. … one of the most typical uses of I64 → V is to end a song. Typically the V would cadence directly to a strong final I chord. Here is an example of a song that uses the cadential I64 to end the song:
and then follows an audiovisual demo from The Lion King’s “Circle of Life”.
Here are some active piano-themed communities.
The largest online community that I am aware of. Check in daily to see interesting links, discussions, and performances.
Another active forum, with subforums both for beginners as well as as more advanced piano enthusiasts as well as teachers.
Less active than the above two, these forums have been running since at least the early-mid 200s, and there is really a goldmine in the post history. Sometimes when I want to learn about something, I will simply use google to search for a term on this site (e.g. `tenuto site:pianostreet.com`) and read any interesting discussions which pop up.
Fun and Inspiration
This section is just a grab bag of miscellaneous piano stuff I like (mostly youtube channels). In no particular order….
“Intermezzo with Arik” is an Israeli television program on music, often featuring pianists who are interviewed by Arie Vardi, himself a concert pianist. This one’s a bit tricky – the interviews are primarily in English, but the show is otherwise in Hebrew, and so finding the videos can be a challenge. Many of the videos are on youtube, and so the only way I know to find them is to watch one (for example, this this interview with Murray Perahia on Bach) and then to scan through Youtube’s suggested related videos. For the amateur pianist though, these interviews offer an accessible look at some true masters of their craft.
Classically trained pianist with a wide variety of well-produced videos.
Covers of anime music.
More anime covers.
Piano instructor living in Thailand, who occasionally performs for elephants.
Piano performances along with animated graphical scores, made by Stephen Malinowski.
A number of performances, including Bach on Piano for Blind Elephant.
Wonderful arrangements and performances of video game music.
The title says it all.
I was a bit turned off by Vartic’s habit of referring to herself and her course as representative of “The Russian School of Piano Playing”. Although it’s sometimes useful as a conceptual and historical label to refer to national “schools” (e.g. the Polish School of Mathematics), it strikes me as implausible that there is any such thing as a “Russian School of Piano Playing” in the sense which she describes. Presumably there are many schools in Russia (with some famous ones, like the Moscow Conservatory, dominating the landscape), but it feels like a bit of a marketing ploy to draw interest from western students. Nonetheless, the actual content presented is quite good.↩
It is easy for piano instructors to (inadvertently) conflate the pschological or kinesthetic aspects of playing with the mechanical aspects of keyboard function. In such a setting, there is often a equation of some physical aspect of playing (like using a “graceful, flowing follow-through of the wrist”) with the actual tone produced by the key strike. While I think that such a perspective is essentially right, in the sense that something like “follow-through” is related to psychological intent, and thus can in fact affect the quality of the preceding key strike, for the beginner a poor understanding of the basic reality of keyboard actions can result in a lot of confusion on this matter.↩