Category Archives: Piano Lessons

Buying a Piano – Electronic vs Acoustic

By: Aaron Zimmerman

“Should I buy a piano or a keyboard with weighted keys” is one of the most commonly asked questions.  The answer I usually give is: It depends, but probably a piano.

Reasons to Buy a PianoAcoustic Piano

It is more fun.  There is something about the experience of playing an acoustic, string-vibrating piano that is more enjoyable, more engaging that a keyboard where sound comes from speakers.  Students will practice longer, and be more apt to continue with piano lessons if they are practicing on an acoustic piano.

It is the actual instrument they are learning.  Most students who take piano lessons do so because they want to perform the piano in some guise or another (Church, Recitals, entering conservatories, etc).  Playing a weighted keys keyboard is a different tactile experience than a piano, no matter how good the keyboard is.  The theoretical knowledge will translate just fine, but the piano technique will not.  Intermediate students will start playing their pieces poorer in lessons and recitals, because they aren’t used to the feel of a real piano.

It’s not as expensive as you think.  Many people think they will gauge interest for a year or two before investing in a real piano.  Many piano stores have rent, or rent to own programs that can make owning a real piano easier in this situation.  You can also find a decent, affordable piano on online marketplaces like craigslist.  If you go this route, enlist the help of your teacher, a pianist friend, or a piano technician to evaluate the piano before purchase.

Pianos have higher resale potential.  Pianos tend to go up in value.  (Of course, I’m not giving investment advice, just stating my experience).  Keyboards are electronic, and will eventually degrade.  A well maintained piano will go up in price year over year.

Reasons to buy a keyboardElectronic Piano

You don’t care about piano technique.  If you are just looking for a musical foundation to transfer to another instrument, piano technique isn’t as important.

You have sound or space restrictions.  You can plug headphones into a keyboard and practice at any hour without disturbing others in the house or apartment building.  If there aren’t any hours in which you can play an acoustic piano, there’s not much point in owning one.

It is not financially viable.  When it comes down to it, any instrument is better than no instrument.  If your choices are keyboard or nothing, the keyboard wins.


If at all possible, I highly recommend an acoustic piano. There is a higher probability of your child sticking with lessons, and being exited about practicing during the week.  You will probably be able to sell the piano in the event that they end up quitting, and it is a beautiful piece of furniture for you living room in the meantime.

photo credit: <a href=””>Jucá Costa</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>cc</a>

Why do kids quit piano?

By: Aaron Zimmerman

Quit Piano

Piano lessons don’t work out for everyone.  Unfortunately there are a few reasons a student may quit that could have been avoided.  Here are a few such reasons I’ve come across and what you might try before giving up outright.

1)  They never learn how to read music.

Many students learn a piece of music by listening to the teacher play it, remembering how it sounded, and then plunking it out at home until the piece is recreated from memory.  Further, they are often under the impression that music reading is the same as music spelling.  They learn to name notes on the staff with tricks like “Every Good Boy Does Fine” and “FACE”, and this will work when there are only a few notes per measure.   But as the music gets harder, it becomes impossible to accurately recreate from memory, and using note spelling (“note by agonizing note”) takes an excruciatingly long time.   There is just too much going on and FACE does not scale.  Reading music is about identifying patterns; things like scales, chords, intervals.  If this is not learned, the student will have a hard time learning new pieces as the pieces get harder, and the pain of learning a new piece will begin to outweigh the joy of playing it.

To learn to read music, start with intervals.  Have the student write the interval distance right in the music for a few pieces to get her used to the new approach.  Then do the same thing with chords, and higher level patterns.  With a little hard work they’ll be reading music before you know it.

2) They never learn how to practice

Improvement, progress, is not achieved during lessons.  Lessons are course corrections, and practice is the wind in the sails.  But many students never learn what practicing the piano actually means.  In lessons, students usually perform the pieces for their teacher and receive feedback, so the logical conclusion of many students is that this is what they should do during practice sessions.  Practicing is not performing, however.  Practicing is the repetition of isolated elements of a challenge (see this previous post).  Without structured practicing, a student will take longer and longer to learn pieces as they get harder.

To help students practice better, come up with a structured practice regimen.  Help them break the music into smaller, practicable pieces that they can master quickly.  Encourage students to allocate time and set small, well defined, achievable goals (such as, “By the end of today, I want to play this line of music hand separately at 120 bpm”, rather than “I will get better at this piece”).   Progress is powerful, once they see the results of deliberate practice it will be easy to maintain.

3)  They never wanted to play in the first place

If getting a child to practice is a daily fight, it probably isn’t worth the effort.  If a student doesn’t want to practice, forcing them will only make everyone unhappy.  I’ve seen   students pushed into lessons, despite not showing any interest, because the parent always wished they had taken lessons.  While it’s possible that the student may come to like it, usually this is not the case.  Rather, if you’ve always wanted to take lessons, take them yourself!  It is never too late to learn to play the piano.  Upon seeing the joy it brings you, your child may be inspired to do likewise.

4)  They had a bad first impression

Often in young children, a subject is personified with an early experience.  When they think of “math”, they think of a grouchy math teacher, or particularly dull homework that was too easy.  And this experiential dislike is transfered to the subject itself.   Music is no different. If a teacher is grouchy or unprepared to handle your child, your child probably won’t think very highly of music.

Try exposing your child to music in other avenues, go to concerts, sing her favorite songs as a family.  Bring up your child’s reaction with your teacher as well.  Hopefully they will work with you to engage your child in a more effective way.

Its true that music lessons are not for everyone, but hopefully you can avoid these pitfalls that might squelch an otherwise burgeoning musical education.

What other reasons have you encountered that could have been avoided?

photo credit: RSL IMAGES via photopin cc

How to Pick a Piano Teacher

By: Aaron Zimmerman

Piano Teacher SearchThinking back to your school days, which teachers do you remember?  Chances are they weren’t your favorites because of their academic accolades. It’s unlikely that you remember the teacher because they were brilliant orators or subject matter experts.   You remember them because, somehow, they reached you.  They inspired you, they made you excited about what you were learning.  If a teacher cannot inspire, nothing else will matter.  Finding such a piano teacher is no small task.  But don’t overlook this most critical aspect of teaching.  Always schedule a trial lesson, encourage the teacher talk to your child, watch them interact.  If a teacher is a bad fit, you’ll know.

Treat your search for a music teacher just like a job interview.  Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions.  Ask for a resume and check references. Reach out to several candidates so you have options to compare and measure against. A good teacher can make a tremendous difference in your child’s musical education.

Below are some questions to use as a starting point when interviewing prospective piano teachers.

Teaching Style – What are you strengths as a teacher?

There is no global right answer here.  But there is probably a right answer for you.  Consider what you want from music lessons and find a teacher that can provide that.

  • Foundational Theory
    If you want your child to transfer to a different instrument in a few years, find a teacher that knows music theory, and worry less about someone with advanced piano technique.  Find a teacher that is fun and laid back to introduce your child to a fun, low-pressure musical learning experience.

  • Music Appreciation
    If your goal is for your child to develop a general appreciation for music, seek out a teacher that knows music history who is familiar with different styles of music (including rock and jazz as well as classical, baroque).

  • Concert Pianist
    If you want your child to become a concert pianist, or at least have the option, avoid teachers who specialize in beginner students.  Look for teachers that are solid performers themselves.  Inquire at a local conservatory for a recommendation.

  • Composition
    If you’d like to hone your child’s composition skills, consider a teacher with composition experience. Bonus points if they know how to play multiple instruments.

Lesson Mechanics – What method book do you use?

There is no one size fits all lesson plan.  Every student has unique strengths, weaknesses, or goals, so give the teacher a chance to discuss that.  If a teacher were to say, “I always use XXXX”, that would be a red flag for me.  A teacher should get to know the child and consider his or her unique needs when selecting a method book.  If the teacher were to pick a older method that hasn’t been updated, such as “John Schaum”, or “John Thompson”, that would also be a red flag, as these methods are quite antiquated in their pedagogic approach.  My personal favorite method is The Music Tree  Even if I don’t use it for a particular student, I find myself often supplementing with books from the music tree series. It is carefully researched with a natural, child-oriented sequence. Some other good methods are Piano Town and Hal Leonard.

Business Stuff – What is your cancellation policy, How much do you charge per lesson?

Don’t forget that this is a business.  There’s no reason to avoid discussion of payments and policies.  Hopefully the teacher can provide you with a written document of studio policies outlining payment in clear terms.  Take the time to read and understand this before enrolling your child.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions if it’s unclear.  It will be easier to discuss business aspects ahead of time than after you have been taking lessons for a month and discover you had misread something.

What questions does the teacher ask?

Do they blindly accept any student or do they ask questions about what your goals are for your child? Here are some examples of questions good teachers often ask:

  • Why do you want to take piano lessons?
    A teacher’s main duty is to discover a student’s goal and help them get there.  If the teacher doesn’t ask why you’re enrolling your child, why they want to learn, that is a huge red flag.

  • How much practice time do you expect to have?  If the teacher asks about your child’s level of commitment in some way or another, it might indicate that they are looking for quality students, not just paychecks.

  • Above all a teacher should show an interest in your child.  They should engage your child, to lay the foundations of a relationship, not just set them down in front of the piano and say “play this”.  The specific questions don’t really matter here, the intent should come through. Listen for things like:

    • What kinds of music do you like? Do your parents or relatives play an instrument?  What grade are you in?  What are your hobbies?

Picking a teacher should be fun, many great teachers have different niches, different techniques.  Spending a little time finding the right one will be well worth it in the end.

Aaron Zimmerman is a passionate musician who brings a unique approach to music education. Aaron earned a Master’s degree in Music Composition from The University Of Missouri at Kansas City while studying piano with Jane Solose and Michael Pagan and composition with Chen Yi.

Image credit: Flickr/obstinato

Is Your Child Ready for Piano Lessons?

By: Aaron Zimmerman

Piano LessonsEver wonder if you have a budding Mozart on your hands? An early interest in music is common and leaves parents wondering, “When is the ideal age to sign my child up for piano lesson?” As a parent, this answer shouldn’t come as a surprise: it depends on the child.  Here are a few tips to help you determine if your child is ready.

1. Can they wiggle their fingers independently?

To be physically ready to play the piano, your child needs basic finger independence.  A good way to check this is to have them rest their fingertips on a flat surface and lift each finger off the table and tap it, trying not to move any other fingers.  Chances are they will not be able to do this with the pinky and ring fingers, and that’s probably ok, as long as they can achieve at least a little independence.

2. Can my child focus for at least 5 minutes?

Having the mental capacity to focus on one task at a time can be hard for young brains.  Learning how to play the piano is challenging and a good teacher will aim to make it fun with piano centered games and activities. For example, I have my young students imitate animal sounds on the piano, but even this game requires mental focus.  If your child can only sit still for a few minutes before moving on to the next task, you may want to wait.

3. Are they interested in music?

This question is the most important.  If your child truly desires to play the piano, a teacher can work with their level of physical and mental preparedness.  However, if they simply aren’t interested in the piano, it won’t matter how hard they concentrate, or how developer their fine motor skills are. If your child asks about piano lessons a lot, if they show an interest in music, singing or clapping along, then sit them down at a piano and see what they do.  If the desire for them to learn piano comes from you, or your spouse, then enrolling them will only be frustrating for you both as they likely won’t practice willingly, and their progress will be slow.

If your child is interested in music but seems too young to start piano lessons, that doesn’t mean they can’t find an outlet for their musical interests.  Kindermusik is a fantastic program for very young children.  It is a wonderful way to learn to enjoy music while preparing for more formal study.

What signs are you seeing in your child?

Aaron Zimmerman is a passionate musician who brings a unique approach to music education.  Aaron earned a Master’s degree in Music Composition from The University Of Missouri at Kansas City while studying piano with Jane Solose and Michael Pagan and composition with Chen Yi. Connect with Aaron on Facebook or Google+.

photo credit: Manuela Hoffmann via photopin cc