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.

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FUNctional Harmony

By: Aaron Zimmerman

hognestad083008-4.JPGYou turn on the TV.  You see 20 or so people dressed in bright colors and helmets.  They are just standing around, and then suddenly they run full force into each other.  One person runs as fast as they can and another person throws him an oblong ball.  The receiver catches it and runs a little ways before flinging the ball at the ground and starting to dance.

To the average American adult, this is not such an odd sight, but imagine if you had never seen a football game.  How much more do you appreciate the game after learning the rules, understanding the objectives, and appreciating the strategy?

This is what it is like to learn harmony.  Harmony is the language of music, learning even a little will change the way you listen to music forever.

The three building blocks of harmony are intervals, scales, and chords.




An interval is a name for the distance between two notes.  Starting from a C, a ‘minor second’ or ‘half step’ takes you to the note directly to the left (B) or right (C#)  A whole step would be two half steps, so a D or a Bb.


C Major Scale

C Major Scale

A scale is a pattern of whole steps and half steps.   The most common scale, “major”, is the pattern, w,w,h,w,w,w,h.  This pattern can be started on any note to create the “major” scale for that note.  The vast majority of melodic material in music comes from a single scale.  A composer selecting a scale is like an artist picking out the colors of paint they will use for their next work.


C Major Chord

C Major Chord

A chord is three notes played simultaneously.    Chords are named for their lowest note (called the “root”), and the scale from which the other notes come from.   A “C Major” chord starts on the note C and uses thirds from the major scale.  (A third is the interval that you get by skipping one note of the scale.)


Now comes the clever bit.

We can take the C Major scale and build a chord for each note, sticking with the same collection of notes (the C Major scale itself), for each root note.   This results in the following 7 chords:

Chords built off C Major Scale

By convention, we label these chords with Roman Numerals (numbers are used for so many things in music, this helps distinguish those that designate harmony). We also give them impressing sounding names so we can sound smart at dinner parties.  The I chord is called Tonic, the IV chord the Subdominant, and the V chord Dominant.

Harmony is a pattern of chords, a “chord progression”.  Usually, chord progressions are designed to create a feeling of departure and return.  Think of it like running the bases, we move away from home plate, touching on other chords, before returning home to the I chord, the Tonic.

Sample Chord Progressions:

Pop Music is full of the chord progression I, V, vi, IV.

Pachelbels “Canon in D” uses a longer chord progression:  I, V, vi, iii, IV, I, IV, V.

“Hang On Sloopy” and “Wild Thing” both follow I, IV, V, IV…. for the whole song.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Ode To Joy” melody alternates mostly between I and V (with a few harmonic flourishes here and there).  For the last twenty seconds of the piece, Beethoven repeats and repeats the I chord.  This gives the piece a strong sense of finality, of completeness.  It is how you can tell that the piece is over.

(Jump to 4:52 to see what I mean about the ending.)

And that’s most of it.  Bam!  You are now a functional harmony expert.  Well, not quite, there are many more exciting twists and turns, but this is a great start.  Harmony is the language of music, learning to recognize it is like learning to read.  An entire world of appreciation and discovery awaits.

Read Music like a Book

By: Aaron Zimmerman

What is Music Reading?Reading Music

As in any language, fluency requires not only the ability to speak, but the ability to read and write.  Music reading is very similar to reading any other written language.  It has small elements that are put together to create larger elements.  In spoken languages, we put together letters to form words, and words to form sentences, and sentences to form stories.  In music, we start with notes, put them together to form intervals, and then put intervals together to form phrases, etc.

When learning to read, we first learn to recognize letters, then we learn common groupings of those letters over years of practice.  Recognizing letters alone is not reading, one must recognize words, and understand how the words are put together to form coherent thoughts.  In music, we must learn to recognize notes, and then learn how those notes are put together to form intervals, and finally, how intervals are used to form coherent musical ideas.

Note By Agonizing Note

Most young students learn music from a combination of memory and note spelling.  The teacher plays the piece when it is introduced, and later, at home, he plunks it out until he can recreate approximately how it sounded.  At the next lesson, minor mistakes are corrected.  This technique is supplemented with various mnemonics for identifying notes on the staff, such as Every Good Boy Does Fine (where the first letters are the note names of the lines on the treble staff), or FACE, (the spaces of the treble staff), etc.

The problem with this strategy is that it does not scale to more advanced music.  When a student is learning beginner pieces, with one note sounding at a time, (mostly quarter notes and half notes), they can get away with playing by ear, because there isn’t much to remember.  But as the pieces get harder, it will be impossible to remember and they will have to fall back to the only other skill they know, note spelling.  This works, but it is agonizingly slow to go through a piece note by note, and this frustration is a big reason intermediate students end up quitting.  Imagine reading a book letter by letter, not only is it non-sensical (a letter doesn’t “mean” anything), it is impractical for a book of any significant length.


The human brain is incredibly good at finding patterns.  We cannot help but group things, seeing larger scale object rather than the aspects that create them. When reading a book, we perceive a word, not letters. Rather than windows, wheels, and a metal frame, we perceive a car.  Rather than seeing a football defense move as individuals, a quarterback perceives a zone blitz.  Operating on a higher level lets us process much more information than we could at a lower level.

How music is read

To read music, students have to learn to see the patterns that pitches create.

Level 1 Reading with Note Names

Level 1 – Note Names

Level 1 is identifying notes on the staff.  Initially this is done by learning specific landmarks.  The treble clef circles around “Treble G”.  The dots of the bass clef enclose “Bass F”, and the first ledger line above the bass staff, or below the Treble staff is “middle C”.  As the student progresses they will pick up the names of all of the notes.  If they have trouble with this, flashcards or mnemonics are very useful.


Leve 2 - Intervals

Level 2 – Intervals

Level 2 is quickly identifying the distance between two notes, the “interval”.  These intervals are given names, based on how many steps of the scale away the notes are.  I have my students write an arrow with a number next to it between every pair of notes in their music when they are starting out on the staff.  Sometimes I even introduce a piece of music by giving them a starting note and then verbally instructing them “Third up, step down, step down”, etc.

Level 3 - Patterns

Level 3 – Patterns

Level 3 is identifying larger scale patterns.  There are many types of such patterns (just as there are many sentence structures, many grammatical rules one has to learn when learning English or any other language).  The most useful to work on identifying are things like chord progressions, scales, accompaniment patterns.

Read music like a book

The world of music is so much richer, so much wider, and so much more satisfying with the ability to read music.  One adult student described it as follows:

Before I could read music, playing the piano was like snorkeling in lake Michigan.  Now, it is like scuba diving the great barrier reef!

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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?

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How I Learned Piano from Soccer Practice

By: Aaron Zimmerman

Soccer practice started with stretches.  Then small__5257670808we would run, followed by basic skills like dribbling, passing.  Next, game simulations, where we walked through game-like situations slowly.  At the end if there was time, we would scrimmage (split up into two teams and play).

Many students don’t really know how to practice piano. Unlike soccer, students usually only interact with their coach for a short period of time, once a week.  It is logical to simply perform the activities the teacher asks for in lessons, which is usually “play the piece”.  This is like learning to play soccer by just scrimmaging.  But scrimmaging is only one part of practicing.

Practice is the mindful repetition of isolated aspects of a challenge.

If you spent all soccer practice scrimmaging, you would gradually pick up the basic skills, but there would be a low ceiling on your improvement.  Some of the skills are simply too complicated to learn while your mind cannot focus entirely on them.  Piano is the same, and while a student is learning easy material, performance practicing is usually enough to learn a piece of music.  As their technique progresses, they will find performance practice increasingly frustrating, it will take a longer and longer to learn music, and often, the student decides the it is no longer fun and quits.

Students need to practice practicing.

When practice is framed as something different than performing, it is fun in its own way.  It is a puzzle to be solved, a mystery to be explored.

The below steps are also available here in a condensed handout form.

Steps to Effective Practice:

1: Warm Up 

This cannot be overstated.  Without warming up much of your practice is wasted.   Playing the piano is an athletic activity, it takes muscle control and stamina.  Piano technique is a unique use of the fingers, and before warming up, fingers are uncoordinated and sloppy.  This leads to making mistakes when you otherwise wouldn’t, and practicing mistakes is one of the worst habits of piano practice.  The exact method of warming up isn’t as important.  I usually suggest scales, improvising, or specific technique exercises.

2: Practice one thing at a time

Music is delightfully multi-dimensional.  At any given moment the pianist has to contend with harmony, melody, rhythm, and more.  When practicing, isolate each of these and practice one at a time.

  • Isolate the melody, playing it by itself, even as it crosses hands.

  • Isolate rhythm by clapping and counting the rhythms, or tap both hands on your lap, each following their own rhythm.

  • Isolate harmony by playing all of the notes in a measure at once.  The left hand is often a chord, so it is somewhat easy, but do it for the right hand also.  And do it in time, counting the measure and moving the hand to the next group of notes.

  • In music that has multiple melodies, such as a hymn, a fugue, a countermelody, isolate each of these voices.  Learn how they move, what they sound like, or they will lose their identity when layered with the rest of the piece.

  • As practicing progresses, isolate more complicated passages.  Start a measure before the problem area, and play until a measure after (these are usually awkward places to start and stop, that’s ok).

3:  Practice slowly, slower, and then finally, slow

Even when isolating elements, there is still a lot going on.  You have to go slowly and not make mistakes.  Making mistakes is counter productive, you are learning incorrectly, reinforcing the wrong muscle movement.  Find the hardest part of the piece, and go as slow as you need to to play that passage without a single mistake.  Metronomes are often very helpful in this, they will keep you honest (it is tempting to let yourself speed up).

4 : Get into the flow

Practicing really takes off when you let go and get into the moment.  This is the most abstract part of practice, but no less important for that.  It is like the feeling of swimming, before you start getting tired, but after your muscles stop complaining about the swim.  It is a very peaceful, zen like feeling.

To get there, I put pressure on myself to not make mistakes.  One way is imposing some kind of penalty for a mistake, like 5 pushups, on every mistake.  Another way is putting 5 pennies or similar on one side of the piano.  Every time a difficult passage is played successfully, a penny is slid across.  On a mistake, all of the pennies return to the starting positions.  Upon all pennies being slid (so, 5 times without a mistake), you move on to the next passage.

This raising of the stakes brings a focused intensity to your practice.  It forces you to really concentrate and not make mistakes.  For me, this leads to losing myself in the moment, to looking up and realizing that i’ve been playing the same passage for 15 minutes.  It is a very pleasant realization.

5:  Other suggestions

  • Write in finger numbers, and use the same fingers every time

  • Practice a piece back to front (in phrases)

  • Write everything down.  ”don’t make this too loud”, circle problematic passages, label chords and and write in beats.    (One side note, I usually don’t write in accidentals found in the key signature as I want students to learn to play in a key.  Rather, I’ll create an eyeglass symbol to remind them that there is something tricky about that measure.)

  • Practicing 15 minutes every day is much better than practicing 2 hours once a week.

What children find the most rewarding is accomplishment.  If they come to see practice as its own kind of skill to be learned, they will find much more joy in it, and they will do it more.  And it makes the scrimmaging, the performing, all the sweeter.


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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.

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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+.

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