"The piano keys are black and white, but they sound like a million colours in your mind." -Maria Cristina Mena
In their 5th "Stress and Wellbeing" survey conducted in 2015, the Australian Psychological Society found that "35 per cent of Australians report having a significant level of distress in their lives".
With over a third of us experiencing stress, anxiety and worry, where can we turn to for a little relief?
Lucky, study after study shows that music is a great way to calm the soul and reduce overall stress.
So if you're looking to release and soothe the tensions of your day-to-day life, why not take up the piano?
Regular piano practice challenges you to develop resilience and discipline, and you have the added benefit of relaxing to melodious, beautiful sounds.
Whilst learning to play the piano may seem daunting to absolute beginners, it's well worth the effort if you want a creative, soothing outlet to help you forget your troubles.
If we've convinced you to take up the piano, the next step is seeking out your first lessons. So where can you go for high-quality piano lessons?
Learning Piano at a Music School
If you're hoping to one day master Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 or Mozart's Turkish March, you'll need to start with the piano basics.
This could include scales, arpeggios to improve your technique, sight-reading exercises, improvisation and learning new songs, and, of course, learning to read sheet music!
If you're just starting out, attending a music school and taking lessons with a qualified teacher will ensure you're not making mistakes and picking up bad habits that could be difficult to break.
We can't promise you'll become Bach overnight, but the secret is practice, practice, practice.
Compared to employing a private music teacher, lessons at a music school may employ far more traditional teaching methods. You may also have the opportunity to attend supplementary group music theory classes at the school or join the music school's band or orchestra. They will usually offer the opportunity to sit music exams, such as those run by the Australian Music Education Board (AMEB), and some will even help advanced students apply for piano competitions and Eisteddfods. Often these schools run intensive music camps during the school holidays - these may or may not be open to adult students.
Generally, piano teachers at dedicated music schools are highly qualified with years of teaching practice. This experience will help to guide you expertly through your first piano steps.
The school may also follow a particular teaching programme, such as the Yamaha or Suzuki methods. Make sure you ask lots of questions up front to find out how music is taught at the school of your choice.
Some private music schools receive government or local council subsidies and some do not, and this can be reflected in the price. If you are on a lower income, many schools offer scholarships to help make the music education they offer more accessible.
Lesson slots tend to fill up quickly after 3.30 pm on a weekday, as children get out of school, but there are usually plenty of early afternoon slots available or later in the evening.
Studying The Piano At A Conservatorium
So what's a conservatorium? Otherwise known as a conservative in the UK and a conservatory in the US, this is a specialised music school teaching piano to a degree level. In Australia, these are usually attached to larger university - the University of Melbourne and Sydney respectively have a conservatorium attached to them, with their own separate buildings and teaching staff, as do many other universities around Australia.
A conservatorium is generally for those keen pianists who want to play, teach or compose professionally.
You'll need to have a high level of piano playing (somewhere between Grade 5 and Grade 8 AMEB, depending on the program) to audition. Auditions are usually held at the conservatorium itself, or some programs will let you submit a video audition. Certain conservatoriums will also require successful candidates have graduated from high school with a minimum grade in Music. Again, this varies from place to place, so if you dream of studying at a conservatorium one day, be sure to check their application requirements.
At a conservatorium, your musical acquisition will generally take place across three broad domains; private, one-on-one instrumental instruction, masterclasses with all the instrumentalists who play your instrument (piano masterclasses, for example), music theory subjects and exams, and group instrumental or vocal ensembles.
So how long before you receive your degree?
A Bachelor's in Music generally takes 3 years to complete if you are studying full time, with an optional Honours year offered to students who excel. A Masters in music will add another year or two onto that. Some conservatoriums also offer Graduate Diplomas to dedicated pianists who already hold a Bachelor's degree in a different area of study.
Undergraduate students can expect to pay around $5,000-$6,000 per year for three years. Fees increase for international students or students wishing to pursue a Masters degree
Conservatoriums may hold a lot of prestige, but they aren't right for every player. You may be forced to choose between the jazz and classical streams, for example, or feel your creativity being stifled by the high expectations and strict teaching methods. Make sure you ask lots of questions and attend any open days to gather lots of information before you commit to three years of study.
Can You Teach Yourself the Piano?
The answer to this question depends on who you talk to... some will say this is absolute nonsense, whereas others will encourage you to give it a shot!
With many great resources popping up online, teaching yourself the piano is fast becoming a viable option. However, even the most dedicated autodidacts find they lose motivation fast without the structure of a weekly or fortnightly lesson. And there is always the issue of technique - online teaching resources can never match the tailored feedback from a real teacher, and you can develop bad habits that will be hard to break later.
However, for those struggling to afford weekly lessons, there is also a middle ground. Why not employ a teacher once a week for a month to get through the basics, then ask to move to fortnightly lessons while you supplement your lessons with online learning resources?
Here is a list of things to consider if you want to teach yourself the piano:
- Your piano method: figure out if you wish to work through exam books, or follow the Yamaha or Suzuki methods. Ask at your local music store for any method books that are particularly suited to beginners wishing to teach themselves.
- Get organised! If you want to be your own piano teacher, you'll need to organise a program and practise routine and stick to it. It is a good idea to video your practise sessions so you can look back, correct your mistakes and observe your progress. This requires an enormous amount of discipline!
- Paying attention to your shoulders, arms, wrists and finger positions: if you are teaching yourself, there is a high risk of adopting bad habits, especially in your finger technique. Before you even touch the piano, research all you can about relaxed, efficient piano technique. But nothing beats a real teacher for establishing good technique, so consider signing up for a few lessons targeting this area just to get you started on the right foot.
- Learning to read music: this is one area where technology is almost as good as a real teacher! There are plenty of great apps out there to help you learn to read sheet music- Staff Wars is just one of them.
Even the most enthusiastic and determined students can get discouraged, or come up against issues with technique they don't know how to solve themselves. You may also hit a point where you're feeling stagnant and unsure of which direction to take your music practice.
Before you get to this point, we suggest taking at least a few lessons with a qualified music teacher to help you stay engaged and excited about your music playing!
A good piano teacher will be able to give feedback on your progress and set exercises that are just right to challenge you and help you improve. During the lesson, they can also correct your posture, help with your music reading and let you know of any mistakes you're making at the keyboard.
And where to find your perfect private teacher? Why, Superprof of course!
No matter how you choose to learn, remember that you play for pleasure first and foremost, so have fun with it!
For possible ngo, and association-run pianio lessons, check here.