I’ve noticed my young students are particularly adept imitators and not entirely convinced about the usefulness of reading. Persuading a 5 year old that reading music is a practical skill is an arduous task. Not having been around long enough to understand the difference between long and short term benefits, most 5 year olds adamantly prefer the imitation route as it results in an immediate ability to play the piece. Reading is hard work.

From the teacher’s perspective, reading provides much faster learning. The student can go home, learn new material on their own, and come to the lesson to receive assistance in the difficult areas. Teaching by rote/imitation only allows the student to learn whatever is taught in the lesson and no more. That’s an hour of learning per week and 6 days of review vs 7 days of learning.  The student who reads becomes a much more independent musician.

The first few months of lessons contain a lot of new information. I explain how music notation works at the pace each student can handle. If you are 4, it may be a few months before you learn about sharps and flats. If you are 40, it will be a couple weeks. But unless someone is about to cry from frustration, I rarely show where the note is on the piano or where to place the hands. This kind of training results in “mean teacher” moments. It means I will sit there while the student painstakingly works his way through a new piece. It’s grueling, but the result is worth it. Each time the student gets better and faster at reading new music.

This is the complete opposite of the way I teach physical technique and musical expression. After the student has read the piece on his own, then I play to demonstrate technique. On a side note, when the student encounters a new piece, I often sing the music while pointing at each note so that my students know what the piece is supposed to sound like without seeing where I put my hands. One of my 4 year old students has recently started sight-singing unfamiliar material with no particular training other than seeing me do it!

Note reading doesn’t happen overnight even if you theoretically understand every symbol. It takes practice to interpret the symbols without continuous pauses to decode a tricky chord here and a weird rhythm there. If I show the student where to put his hands, it will just take him that much longer to learn to figure it out on his own. Most adults quickly realize the advantages of being able to learn independently. Kiddos. . . not so much.

I do what I can to make it a pleasant experience, joking around, expressing sympathy, offering encouragement, and being exuberantly happy when students succeed. But there is no question that learning to read music is hard work.

There are several occupations that put people at risk of Repetitive Stress Injuries. The best known of these injuries is probably Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. It has been commonly associated with office work involving computers and keyboards, but is also relatively frequent in dentistry, massage therapy, painting, and playing an instrument.

The common factor among these careers is the repetitive motion of the hands for long periods of time. Musicians put in thousands of hours of practice. By the time a person has become a professional musician, he or she has already spent in 6,000-10,000 hours at their instrument.

The picture below is a cross section of the left wrist as viewed from the elbow. The carpal tunnel is the small, grey-shaded area in the picture. It is surrounded by the bones of the wrist and contains nine ligaments and tendonsin addition to the median nerve. What causes Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is the pressure placed on this median nerve by lack of space.

 

When the wrist is in a natural position, such as hanging relaxed from the shoulder or resting in a splint, the space in the carpal tunnel is enough for these tendons to function properly without pinching the median nerve.  Problems arise when the wrist is not in this natural position. Bending the wrist in any direction severely reduces the space for the median nerve as does gripping objects tightly. Doing such a motion once or a hundred times won’t cause problems. But doing it thousands and tens of thousands of times causes a cumulative trauma.

There are ways to continue high risk activities, though. With conscious attention to the movements of the body, a person can avoid injuring themselves. In piano there are so many things to think about at once that technique is often thrown by the wayside unless a teacher is around to point it out.

Here are two common technical problems I often correct in students.

Pianists with small hands especially struggle with this problem. The thumb is a short finger and stretching over a big chord can be tricky. There are two solutions to this. One is immediately releasing the thumb and swiveling the wrist behind the pinky so that it is pinching the nerve for only a moment. The other is playing the thumb out on the tip of the key and the other fingers much closer to the fall board. This will change the angle of the wrist to a much more ergonomic position.

 

The low wrist happens most in beginners. The student is usually focusing on having nice, curved fingers and forgets about the posture of the arms. Unfortunately, this position puts serious pressure on the median nerve and is probably one of the biggest culprits for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

Other factors can affect the space within the carpal tunnel. Tension in the muscles of the arm and hand can also pinch the nerve. Tight muscles frequently result from insecurity, the pianist not being superbly comfortable with what he is playing. Relaxation requires deliberation in new, half learned music. It does not come naturally.

The pianist aware of these dangers and trained to avoid them is much less likely to develop any repetitive stress injuries including, but not limited to, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

Many new piano students adopt crutches that boost them along very quickly for the first few weeks. But once the student has reached a certain point, these crutches hinder any progress. Note naming can be one of these. Since everyone is familiar with the alphabet, memorizing which keys on the piano correspond to which letter is fairly easy. And for beginner pieces, this works well. CCGGAAG (Twinkle) is easier for a person to read than some arbitrary symbols they’ve only recently been introduced to. But in the work below, someone took this to an extreme that is helpful to no one. Each of the notes in the picture indicates how long it should be held and exactly where on the piano it should be played. Letters convey a fraction of that information.

Music score covered in extraneous markings
Photo credit to Michelle Lifschitz

Anyone who has taken even one piano lesson knows that all the fingers have a specific number. The first song in most method books will tell the student to place his hands in one spot on the piano and stay there for the duration of the piece. In situations like this, each finger corresponds to a specific note because the hands do not move around. This works right up until the songs become advanced enough to require hands that move around the piano. All of a sudden, the finger-number-method no longer works, and the student is unable to read the real notes because he has been ignoring them for the last several weeks by only observing the finger numbers.

Another hurdle that all students must pass is identifying keys on the piano. The easiest way to do this is learn one key (Usually an A or a C) and work your way through the alphabet until you reach whatever note you are trying to identify. This is also the slowest way. There are only 7 keys that need to be learned. The speed and comfort of playing the piano will increase exponentially by taking the time to memorize each key individually. If a student has to stop and count her way to each new note, the song becomes so crawlingly slow that it is no longer recognizable.

Do yourselves a favor and avoid these three crutches. Most method books and teachers will take you step by step until you are reading fluently, but if you “cheat” by using any of these crutches, you will suddenly find yourself with complex music and no idea how to play it.

Like learning a language, a person can begin to study music at any age. But the results will differ. A child who picks up a language at 4 or 5 will eventually sound like a native speaker. An adult may be able to learn several words right away and communicate much faster than the child, but will rarely sound convincingly native. It is the same with music.

A 4 year old may take months to learn what an adult student can learn in a few lessons. Because of this, parents sometimes say that it is better to save money and wait until the child old enough to learn more quickly. But the 12 year old is less likely to know and understand inside and out what she’s learning. She will have a harder time “sounding native”. There’s a reason most of the world’s greatest pianists and musicians started young.

According to the Suzuki philosophy, a child should begin at age 0. How? Merely by surrounding the child with music from the day of his birth. Just as a child doesn’t begin to speak until he has heard his mother tongue for a few years, then he should be frequently exposed to music for his first years before formal lessons begin. But most parents aren’t this engrossed unless musicians themselves.

So formal lessons should be started as soon as the child is capable. A twenty minute lesson is great for a 4 year old. By the age of 6, the child should probably be having 30 minute lessons. The student doesn’t need to be able to focus for 20 minutes to begin lessons. Piano teachers can use frequent activity changes and other tricks to keep the student focused. But every child is ready at a different age. If the child is able to tell left and right apart, count to 10, and focus for 5 minutes in a row, she is perfectly able to begin lessons.

Used pianos are everywhere. During the golden age of the piano, every home aspired to have one. Decades later, with recorded music at our fingertips, the popularity of pianos has plummeted, leaving many families with an unused piece of furniture weighing 600 pounds. For the beginner on a budget, these unwanted pianos are an excellent opportunity.

Pianos are incredibly complicated pieces of machinery with thousands of moving parts. That’s a lot of things that can go wrong. And no one other than a skilled technician can really check them all thoroughly. But for the inexperienced buyer it’s helpful to have a checklist of the main areas of a piano to inspect before purchasing.

The keys are the easiest parts of the piano to check. Just press every key to see if it works. The appearance of the keys is not as important. Better for a few ivories to be missing than to have a keys that don’t make a sound. The key must come up after pressing it. If it does not, then the piano has a problem somewhere.

Hammers are made of felt. This felt becomes compacted after years of use. The more compacted the felt, the worse the piano sounds. This is easy to spot, because the hammers will have deep grooves worn into their surfaces by the strings. A piano technician may revitalize the hammers by shaving the flattened felt off. If this is done too many times, however, the hammer may be reduced to nothing but the core of wood. When this happens, the sound of wood striking string is even worse than the dull sound of old, worn felt. This usually happens to the highest notes of the piano where the hammers are more delicately constructed. There is no way to fix this except buying a new set of hammers. This piano is not worth buying. In the image below, the second hammer is worn down to the wood and its neighbors are not far behind.Hammer felt worn completely down to the wooden core.

Strings are easy to check. If more than two or three strings are snapped, then the piano has probably had a lot of use and little care. They may also be covered in rust, which indicates the piano has been in a very humid environment. Strings are expensive. If the rust is noticeable, leave the piano behind. On the opposite side, don’t expect the strings on used pianos to gleam. the oxidation of age will darken them, but they will work just fine if they aren’t rusted or broken.

The soundboard will probably have some hairline cracks if the piano is more than a few decades old. The soundboard can be viewed from the back of the piano between the ribs. There is some debate over the importance of an un-cracked soundboard. If the soundboard buzzes because of the cracks, then the piano is not worth purchasing. If they cause no noticeable buzz or rattle, then don’t worry about them.

A minor crack in the lower left corner of the soundboard

Piano strings are stretched tightly over the bridge. Many little pins are wedged into the bridge to hold the strings in place. Because of the tension from the strings, these pins can cause cracks in the bridge. In the image below, many short cracks can be seen.

Small cracks on the bridge

If the piano stays in tune, then these cracks are tolerable. But if the bridge pins become too loose, the piano won’t hold a tune. Best to ask the owner when the piano was last tuned to check if it has stayed in tune.

Checking these five areas (Keys, hammers, strings, soundboard, and bridge) will help the prospective buyer be aware of many of the common issues that affect the quality of the piano. An older piano with some of these issues can be found for $100-200. The owners often have no idea of the value and may price it $600-800. If the piano is $500 or more, look for one without any of these problems. They are out there. Don’t settle.