Friday, February 11, 2011

Piano Quitters Snobs and Wanderers

I am not a critical neopiano-teacher when it comes to standard piano lessons.  I don’t teach that way but certainly endorse standard lessons for those that want to play classical music.  Classical’s tough and requires regimented training.  I have nothing but respect but we’re losing lots of people along the way.

Guessing, I’d say that 95% taking standard lessons are highly-advanced pianists, students and professional musicians.  They’re way over the hump of beginner lessons.  The number of pianists that make it beyond beginning lessons is only a small fraction of those that started out in the beginning.

It’s those beginners that concern me.  Quitters and wanderers who take 2 years of lessons and then quit forever, usually because classical music is not their passion.  It’s as simple as that.  There’s no Google search, but I’d guess the drop-out rate for beginner piano lessons is 95% (and probably more).  By any industry’s definition, that is a dismal retention rate and indicative of a problem. 

You can’t let 95% of well-meaning people 
drop out without teaching them 
what they want to know.

Trouble is, they’re taking claaaaaaaassical lessons when what they really want is Rock Star lessons.  Shout from the Heavens and let it be known, ALL ROCK STARS KNOW THEIR CHORDS!!!  There is no way around this fact.  Beethoven to Beatles, that fact never changes. 

People, I believe appreciate the hard work and effort of the virtuoso but are not so dedicated to excellence themselves in music.  They just want to have fun, know how to get around and sing a few songs.  They want to play by ear and not take lessons forever.  That reality is here. You have to learn the basic chords and some very specific theory.  Nothing cryptic about it.

Everybody should learn how to play by ear.  It’s a benchmark level of understanding and applies to classical students as well as everybody else.  It’s a science. It’s got rules.  It’s got prerequisites.  You either know it or you don’t.   The science is the same for beginners and advanced alike.  It is apart from whatever degree of proficiency you may have.  All levels are in the same class (but some will understand it quicker than others).

If you play classical, then playing by ear will improve your sight-reading at least 10 times.  If you don’t play classical, then you’ll learn what most classical people don’t know.  Whatever style you play makes no difference.  There is only music.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2011 Keyed Up Inc


  1. I can't completely agree with what you say. A lot has to do with the quality of teaching, not the material. A decent instructor should be flexible about repertoire, and the needs of a student. Lessons should be tailor made to the pupil, not standardized. I have had many student with diverse musical tastes.. adults and others, and keeping them has to do with responding to them as individuals.

  2. I appreciate your comment and agree there are many scenerios for a successful relationship.

    I think a standardized way of learning chords quickly is a viable subject that sets the foundation for all training to come.

    Imagine how easy it would be to teach students to sight read more difficult pieces if they knew their chords! Understanding over rote.

    For all the rest, at least now they would know how to play and exit lessons as a positive experience.

  3. I play piano pretty good but haven't really had much formal training. I've thought about taking lessons but am not willing to go through a bunch of stuff I allready know? AH HA! that's the dilema, how is the instructor to know what "stuff" is? Perhaps an audition would help guage where the person is at or some type of testing prior to starting the actual lessons. But the instructor should at least take the time to get to know what the persons is interested in learning.

    I have a friend that's way more experienced than I am and he helps me with some of the basics. But most of the time he asks me to help him to learn playing by ear. He looks at my ability to hear the notes as some type of magical talent that only the chosen ones get from God but I keep trying to tell him it's not just that. Like anyone that plays by ear, I've developed techniques (shortcuts) over time that help me find the notes and chords of a song. Because of the way I learned that's what I concentrated on and it took a long time before I really was hendered by not knowing the basic chords etc

    I've recently read Joe's book "Everything you need to know to play by ear" and there's some advice in there that would help my friend improve his ability to grasp what is happening within the song. The book explains a lot of this in an easy to understand format. For someone like my friend taking lessons wouldn't really help because he knows enough to be an instructor. But playing by ear has evaded him because of the formal way he learned music and a book like this would allow him to improve at his own pace.

    Thanks Joe!!!