By: The Firecracker Writer / Published: Feb 14, 2022
"Piano B&W" / Media From Wix
I’m positive that a majority of you have longed to learn to play the piano.
After all, it is an incredibly majestic, puissant instrument. To possess complete prowess over all 88 keys, to be able to play them in millions of possible ways, now that’s true power.
And you certainly can’t go wrong belting out something like Love Me Harder, on the entire sexy keyboard you control (The Theorist is a fucking musical prodigy, by the way):
Which is why I have decided to write my first blog post on how to become killer on the piano. Worry not, it won’t be one of those stern lectures you receive from piano teachers. It will be entertaining, and you’ll learn a great deal about both my musical journey and tips for mastering the instrument.
I’d like to make a quick disclaimer that I am not a musical professional or expert by any means. While I passed my RCM 10 practical exam in 2016 and have a few years of playing experience under my belt, my pointers aren’t going to match those of a qualified instructor. Nonetheless, I believe that the tips I have gained throughout my journey will be of utility for you.
So, where shall we begin? Let’s travel back in time, using a supersonic time machine to when I was ~6 years old. I don’t remember much about my childhood, except that I had an incredibly bizarre sense of humor and loved trains. At that time, my parents signed me up for a plethora of hobby classes. Swimming, tap dancing, art, you name it! My mom believed that it was conducive to my growth to gain exposure to new activities.
It turns out that my art skills were both abysmal and hilarious at the same time, and have always been that way for my entire life. I still remember when I once attempted to draw a frog in science class, and did it so poorly that it made my friends burst into hysterical laughter (it was literally three ovals). However, I did learn to swim (which is an invaluable life skill to have), and I was a skilled tap dancer for my age. It goes to say that I will always be thankful to my mom for encouraging me to try new hobbies.
One day, my mom got the brilliant idea of buying me a piano. To this day, I still don’t know why she decided on piano for me. Perhaps because we listened to “Turkish March” way too many times. Anyways, she then found me a piano teacher: a level-headed, typical instructor. That was the commencement of my arduous, yet tremendously lucrative piano journey.
Initially, I thought that learning the piano was all about playing songs. I swiftly realized I was wrong when my teacher handed me a book with technical exercises. While I disliked practicing them, in hindsight, these technical exercises were instrumental in shaping my ability as a pianist today. They improved my fingers’ dexterity, solidifying the muscle memory I needed to eventually glide effortlessly up and down the octaves. Moreover, mastering scales, arpeggios, and other technical exercises served as a highly measurable goal. While repertoire scoring in music exams is often up to the juror’s interpretation, scales are like math: You either know them, or you don’t. As a result, technical exercises were a convenient way for my teacher to track my progress on the piano.
Here is a cover to “A Thousand Years”, arranged and performed by the gifted Toms Mucenieks. It is a sublime and graceful tribute to one of Christina Perri’s most romantic songs. Notice the large quantity of arpeggios making up the left-hand part, and imagine how much of a head-start you would have if you practiced your arpeggios!
Takeaway: Never neglect building your technical foundations when starting off on the piano. Buy a technical exercises book: it doesn’t have to be a complicated one —- a book with all major and minor scales will suffice for a beginner. When you master the scales, aim to learn arpeggios, and gradually build onto advanced exercises. Trust me — they were paramount in accelerating my growth as a piano player.
Anyways, where was I? Oh yes, practicing! My mom — as you could probably guess – was quite strict about my one-hour-a-day. I remember despising the piano every time I glanced at it — all the tedious hours of repetition. I hated the thought of being a prisoner of the one-hour-a-day rule, and did whatever I could to get out of practice. Yet it rarely worked, for my mom had a firm, yet loving grip on my musical development.
Ultimately, my effort really did pay off. I progressed rapidly as a pianist, and eventually passed my RCM Level 5 Exam with first-class honors. I still remember the euphoria of my parents when they saw my mark (80) light up on the screen. In fact, as painful as practicing was, I myself was overjoyed at my exam score. It was a glorious day, and we had a sumptuous celebratory dinner after hearing of my results.
Takeaway: Ensure you practice regularly to sharpen your abilities on the piano. You certainly don’t need 10,000 hours to slay the keys (or even 5,000), but skills take consistent effort to grow. 30 minutes every day is sufficient: 10 to practice technical exercises such as scales, and 20 to expand your repertoire. If you don’t want your practice sessions to be as tedious as mine were, select repertoire that is aligned with your favorite musical genre. Pop, rock, classical, jazz, you name it!
Clawing Up The Ranks
After I passed my level 5 practical exam, I generally considered myself an intermediate player: past the foundations, but not quite ready for full-blown fiery performances. As a result, this was a relatively tranquil time in my musical journey. I continued to practice, but my mom was less stringent on the one-hour-a-day rule by now. Around a year or two after my level 5 exam, I studied for and passed my level 8 practical. However, I only received a 75 (honors) this time around, and I felt as though I had let myself down.
This brings me to my next point. I want to make it clear that if you have passed RCM level 8 (a mark of 60+), you can generally be considered an advanced player, and are ready to take on most performances with ease. Passing the level 5 practical exam would put you in the intermediate category, and you are only a beginner if you have not passed your level 5 exam yet. I say all this to remind you to not sell your playing abilities short, as I did when I passed my RCM 8. It takes a dedicated, skilled individual to pass these rigorous exams, so to anyone who has successfully completed their RCM 8, I want you to know that I am fiercely proud of you (regardless of your mark).
On that note, I would like to move on to the most exhausting, frustrating aspect of my journey to mastery: MUSIC THEORY.
When my parents and piano teacher informed me that taking an Advanced Rudiments (music theory) course was a prerequisite for the RCM 8 Diploma, I initially was dumbfounded. What was music theory, after all? Oh, what a rude awakening I was in for.
Advanced Rudiments was an exceptionally grueling course on the technicalities of chord progressions, key signatures, and other musical jargon I cannot recall at the moment. All I can remember were the marathon classes I attended, the tears I shed, and the struggle for me to grasp the concepts. It took copious amounts of firm encouragement from my parents, and endless devotion on my part to get through Advanced Rudiments. I remember doing homework for hours, attending after-class tutorials, and expending all my willpower not to quit. Triumphantly, my struggle paid off, and I nailed the Advanced Rudiments exam with first-class honors.
Reflecting on this experience, I wholeheartedly believe that the theory requirements for passing RCM levels 8-10 are unreasonably high. Personally, I feel that such comprehensive knowledge of music theory is unnecessary to excel in any musical instrument. Nevertheless, I think it is essential to have a fundamental understanding of music theory as a pianist. Knowing key signatures, the difference between major and minor chords, as well as the meaning of musical terms (e.g. staccato, legato, cantabile, D.S. Al Coda) can make the difference between a decent pianist and an extraordinary one.
Takeaway: Unless you are pursuing an RCM diploma, it is not mandatory to know advanced music theory to prevail as a pianist. However, take the time to learn key signatures, time signatures (e.g. ¾ time), and musical terms relating to dynamics and tone. This can be achieved through attending a recreational music theory class, or by asking your instructor to recommend you an effective theory exercise book.
After passing my theory exam, my confidence grew significantly, knowing that I pushed beyond my limits to accomplish a goal. Practice sessions were a cinch in comparison to the intense workload of the Advanced Rudiments class, so my abilities continued to rise. Eventually in 2016, after spending a year in preparation, I mustered the will to take on the RCM level 10 practical exam. I still remember like it was yesterday: my hands trembling in the waiting room. A bout of nerves is no match for a year of preparation however, and I passed the exam with honors. It was then that playing the piano became pleasurable for me, and I finally began to reap the fruits of my labor.
Takeaway: When the heat sets in, when you are ready to give up on the piano, remember why you started in the first place. Was it so you could impress the hell out of your peers? To blow the ever-living crap out of performances and competitions? To learn that absolutely killer pop cover you saw someone play? Keep your reasons in the wells of your heart, and don’t ever forget why you took on the challenge.
High school was, paradoxically, both the most uneventful and exciting time of my journey as a piano player. On one hand, I plateaued in terms of my playing ability. While I did learn one ARCT (RCM level “11”) piece in my junior year, it was unanimous between me, my parents, and my teacher that I was not going to be taking my abilities higher than RCM 10.
On the other hand, however, my extensive dedication to the craft began to bear its fruits. I genuinely felt unstoppable on stage, and I met every performance with lethal force. Playing the piano soon gave me an astronomical amount of confidence. In fact, performing at a winter talent show in my freshman year was what inspired my courage to build social connections throughout high school. Afterwards, I continued to play for various events throughout my four years.
Piano also gave me a chance to touch the lives of others, as I once volunteered to play music for a retirement home. Lastly, I gained the opportunity to truly test my limits in music by entering competitions (to be more accurate, my piano teacher entered me). While there were some disappointing results in my first year of competing, I eventually won Third Prizes in the Kiwanis Music Competitions in 2018.
Takeaways: Your devotion to piano will lead to results. You just need to be patient, as it is neither a brief, nor simple journey. Develop your technical and theory foundations, practice on a frequent basis, and remember your reasons for playing. The reward will come, and it will be a saccharine, glorious day.
Should you choose to enter piano competitions, don’t be discouraged if you fail to place. It does not mean you are a bad pianist, merely that the judges’ interpretation of the repertoire did not fit with yours. Treat a competition as an exhilarating experience to show off your firepower, no matter the outcome.
After graduating high school, I realized I did not have to confine myself to classical pieces. While I wholeheartedly believe that classical music is exquisite and touching, I wanted to learn something with more firepower. More bang. So I started to learn pop covers. For example, I learned various Ava Max arrangements by Relaxing Piano Covers, including Belladonna, Everytime I Cry, and So Am I.
(His Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCunG1aa2lHoPu3l38vwL4pg)
I began to take tremendous pleasure in the hobby that I have cultivated since childhood, and my enjoyment of piano only heightened as the dark winter nights of the pandemic grew longer. It was my rock, the very activity that kept me hopeful as the isolation gnawed away at my spirit.
Presently, music has taken a backseat to the other facets of my life, such as the rigorous courses I'm currently taking at my university. However, I still play a couple songs, here and there when I want to experience the majestic firepower of music again. Overall, my piano journey has been instrumental in shaping me as a person. It has taught me the value of persistence, the thrill of performing, and the satisfaction of mastery. I am eternally grateful to my mom for introducing me to the beautiful world of music, and the experience will always have a special throne in my heart.
Takeaways: The journey is beyond worth it. 1000%.