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Learning to play piano

I’ve always liked the idea of learning to play piano. I tried it a couple of times in high school, never getting further than learning Yankee Doodle from a workbook.

A couple of years ago I was considering buying a digital piano/keyboard and trying to learn again. My partner Josh surprised me with a digital piano for my birthday, and I’ve been struggling to pick up the skill ever since.

I’m not against the idea of taking piano lessons at all. The problem is, piano lessons aren’t cheap. But the alternative isn’t working out too well.

So far my attempts to teach myself piano have mostly been working through easy sheet music painfully slowly, learning the music by rote. I can recognise maybe 3 or 4 notes on a score thanks to my few high school lessons. That’s just enough to work out what each note is, one by one. It’s a painstaking process, made even more frustrating by the fact that I’m not actually getting any better at reading the music. I simply learn to play each song by heart, and if I don’t play one for a few weeks or months, I have to pick out each note and relearn the song all over again.

Time to get digital

I’d come across a few apps over the past year that purported to teach you piano. Even the more expensive options were a lot cheaper than an actual teacher, so I decided to test this claim.

Can an app really teach me piano? And will music teachers soon be obsolete with this kind of technology growling at their doors?

Getting started

My first step is to put together a list of apps that I could use for this project. I’ve heard of a few, and with some extra research I manage to make a list of six options:

There are a few differences between them: some seem to have more popular songs in their catalogue, while others focus more on copyright-free classics; some are iOS apps while others are web apps, designed to be used in the browser; most of them use subscription models to let you access all the material, while one is designed as a course you purchase all at once with a one-time fee.

Jellynote is more focused on learning to play particular songs, rather than learning piano from scratch, so it gets knocked off the list first.

I’ve tried another app by the team behind Simply Piano briefly in the past, and while it seemed useful, it also has a distinctive “for kids” feel to it. I keep Simply Piano on my list, but it’s not my top choice.

I try Yousician, which has a free app for iOS, and quite enjoy it. It works in a similar fashion to Simply Piano, moving the on-screen sheet music along as you try to keep up on your piano, only without cute characters and Taylor Swift songs.

Unfortunately, because the iOS app uses the phone’s microphone to listen to my piano, it also seems to hear the app’s own music and sound effects. If I turn the sound on my phone up loud enough to hear the instructions and the beat I’m playing along with, I get complaints that the app can’t hear my playing well enough. Turn it down, and I can’t play on time or hear instructions for the lessons.

I did think about using headphones, but then I’d have to turn the piano up louder so I could hear it through the headphones. I don’t want to bother Josh or the neighbours just so the app on my phone could hear me, so I go back to my list.

Frustrated with the limitations of using an app on my phone, I bust out my laptop to try some of the browser-based options. These apps let me use a MIDI-USB cable from my piano to the computer, so don’t have to worry about noise interference.

I start with Skoove. Like most of the options on my list, Skoove is a free-for-all with a subscription. You can do some of the lessons for free, but paying monthly gives you access to everything for as long as you want to pay. Skoove starts me off by showing me how to play a few notes: Middle C, D, and E. Nothing I haven’t seen before, but it sure is nice to be playing straight away.

Only, I have to keep taking my hands of the keyboard to click buttons in the Skoove app. All the clicking is a pain, but it also draws my attention over and over to the fact that the “Next” button overlaps the text instructions. It really hurts the professionalism of Skoove to have such a glaring design hole.

And I can’t help feeling like I’m left alone too much. The app lets me skip ahead when I feel like it, but I want to be told when I’m ready for the next step—you’re meant to be the expert here, Skoove!

I’m not feeling great about Skoove, so I decide to give Pianu a try. This is the only course with a different set-up on my list. Pianu charges a one-time fee for the course—actually two courses, but you can bundle them together, too. You learn to read music in one set of lessons, and to play music in the other.

Pianu offers a single free lesson to try out the app before purchasing a full course. This free lesson is all about naming notes on the piano. Obviously very important, but it doesn’t give me a good idea of whether Pianu will be worth my money. I can already recognise the piano notes (though not very quickly). I want to learn to read them on a sheet of music, and to play that music without spending 30 seconds per note finding it on the piano.

The Pianu courses might be great, but that lesson didn’t convince me at all.

Flowkey is the last browser-based app I have to try. I get it up-and-running, but quickly realise it’s not a very fun experience. Unlike Pianu, Flowkey drops me in at the deep end, to some degree. There’s sheet music and an animated hand playing keys on a piano on the screen, and I’m asked to play along. Without note names anywhere, I’m relying on translating the hand movements to my own hand. Maybe this is a great way to learn, but it doesn’t feel like it. I’m so busy watching the hand (I’m learning right hand only for now) that I’m not paying attention to the scrolling sheet music at all—how will I ever learn to read it that way?

Like Skoove, I seem to be able to stay in the same section of each lesson for as long as I want with Flowkey. When I move to the next section, I’m asked to play the same notes in time, though slowly. There’s no way I can watch the animated hand and figure out what to play myself while staying in time. I fall two beats behind immediately, and quickly give up.

Flowkey felt horrible. I know learning will be hard, and I’m willing to put in time and effort to learn, but I don’t want to feel bad about playing piano. How will I convince myself to keep doing it if the experience is terrible every time? I’m actually starting to wonder if Flowkey is designed for teaching new songs to people who can already play piano.

I look at my list again, and wonder if I need to give in and try the “for kids” Simply Piano. Then I realise Yousician has been one of the best experiences so far, except for the sound issues. It was the one I tried on my phone that felt like a game, but without the characters and pop songs from Simply Piano.

I have a look at the Yousician website and see that there’s a Mac app I can use. I get it set up and find that, though there are still some sound issues—having the instructions loud enough means I’m blown away by the volume of the sound effects at the end of each lesson—it’s not having trouble hearing me now that I’m using MIDI input.

I pick up where I left off and try a few lessons. I feel my shoulders tense as I try to play in time, but I really enjoy the way these lessons are set up. Yousician offers a good balance of kid-friendly, Guitar Hero-style game interface and a sense of accomplishment from playing short tunes you actually recognise, or at least enjoy.

So, Yousician it is. I don’t know when I’ll hit the limits of the free tier, but the subscription only costs $20 per month, so paying for one month to get this experiment done won’t cost too much.

Yousician Day Two

I started out with Yousician yesterday, just fiddling around. I got it working and did a few lessons to test it out. It seemed fine, until I got thrown into a skills test. The test actually went okay—it was very, very basic. But after I passed it, I was given another skills test which I failed at miserably. For some reason, Yousician decided I did well enough in the second test to skip a whole bunch of lessons, and threw me into reading music for left and right hands and playing both at once. There’s no way I’m ready for that!

I worried that maybe it wouldn’t be any better than the other options I’d looked at, but resolved to try it again with an open mind today.

So this morning I went back through the lesson track manually and did all the lessons yesterday’s skill test made me skip. (I’ve also realised there’s a way to skip skill tests when they’re suggested, even though the app makes it seem like doing the test is the only way forward. I’ll be sure to avoid any in the future!)

Today’s catch-up lessons included a whole section that teaches playing with the left hand, and one that gently introduces playing both hands together.

Josh heard quite a few grunts and moans from downstairs as I played When The Saints Go Marching In (some basic notes from its melody, anyway) over and over and over. At this point I’m playing both hands, but I’m also moving my hands into different positions on the piano, which makes everything harder.

piano-yousicianpractise

Each note has a colour on the music I’m “reading”, but the colours are matched on each hand by finger, not by note. It’s hard to explain, so here’s an example:

E is pink for both hands, because it’s played by the third/middle finger for both hands.

F is played by the second/pointer finger on the left hand, and by the fourth/ring finger on the right hand. The second finger note is always yellow, so on the bottom stave F is yellow, but on the top stave, it’s blue, because the fourth finger note is always blue.

I didn’t quite get this about Yousician until I started doing different hand positions. Then I realised matching the notes to my hands didn’t work, because moving my hands meant the notes were under different fingers. But the Yousician keys on screen always have the notes I’m playing coloured to match what I’ve learned, so I can trust that a blue note is always a fourth-finger note, and a yellow note is always a second-finger note.

Although I figured this out today, I’m having a hard time getting my brain to tell my hands the right thing in time. Pink is easy, because it’s the same for both hands, but I’m constantly getting blue and yellow (second and fourth fingers) mixed up, and green and red (first finger/thumb and fifth finger/pinkie) mixed up.

There’s a lot more playing to be done to get this right!

I also paid for a subscription today. It cost $19.99 USD, though you can get it half price per month if you sign up for a year all at once. The free tier lets you do a certain amount of learning per day for free, but I hit that pretty quickly today and decided I’d be happy to pay for one month to give it a solid test for the next couple of weeks.

And now I’ve got When The Saints Go Marching In stuck in my head.

Left hand trouble

I had a couple of days off from Yousician but today I’m back at it.

I pick up where I left off, trying to play a song called Hua Hui that’s upbeat and fun, but very fast. It has some left hand parts that I’m struggling with, and the last section uses both hands, but I’m barely hitting one out of 8 of the notes.

I’m feeling a bit exasperated, so I try to find some left-hand lessons I’ve already done to help me get a better handle of which colours of notes match which finger on each hand.

After repeating some past lessons I’m still not sure how I’m going to get through the lesson I’m stuck on, apart from practising it until I have it memorised. But the point of this process is to learn to play for real so I don’t have to memorise music in order to play it anymore.

Wondering what to do, I start clicking around to see what lessons are coming up next. I notice that the last lesson in this section says in the description that the lesson’s song has a tricky two-hand part at the end, and suggests using practice mode to learn each hand separately.

Epiphany!

I have to say, Yousician did a terrible job of introducing this part of the app. I go back to the lesson I’m stuck on and find the practice mode option. I also see controls I’d overlooked before, that let me slow down the song and choose which hand to play. I switch to left-hand only mode and set the speed to 70% of the song’s normal pace.

This is more like it!

I play the left-hand parts over and over, upping the speed whenever I’ve pretty much got the hang of it.

Then I switch to right-hand only and get used to playing that part at full speed. Finally, I put both hands together, dropping the speed way down again while I get used to it.

Eventually I get through it twice at normal speed, and switch to performance mode. Now that I know practice mode exists, performance mode seems like much higher pressure! I didn’t even know I was in performance mode before. Now it’s making me sweat.

But I do it! I screw up a few notes, but I make it through. My back hurts and I’m all sweaty, but I did it. I can’t help but think the rest of the course may take more than the month I’ve allocated.

I think I’ve also worked out part of the reason I’m having so much trouble with the coloured notes. I have this weird tendency to subconsciously assign personalities to things. I do it with notes in the music I learn – for instance, a G in a particular bar is old and wise, but a G later in the piece is a troublemaker. Sometimes I assign personalities or emotions to sections of the music. And I assign feelings to colours, which is where my problem’s coming from, I think.

Pink, which is always the third finger, is fine. For some reason I have no issue with that one. But yellow, which is for the second finger notes, feels like a fourth finger colour to me. And blue, which is the fourth finger colour, belongs with my second finger. Red is a strong colour, so it should be assigned to my thumb, rather than green, which is soft enough to be a fitting pinkie finger colour.

When I mention this to Josh, he says it’s a form of synesthesia, which covers all kinds of crossed wires in the brain that make you form connections like the ones I have with colours and music. I’m fighting against these ideas in my head every time I play, and I’m sure it’s slowing me down.

Another interesting thing I notice is that as I play, I really feel like I have no idea what comes next. I’m not memorising the material at all, even though I’ve played it over and over. I have become slightly more familiar with a few bars, and recognise them when they come up—mostly sections where I kept tripping up on the same notes over and over. But I’m really reading the music. There’s no rote memorisation here! It feels hard and I’m not playing super well, but I love the feeling that I’m actually doing this thing I wanted to learn.

Hand positions

My latest struggle is with changing hand positions. Lately I’ve been doing lots of lessons focused on new hand positions and switching between the ones I’ve learned. This is causing me two problems:

  • I’m relying more and more on the colours of the notes, rather than learning their names.
  • The app isn’t helpful enough when I need to switch hands.

First, the colour problem.

I’m second-guessing the app’s teaching style. Because I’m switching hands so often, there’s no time to learn the names of the notes I’m playing, and the app doesn’t encourage me to. To get through the lessons I have to rely on my knowledge of how the colours of the notes match which fingers I use to play them (I’m getting better at it, but still struggling with this).

This makes me worry that I’ll become reliant on Yousician’s coloured music and won’t actually learn the skills I need to play ordinary sheet music. However, I’m trying to trust that those skills will come later and this isn’t a terrible way to learn.

The other issue is switching hands itself: it’s hard.

The app doesn’t make it obvious enough when I need to switch. The on-screen keys change colour to indicate where I should put my fingers, but I find this really easy to miss.

The changing colours also happens at the last second, never giving me enough time to react. Sometimes I’ll sit through a bar or two, watching the coloured keys to see if they’ll change, only to see them change at the last second, forcing me to scramble and miss notes while I move my hands.

I haven’t figured out a way to improve on this yet. I couldn’t find any settings I can adjust, so it seems like it’s up to me, but I don’t know what to do about it.

The end of the road

Today I pick up where I left off yesterday, with a new song to learn. This is the one that’s so hard the description suggests using practice mode, which tipped me off earlier that practice mode was a thing. Now that I’m up to it, I’m not much better prepared than when I skipped ahead to read its description earlier.

I get stuck in, taking the speed right down to 70%. When I still struggle at that slow speed, I try doing just the right hand, but the hand position changes are crazy.

I’m still struggling to know when to change positions, and I can’t see any way to get better at this except memorising the changes in each lesson. That’s not going to help me actually get better at piano, so I’m feeling frustrated.

I decide to check the Yousician support forums in case I’m missing something that could be useful. Unfortunately, I find the opposite: lots of people having the same problems I am. Other people agree the hand position changes are incredibly hard to get right, as they happen too quickly, at the last moment, and aren’t visually obvious.

Other students are also finding the lessons are a lot harder in level 2, and there’s a lot less explanation of “teaching” once you’ve passed level 1. It’s nice to know I’m not alone, but I’m disappointed that things won’t get any better as I progress. Lots of students seem to be dropping out in levels 2 and 3, but the few who are at higher levels say things don’t get any better up there.

I feel quite deflated. I still hoped if I could get through one lesson at a time, I’d get better enough to understand the stuff I’m stuck on, but it seems my cynical suspicions were right: Yousician is teaching me to be better at Yousician, not piano.

After discussing this let-down with Josh, we decide it doesn’t make sense to keep going with Yousician. The money for my first month is gone, but I can save myself the time and frustration of trying to learn piano by playing a game.

If you’re a music teacher, I have good news for you. Apps like Yousician won’t be taking away your job anytime soon. Maybe one day, but not tomorrow.

Teaching music, I’ve realised, like teaching any other creative skill, is complicated and difficult. It’s even more difficult to do it with technology, where there’s no dialogue between “teacher” and student, no feedback, no personalisation of lessons.

During level one of Yousician, I would do an exercise, fail miserably, and hear a voice say, “Well done, let’s move on.” I felt disheartened, because I knew I’d done a bad job, and I wasn’t learning by simply skipping ahead.

A real music teacher, however, would have known I’d failed, pointed out where I was struggling (and maybe even why), and designed an exercise to help me overcome the struggle. There’s so much in this single interaction that can’t be programmed into a learning app like Yousician. At least, not yet.

I’m disappointed that it turned out this way. I truly hoped I’d feel like I’d improved my skills when this article was done. But Yousician’s method of making me play notes based on their colour, rather than learning to actually read the notes, means I really haven’t taken away anything from the experience that I can use to improve my day to day playing.

I guess I need to schedule those music lessons earlier than I’d planned.

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