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I have been playing piano since I was 10 and now I am 43. I have never really been good at sight reading sheet music. I have recently been researching alternative methods of learning songs fast as sometimes learning one piece of sheet music took me months to learn.

I have found it a revelation to learn the chord and improvisation way of learning a song. I have literally played numerous songs tonight in minutes compared to reading sheet music over years. Why are these methods not taught by piano teachers?

I look up the chords to my song of choice and improvise too and played the whole of John Legend's song ‘All of Me’ within minutes. Why do teachers have to focus on sight reading and musical theory?

After 10 years of lessons I have learnt more using this way of learning. I have a musical background, but this way is much quicker to learn songs fast.

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    But does that method work for classical songs (the stereotypical study material) which are all intricate and weird? Not like more modern music which is like...4 chords sometimes.
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 3 at 20:25
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    Yep, "modern" music id just 4 or 5 chords with music. Classical music, by contrast, is free-flowing, & not a repitition of 1 chord for 10 bars... And about sheet music... Why don't you approach it this way: "Why do they(composers) even write it?"? Do they write for others to read, or to use that unused ink, or just for fun ????
    – Feliks_WR
    Jan 4 at 6:48
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    Schubert and Mozart lived before copyright laws were established in German-speaking Europe so they had somewhat limited opportunities to make money from printed sheet music.
    – ojs
    Jan 4 at 21:15
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    Would this be similar to asking "Why don't school teachers teach the Word method of writing, instead of letters?" Where they teach how to write whole words but not explaining the individual letters that make up that word...it might work for a while, but eventually you'll need to know what "letters" are.
    – BruceWayne
    Jan 5 at 14:55
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    What is "chord method?" You sort of make it sound like a specific method, but I don't know what you mean. Jan 5 at 18:58

10 Answers 10

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Just like there's pop, rock, folk, jazz, metal, etc. guitar, there are many different disciplines of piano playing, each with a different set of required skills:

  • classical piano
  • pop piano
  • jazz piano

I consider these as separate subjects, and in music schools there's usually a separation between at least classical and pop/rock/jazz. Additionally, you might think of playing pop/rock/jazz keyboards like synthesizers etc. as a different discipline. I quite often see people buying "Casio" style plastic home keyboards and expecting to play piano pieces on them, even though the keyboards don't play like actual pianos at all.

In the classical tradition, pieces are written down note-for-note and reading notation is essential. In pop song accompaniment, it doesn't really matter what notes you play, as long as you support the melody and other people. People might even use "music sheets" with just lyrics and chord symbols on them, and no staff notation at all. Like this:

   Eb   Eb7/G      Ab                 Eb   Bb
 O holy night, the stars are brightly shin-ing

Your question could be paraphrased as: "Why don’t classical piano teachers teach the chord method of playing?" And the answer would be: because that method is not used in classical piano practice. It is used in pop piano. If you want to learn pop piano, don't select classical piano as your subject.

A part of the problem is, even today people may not be aware of the differences between the disciplines. Certainly 30-40 years ago, pop piano was not a commonly taught subject in music schools. Classical music was the norm, and the few pop/jazz schools were separate entities. From what I recall, practically all pop pianists or keyboard players were largely self-taught, when it comes to pop accompaniment. Many had studied classical piano, but the skills needed in pop music were a separate thing you had to learn somewhere else, unofficially, "under the counter", and in practice. Maybe there was something about pop accompaniment, but as an optional extra later on.

But today, things are different - pop piano playing is better acknowledged, and the classical approach isn't assumed by default. I've been following a young relative's pop/jazz piano studies, and it's about chords all the way. The music sheets are just melody and chord symbols, and they don't care about things like scale fingerings at all. Instead, among other things, they've looked at how analog synthesizers work! Think about having arrived to your piano lesson, and the teacher says: "On today's lesson, we'll be playing this Moog synthesizer."

Today, if you seek piano lessons, a good teacher or school should ask you, what kind of piano playing you're interested in. A teacher should explain the differences, and if needed, direct the prospective student to another teacher.

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    wrt. "because that method is not used in classical piano practice", do you mean that they don't teach it because it's not useful? Because saying they don't teach it because it's not used seems a bit circular.
    – ilkkachu
    Jan 5 at 16:27
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    @ilkkachu As far as I know, playing from chord symbols like C, Dm, G7, and letting the player decide the details like voicing and rhythm pattern, isn't done in the classical tradition - unless doing that has suddenly been widely adopted by those who identify themselves as being a part of the tradition, in contexts that they call classical music. That's not how things are done in the classical way. If it's taught within lessons labeled as classical piano, then it's an imported practice from a different culture. (Within classical there is something called figured bass, an advanced topic) Jan 5 at 17:04
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    @ilkkachu Where would a student even get the needed chord charts? Someone would first have to write a pop reduction or "fake" music sheet for the piece, which would be another foreign thing to do, from a classical perspective. Classical pieces are written note for note by a composer (or arranger). There are "classical fakebooks", which contain pop reductions of classical pieces, but to an educated listener, the renditions may sound cheap, cheesy and/or comical. Or just wrong. Jan 5 at 17:18
  • @piipari, well, that seems to be precisely what I was saying. They're not taught in classical piano since they wouldn't be useful for playing that kind of pieces.
    – ilkkachu
    Jan 5 at 17:26
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    @ilkkachu Ok, I think I understood your confusion. By "that method" I meant a method of playing, not method of teaching. The method of playing is not taught to classical piano students, because that method of playing is not used in classical music. The OP asks why an exclusively pop/jazz method of playing is not taught to classical piano students. Jan 5 at 17:47
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Piano teachers routinely teach chord-reading, just not the teachers you studied with, it seems. Teachers who focus on jazz and popular music are the most likely, since chord charts (sheet music) are most common in those genres.

Teachers who focus on classical music often have not themselves learned to read chord charts, though this is changing. But the classical tradition goes back hundreds of years, at a time when lessons were geared toward becoming a professional (classical) musician — meaning that sight-reading standard notation was an absolutely essential skill. Those ways of teaching are still highly prevalent.

Piano teaching has only just begun to seriously evolve away from those earlier traditions in the last ten to twenty years. At the time you began playing the piano, you would have been hard pressed to find a teacher who would (or could) teach from chords. However, you could probably find someone now with relative ease.

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    Yep. In classical, you play what's on the page!
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 3 at 20:24
  • @DKNguyen not exactly... What about texture, tonality, & expression??
    – Feliks_WR
    Jan 4 at 6:51
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    @Feliks_WR You aren't always in contradiction with anything written on the page with expression but even dynamics are often written in. But just playing the chord when other notes are written there? Direct 100% contradiction! Tonality is written into the sheet music. Depending on what you mean by tonality and texture, it is also written into the sheet music.
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 4 at 14:28
  • @DKNguyen I mean the control of the timbre, distinct from volume/dynamics. Even when dynamics are written there, we need to judge which voice &/or hand to play louder etc... And yes, the maximum improvization is: iadd a trill here, half pedal there. Only in older music. But playing chords when a broken chord is written is, indeed, wrong.
    – Feliks_WR
    Jan 9 at 6:40
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    @Feliks_WR - That would be called tone, not tonality. Tonality is what key or mode the music is in (if any) and how much that key is influenced by modes (e.g. the piece has a C tonic and uses Db, D, and Eb but not C, so it's likely to be in C minor with Phrygian implications).
    – Dekkadeci
    Jan 9 at 21:10
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Devil's advocate: would most of us go along to a classical concert and enjoy a pianist playing a rough approximation of, say, Moonlight Sonata, a Bach fugue, et al?

Somewhat doubtful - the jazzers amongst us might love it, but the purists might walk out.

The answer is - what does one go to a piano teacher for?

It was always the case - say up to 50 years ago - that we went to learn to play properly - off the dots. That way, we could find sheet music and play it, if not immediately as great sight-readers, but eventually. And reproduce that music as it was intended - thus written out.

Now, though, merely playing the right chords in the right order (sorry, Eric!) is enough to get to play at a lot of venues - maybe not Carnegie Hall yet.

So, there's a vast difference between a pop song and seasoned classical music, and jazz has had a lot to do with the differences along its way. A cover version of a pop song seems acceptable when the chords are right, but their voicings aren't original. It will hardly work though, for Baroque, classical or Romantic pieces. Maybe because the pop type songs are more simplistic, maybe because we're kinder to their interpretations?

There's also the fact that a lot of 'serious' music for pianists isn't actually chord based, as opposed to most pop music, which is.

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    +1 for the Eric Morecambe / Andrew "Preview" reference :-) Jan 3 at 11:02
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    I think it goes also the other way: who would go to a jazz concert and enjoy the pianist playing straight from sheet music? I also think that even for classical piano, playing the right notes at right time is the starting point, not the goal.
    – ojs
    Jan 3 at 13:42
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    @ojs - I do have a hard time imagining "Blue Rondo a la Turk" with the left hand of the piano part of the first minute not matching the Time Out album version. Some jazz seems a lot less forgiving than others in that category (another example: video game jazz also seems less forgiving and more play-the-dots).
    – Dekkadeci
    Jan 3 at 16:33
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    @Tim And yet this is precisely what every harpsichord or other "continuo" player has done since the invention of the keyboard instrument as a concept. Note-by-note transcriptions of continuo parts do not exist, because that's the literal definition of what continuo is, so the harpsichordist backing your baroque players is doing exactly what you say can't be done. Just to devil's-advocate your devil's-advocate. :)
    – Graham
    Jan 3 at 19:51
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You could argue that any notation can only ever be an approximation of "what a piece should actually sound like", but reducing a whole arrangement to a sequence of chords is quite an extreme data reduction - you're looking at a very abstract form of what's actually being played.

Before the advent of recording (and the distribution of those recordings), a chord sheet on its own would give you little idea of how many piece were supposed to sound, especially if you had no prior knowledge of the style of the piece. One reason that music lessons tended to focus on rendering a score was that being able to play accurately from score was the only practical way of actually hearing the pieces you wanted to hear in a way that was somewhere close to how they were actually meant to sound.

I'd argue that using 'just the chords' as a way of conveying information about how to play a piece became much more useful when recordings were available - the two formats complement each other extremely well, as the chord sheet gives the non-expert player a shortcut to decoding the recording by ear, while the recording gives an exact rendering from which the person wishing to cover the song can extract whichever stylistic features they feel are important.

This way of working is now even easier with widespread internet availability and the enormous range of recordings that are accessible instantly at a low cost.

However, it's also worth pointing out that some pieces don't 'condense down' well to a simple chord sequence - there are cases in all genres of music where the motion of some of the individual voices is important to the way the harmony moves as a whole.

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    Suggesting that chord charts gave little idea of the music until recordings were widely available is somewhat misleading. For a sufficiently trained musician, a chord chart is fine on its own, and figured bass — the "original chord chart" — was around long before recording technology. I don't suggest getting into figured bass for this answer, but maybe soften the idea around recordings.
    – Aaron
    Jan 3 at 2:13
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    @Aaron Actually, I was thinking along similar lines. I never did live up to my ideals fully, but I always believed that classical teachers ought to incorporate improvisation into the curriculum, not least because it has been more integral in earlier times. I tried to get students to create their own cadenzas for Mozart concertos or ornament Telemann. So yeah, continuo playing is one place where even the highbrow "classical" crowd are keeping alive a tradition in which the performer does much of the work of composition in real time, from skeletal notations. Jan 3 at 2:37
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    In the time before recordings, the notation was all there was and your first two paragraphs pretty much says notation can't represent music which is incorrect. Any musician's trained in reading the notation can play it without hearing the piece of music.
    – Dom
    Jan 3 at 8:19
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    @Aaron Surely there is quite a lot of music that would be very difficult to render faithfully from a chord sheet alone? I'd be impressed to hear Spem in alium rendered from a chord sheet, for a start. Equally, 'riff-based' music often spends large periods of time on what is often considered to be a single chord in a chart - no-one is going to manage a plausible rendition of Superstition from the chords alone if they haven't heard it first. Jan 3 at 8:50
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    Of course there is also a large swathe of pieces where the chord chart alone is "enough", but it's far from being the case for all pieces of music. Jan 3 at 8:58
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I'm afraid I'll have to play devil's advocate, too.

Arguably, you never actually learn how to play a piece from its lead sheet (melody + chords). You learn the melody, yes. You learn how to harmonize it, yes. But you never learn precisely how to play the accompaniment (was it straight 8ths block chords, or was I supposed to add syncopation?), so unless you play by ear, you're reading the full sheet music, or you have the accompaniment memorized, you can never figure out what the left hand is really supposed to sound like just from the lead sheet (at least if you want to mimic the most famous recording of the pop/jazz/rock/metal/etc. song).

As other answers here indicate, there are teachers out there who will help you learn from lead sheets, but my argument above is that you may never actually sufficiently learn a piece from its lead sheet.

Funnily enough, there are also pieces out there where just learning the melody in any key just might be sufficient, and you are expected to be able to improvise an accompaniment, including changing the chord progressions between renditions. Those pieces tend to be folk songs, children's songs, Christmas carols, and even national anthems. However, you go back to needing to learn the sheet music in full if you want to play specific versions of those pieces, such as the Vince Guaraldi version of "O Christmas Tree". Regardless, learning the chords for those pieces is not the best way to learn them.

Ironically, you need to learn a substantial amount of music theory just to learn how to read the chords of lead sheets fast enough. (Try reading Cm7♭5 - Fsus4 - DM7/F♯ - Gm9♭13!)

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    I get the feeling that the OP wants to enjoy playing the kind of music where the melody is the piece, it just feels better with some accompaniment. For example the mentioned song ‘All of Me’ by John Legend. With some assistance from chord symbols, you can do your own version and precise details don't matter. This would be exactly the kind of down-to-earth practical music-making that many people are after, they just don't know how to achieve that. If you choose guitar or accordion as the instrument, it might be easier, but for piano, many teachers want to teach unnecessary finesse and skills. Jan 3 at 19:20
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica, I think it's easy to take for granted how much the details matter. Once, after a period of years of studying and listening to jazz exclusively, I sat down to play rock music with some friends. I had the chord symbols but was clueless as to what to play. Everything I tried was way too complicated and didn't fit in with the genre. I think practicing the sort of details Dekkadeci describes is really important. But anyway, I think the question is more about asking "why do teachers operate this way," and less about asking "is playing chords a good way to learn songs."
    – jdjazz
    Jan 3 at 19:37
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    @jdjazz I read the OP's question as "I just want to do this simple thing, but teachers and institutions give me all this difficult stuff". If someone's strumming an acoustic guitar to accompany songs, nobody complains about not playing like Tommy Emmanuel. For guitarists it is accepted to be in a simple supporting role. The same for accordion. But if your instrument is piano, then things change and it has to be very complicated all of a sudden? Playing songs doesn't have to be complicated for guitarists, so why does it have to be for pianists. :) It's all kind of "folk music" in a way. Jan 3 at 19:49
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica OP's post doesn't make it sound like he realizes he just wants to do a simple thing. He makes it sound like he wants to use it as a replacement for reading sheet music which it obviously is not.
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 4 at 14:33
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    @DKNguyen - The OP says "I have found it a revelation to learn the chord and improvisation way of learning a song. I have literally played numerous songs tonight in minutes compared to reading sheet music over years." in their question. Of course this chord- (and presumably melody-) reading method is being used as a replacement for reading sheet music.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jan 4 at 15:07
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Here's another way to look at the issue. As you say, you were able to throw together your arrangement for "All of Me" in minutes. And it wasn't hard, was it?

Someone with no musical background and no piano instruction probably couldn't do this, but you could. I have a hunch that that background and that instruction were more useful to you than you're giving them credit for.

On the other hand, it shouldn't take months to learn a simple song from sheet music. It makes me wonder what kind of "theory" your teachers taught and what they considered "sight reading". I find that for a lot of the music I play, although lately I play almost exclusively from other people's arrangements in sheet music format--it helps a lot to think of the music as "bass + chords + melody". Most of the time I don't need to decipher the written chords note by note; I can recognize one as a chord I know (say, B-flat major) in an inversion and voicing I've seen many times before (though I couldn't name it at this point--too many decades since the theory classes), and that's what I play.

"Sight reading" for my teachers meant you take music you've never seen or heard before, set it in front of you, and just play. Maybe even in ensemble, so there's no stopping to figure anything out or going back to correct something--you just have to go and keep going.

One thing you can try is to search for music that you would enjoy playing that you could learn quickly. Another option is, if you're going to spend months learning something, make it something worth spending months learning. You can even do both at the same time.

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Yes, as in other comments and answers, there is a distance between various genres and their performance styles.

One aspect that is "beyond chords", and relevant to both classical and jazz, is "voicing" of chords, that is, a choice of notes to express that chord, but/and fitting smoothly (as in "voice leading" and such) with nearby. In classical music, where the voicings are written out explicitly (without pretending to specify a chord), in fact there is often considerable ambiguity about what "the chord is". Similarly in (substantive) jazz.

And, then, in bop and other jazz, being able to play scales fluently, and switching between keys in doing such, is a very relevant skill. So, yeah, knowing fingering so as to be able to do it really matters! :)

Still, yes, very simple versions of many pop and traditional songs are recognizable and acceptable and fun without any of that. Still-again, the sound many people have in their ears for Xmas Carols, for example, does involve some modest-but-definite choices of voicings in a left-hand accompaniment... as I rediscover every year, reading from a simplistic score for such carols, and often guessing correctly at a somewhat subtler voicing/harmonization than the simplest-possible one.

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I have found it a revelation to learn the chord and improvisation way of learning a song.

Improvisation is the critical word.

I think what you mean is learning how to improvise rhythmic patterns that fit chord progressions.

Why don't piano teachers teach that?

Because most of them are preparing students for piano recitals where you're judged by some notion of a "perfect" performance. Or at least that's the mentality. Your pretending to be on the path of concert pianist.

Often that is mistakenly thought of as "classical" style. But, historically that is wrong. Musicians improvised in past musical eras. Decorating simple melodic lines with embellishments, improvising preludes, filling in the right hand of figured bass, those were some of the ways they improvised. Improvising a melody over a given bass was a big part of it. That's analogous to today's lead sheets of melody labeled with chord symbols. You improvise by embellishing a rough musical structure.

People talk about it as a "lost art" in the classical world but there is a lot of recent research and interest in the topic so it is being revived. "Partimento" is one of the topics to look up. It probably won't help much with learning pop songs, but you may still find it interesting. It might even throw some light on music you learned in all those lessons.


After re-reading the OP, I really think the confusion here is about accompaniment and musical textures in various musical genres.

look up the chords to my song of choice and improvise too and played the whole of John Legend's song ‘All of Me’ within minutes. Why do teachers have to focus on sight reading and musical theory?

What you improvised was your accompaniment to a melody.

You can do that with music that was written with that in mind. Homophonic texture is what we talking about: melody, with bass part or chord symbols, and chord based accompaniment as filler.

A jazz/pop lead sheet is such a thing.

A baroque trio sonata with figured bass is also such a thing.

Beethoven's Fur Elise is not such a thing.

Gershwin's Three Preludes is not such a thing.

Generally, solo piano music is not such a thing, because there isn't an accompanist. And to be clear, doing something like playing solo piano from a lead sheet is not playing a work written as piano solo music, it's essentially an on-the-fly piano arrangement of a song, a work for a vocalist and a band accompaniment.

Contrapuntal music (polyphonic texture) is pretty much categorically not the kind of music we are talking about. Bach fugues are not the type.

This isn't a classical versus pop music issue. It's a matter of accompaniment versus non-accompaniment genres of music.

If you took piano lessons and worked on figured bass realization or dance accompaniment, things like that, I'm sure you would have gotten lots of work improvising accompaniment.

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Another view of this topic is that when you learn classical music or sheet pop music from a proper pianist, you want to see it as layers of meaning. I am not very good, but I have learned songs as a sequence of notes. Unless I let my hands just do what I had taught them, I messed up and had to switch my brain off again to work out the right way to play it. This is because I didn't see the music as layers of meaning in terms of key, chords, notes. I just thought of the notes. Understanding the chord structure of a song doesn't just mean that you want to play pop songs from guitar chord charts off the web. It also gives a much better understanding of a song read from sheet music. E.g. Für Elise first theme. Just go through and see what chords it is playing. E and Am, followed by the section of C G Am and E (I think). My daughter had been taught City of Stars by her piano teacher without a single mention of what are very obvious chords. Gm, Dm, C, F. It gives you insight into what it is saying musically and why it feels a certain way at certain points. You aren't just blindly hitting notes that a musician who did understand music structure made up.

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As an addendum to other great answers: Playing "chords and melody" can be a lot of fun and discovering it can be a thrill, but it's not actually something that ever gets played by any sort of pianist in practice.

Classical pianists - don't play chords and melody. This one is obvious.

Pop/Rock pianists never (!) play chords and melody - that would clash with the vocalist and sound awkward. You can get transcribed pop piano classic of the likes of Billy Joel and Elton Jonh - you will not find the "melodies and chords" approach there.

Jazz players don't play melody while comping. And the chords they play is another area of expertise (far beyond just "knowing chords").

The closest to the "chords and melody" approach is what cocktail pianists do. Doing this well is very hard and quite niche.

Now think about it: why should piano teachers default to specializing their pupils to become cocktail piano players? There's nothing wrong with that, but still - why would you consider this such an essential point of piano education?...

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    Any competent jazz pianist can play solo from "chords and melody" well beyond what you're calling a "cocktail pianist".
    – Aaron
    Jan 4 at 23:36
  • @Aaron there must be some misunderstanding? Of course a competent pianist (both jazz and classical) can work as a cocktail pianists (I have done it myself, it can be great fun). OP is asking why teachers don't focus on this style of playing and argues that "it's the quickest way to play songs". My answer focuses on the fact that "playing songs" is NOT what a pianist does, outside of playing at a cocktail party and maybe a family/friends gathering. So it's understandable that most teachers don't focus on that skill.
    – fdreger
    Jan 5 at 8:02
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    If "playing songs" is not what a pianist does, I am interested in what they actually do. Okay, I know that the answer is "practice scales and etudes" but I think there should be something beyond that.
    – ojs
    Jan 5 at 8:26
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    +1 to keep this visible to highlight what was wrong with the teaching the OP once received. One of the problems with the old classical way was that the education system was, in a way, designed to produce professional musicians for orchestras. Or maybe to work as teachers or church organists or some other musical profession. But learning to play an instrument just to have fun was not one of the goals for which that system was organized. Sure, playing sight-read sheet music can be fun, if you've managed to obtain the needed skills, but there are easier ways to enjoyable piano playing. :) Jan 5 at 15:09
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    @fdreger it seems that your post reads very differently from what you intend, and the downvotes and comments are based on what you write instead of your thoughts.
    – ojs
    Jan 5 at 17:56

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