As an amateur pianist, I've noticed that I can pick up on the difference between someone who has taught themselves piano, and someone who has had a high-quality piano instructor.

It's hard to detail the differences exactly, but I would describe the people who have been instructor-taught as having:

  • Greater consistency: repeated playing of a musical piece sounds very similar each time
  • Less jitter: suppose you're playing the same note or chord repeatedly. The variance of the time between sequential notes is much lower, even if each note is on average played at the correct moment
  • High-quality, "non-exactness": This is most prominent in the world-class concert pianists. It's basically where their own interpretation of the music, while not matching the precise tempo or dynamics of the score, still sounds really beautiful. For instance, take Rachmaninov's Prelude in C Sharp Minor. There's a certain split-second pause that most concert pianists take in the part where it transitions from slow to fast. This is absent in almost all amateur recordings. My own attempts to fake this attribute sound artificial and contrived.

Note that I did not describe a difference in difficulty of the musical pieces. For instance, a self-taught person may be able to play Liszt's Transcendental Études very well and without mistakes, but it just doesn't have the same "character" that it does from someone who has taken lessons. You'll quite often find on Youtube for instance people who have taught themselves very difficult pieces and spent many hours practicing, but it still doesn't sound the same (as good) as a professional playing a technically simpler piece.

Clearly, I'm generalizing here. But I've spent many hours in the music rooms at my local university, and I have noticed a very definitive trend regarding the differences between music students and people who go to the practice rooms for fun, even if the ones who are playing for fun practice many more hours.

I ask this question as someone who is myself self-taught, and I want to figure out the way to make my playing have more of the above three characteristics. I practice for many hours each day, and while technically I guess my music sounds decent to non-pianists, I find my own recordings very unsatisfying and I don't enjoy listening to them, especially compared to someone who has been taught piano. Ideally, I would sign up for lessons with a good instructor, but I don't have the money for that right now (grad student), so I'm doing the next best thing, which is asking for advice on here.

More specifically, I'm asking what I need to do while practicing to sound less amateur. Should I practice scales? I've never done that before. What is the optimal ratio of play time vs. rest time while practicing? How many hours should be practiced a day, and how should I split up the hours? (Most of my practicing is currently done in 6-7 hour non-stop blocks). Should I repeat the whole piece each time I practice, or focus on 5-10 second subsections? What about hand position and fingering technique; I know absolutely nothing about this and just wing it.

These are a lot of questions, so even a good online reference or a book would be helpful to me.

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    While I think your observations is true, one would need to compare self taught persons who spent around the same amount playing the instrument as professionals for the comparison to hold. Of course a good teacher helps, but I believe it's the ability to practice hours and hours each day that sets the "amateur" and the pro apart. – Meaningful Username Dec 3 '14 at 11:15
  • Indeed, the discipline of practice is not something you only get with a structured teaching setup, but it's far more likely. Most people wouldn't spend hours playing the same scale over and over without someone telling them to! – Mr. Boy Dec 3 '14 at 12:11
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    @Mr.Boy - Well I do and I'm entirely self taught. I think the entire question is biased and shows a view that excludes the possibility that somebody could reach a high standard of playing without an instructor. Obviously this is possible without an instructor although it may be easier with one. – CurlyPaul Dec 3 '14 at 13:23
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    Technically, Alfred Brendel is a professional pianist and a self-taught one (save a couple of master classes he took later on) - see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Brendel#Biography I'm sure there are other examples :) – Some Dude On The Interwebs Mar 7 '15 at 12:45
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    If you are a grad student at an college with a music department, quite likely they will run master classes by visiting performers. If you can be part of the "audience" for free, go there. You can learn a lot just by watching other people being taught. And don't ignore master classes for instruments other than the one(s) you play! – user19146 Mar 12 '16 at 6:37

12 Answers 12

They say amateurs practice until they make no mistakes, while professionals practice until they're not able to make any mistakes... Mistakes include not only wrong notes but incorrect timing, dynamics, and whatever. This might be the cause for the first two characteristics you describe: they both play well but the professional is completely in control whereas the amateur must rely more on luck.

I think most questions in your last big paragraph are more or less irrelevant or at least secondary, but some I can address:

  • A 6 hour non-stop session is probably too much; you won't be able to concentrate for that long. Try 1-2 hour blocks with 15-30 min breaks between maybe. I don't think there is an optimum ratio, nor is there an optimum amount of hours/day you should practice. I recall Chopin had limit of max 3 hours/day, while some pianists have a limit of min 6 hours/day.
  • You should not play the whole piece each time (or even often, at least in the beginning). Also limiting to sections of certain length is artificial. You practice the difficult things. It can be anything from a single note to the whole piece and it usually varies both between practice sessions and as you progress.

Now to what I think is the most important part. You say you find your own recordings unsatisfying. Good! Identify the unsatisfying parts and now you know where you have to focus your practicing. If you can figure out exactly why it sounds unsatisfying, that's great (and something a teacher should be able to do). But more importantly, try to imagine how a satisfying version would sound (a teacher should be able to demonstrate this), and then practice to get there. If you haven't followed any masterclasses (either live or YouTube or elsewhere), try it. They can give you a better idea of what I'm trying to say here.

So the important thing is to a) know what you want it to sound like and b) hear what you actually sound like and c) practice with the intent to get b) closer to a). My guess is that one big difference between amateur and professional practicing is exactly with intention; a pro is always practicing to solve a particular problem while amateurs are just "trying to get better". Also it seems that many amateurs practice just to get the notes right, but that's really just one part of it. It is just as important to practice until you can always make that fermata sound natural and that accent be just right.

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    "Try 1-2 hour blocks with 15-30 min breaks between maybe." One thing I also wish I realized earlier was that "practicing" is not synonymous with "sitting at the piano moving my fingers". There's lots of important work that can be done away from the piano. (Like, as you say, listening to your own recordings and taking notes on them. Or: analysis or memorization of music while away from the piano.) – Bruce Fields Jul 22 '16 at 19:42

As a guitar player I can assure you that your description of the difference between a self-taught and a instructed player apply to other instruments as well.

I am not a piano player myself, but I took guitar lessons and taught myself a lot of things on my own after not taking lessons anymore. The difference between a high quality teacher and yourself is that the teacher knows a lot more than you do. When learning new techniques, I often ask myself if I'm doing it right, if my hands are moving correctly etc.

A (good) teacher will always be able to tell you what exactly you're doing wrong, but you won't... If you want to reach a professional piano skill there are multiple options:

  • Aspire professional piano playing
  • Play with people who are better than you
  • Get a teacher
  • Practice scales

By professional piano playing I mean that you should play as much as you can, with as many people as you can. Make it a job of yours to play piano, using it every day in a professional environment will improve your skills a lot.

If you don't have the time to play piano all day you could play with musicians who are better at playing their instruments than you. You mentioned the students at your local university; you could consider playing with those who you admire the most, as they can surely teach you some tricks. (Source)

It is very important to surround yourself with people who have a greater skill than you. You will be surprised how many tricks you can learn just by playing with people who are better pianists.

I know it is impossible for you, but if your budget allows you to hire a teacher who is a professional piano player (either only teaching piano as a job or a concert pianist), you should really consider taking lessons. A teacher will be able to point out your non-professional mistakes quickly and your personal progress will be managed by someone who knows more than you, which is a great advantage.

You also pointed out that you never practiced scales before. I don't know much about piano playing practice, but when playing guitar, scales are the most crucial thing to practice if you want to become a pro. To improve your precision, play etudes and/or scales with a metronome and vary the speed until you are able to play the same music piece on various tempos (very slow and very fast).

To learn the skill of "non-exactness", as you call it, you should compose own songs. I often write own compositions and it really gives you a new view on music. Try to switch from different styles and moods, play the way you feel and record it as a "bookmark". Your first recording should not be precise, just try to capture the main idea of your composition. Then, start practicing it and make a whole song out of it. Building up a song and practicing something you made up yourself will give you greater room for own emotions and impulses, which improved my understanding for music and its emotions a lot.

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    You also benefit simply from someone watching you. You can't watch your posture and technique, especially not when all your concentration is needed to play something at the edge of your capability - you don't have the capacity even if you can physically see yourself properly! – Mr. Boy Dec 3 '14 at 12:12
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    @Mr.Boy: You could videotape yourself and watch it later, but then you will of course only practice half the time (or at half the speed) as when you are practicing with an instructor. In fact, if you are not a trained instructor yourself, you will probably have to watch the video multiple times or at slower speeds. After all, judging your posture and technique is an additional skill for which you will also have to practice. – Jörg W Mittag Dec 3 '14 at 13:28
  • You may have a point, but .. Hendrix: self taught. Also, someone had to teach themself in order to become a teacher. – user2808054 Dec 4 '14 at 14:42
  • @user2808054 - Hendrix had lessons. One doesn't have to teach themselves in order to become a teacher. – Tim Mar 12 '16 at 15:22
  • @Tim please quote a source. In fact, quote several. A quick google of "Did jimi hendrix have lessons" reveals many (many) sites stating he was primarily self-taught, with a few pointers from his father who played saxophone. This agrees with interview material I have heard. – user2808054 Mar 14 '16 at 9:34

There's a difference between amateur and pro, and a difference between a self-taught musician and one who has had proper lessons.The four definitions are not interchangeable. Whilst it may be expected that self-taughts are amateurs, consider most pop-type bands. The Beatles were considered pros! And a lot of those who had proper lessons end up as amateur players!

There is the case that self-taught musicians play more musically. As in they are able to translate the dots (if they can read) into something that is slightly more satisfying to listen to. Maybe on piano this is not necessarily the case, but on guitar I feel it is. Those who had formal lessons occasionally come across with less 'soul' in their playing. Somehow the restrictions that some teachers put upon their students take away the 'flair' that could be there in their playing. It took me years to free myself from those chains! For those who cannot read, it doesn't have to restrict the way they put over a piece. Maybe with the freedom they have, it gives them more scope.

Two comparables that come to mind are Menuhin and Grapelli. Both excellent violinists. One with loads of formal training, one with none.(Not strictly true - he was at a Conservatoire from age 12 - 15). You'd probably call them both pros ! There is a marked difference in their performances.With one playing primarily from the dots, the other from the heart. One translating what's on the music, the other...

So far this is half an answer. I'll carry on later !

There's the story of Menuhin and Grapelli playing together, supposedly a jazzy jam session. At some point Grapelli moves the music that's been written so that Menuhin could sound like he's busking. The latter ground to a halt, apparently.

  • your statement that "self taught musicians play more musically" sounds interesting to me. I am a self taught pianist who started learning at the age of 29, but i can improvise better than another pianist who took many piano lessons since she was little (and has much better fingering skills than i do). It was her, actually, who told me so. – mey Jan 30 '15 at 19:22
  • And about restrictions,... my husband who does not read music can even compose better songs than i do, apparently because he is not restricted by rules (as @Tim noted above). His songs feature multiple modulations, ending a minor song in a minor dominant chord, 12/8 time signature... – mey Jan 30 '15 at 19:36
  • The Menuhin/Grapelli comparison is interesting. Menuhin had enough interest in and respect for Grapelli's style to record an album of duets. I'd love to know how much of Menuhin's contribution was arranged for him. Considering he hadn't spent a LOT of his life on this type of music, he does pretty well! youtube.com/watch?v=8WupsWuMHUg – Laurence Payne Mar 12 '16 at 15:02
  • @LaurencePayne - see edited answer. I guess at most being arranged for Menuhin. Not knocking his wonderful playing in the least! – Tim Mar 12 '16 at 15:15
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    "self-taught musicians play more musically" - I think the one who understands the music and not more attached to the music sheet will play it more musically whether he may be an amateur or a professional one. They were the one who plays music for others to listen rather than just reciting. – RAN_0915 Oct 8 at 13:24

Part of it is that lots of classically trained musicians get good by practicing technical excercises rather than playing pieces. However this only applies to people who have had really good teaching (e.g. gone to a conservatoire). Just having had lessons doesn't necessarily make you much better.

Opinion presented as fact! Totally unscientific.

It might be true that many self-taught pianists have failed to reach the same standards as those with professional training. But it is not true of all. Rather than trying to prejudge pianists on the basis of how they learned it is best tio simply listen without prejudice.

I think, your observation is somewhat correct.

To answer your question, I would suggest that to be able to play like a well trained or classically trained or a pro or whatever one calls it, you have to remind yourself that sounding the exact way how you heard a song or a piece is not enough, I mean, it is enough if you just want to play it but if you're talking about the 'wellness' of your playing, you have to be always ACCURATE. My piano instructor always tells me that I need to be accurate, at first I didn't know the point of that if in fact you can play it your way and sounds the same. But then as I go along, I realized why she always tells me that, it is because being accurate (I mean here the counts of the notes and accidentals,and other music signs that are in the piece you're playing) will help you to be a disciplined player. You would start noticing how impatient you are to hit the notes, and it would also take away a person's notion that 'hitting the right notes is enough'.

You don't hit notes, you play them.

I hope this helps a little. God bless. Keep playing.

A well-taught player has received feedback, correction and instruction in the techniques required. Maybe an occasional genius can do this all for himself. The rest of us need a teacher!

I know there are many answers already, but as a self taught pianist myself, I have realized that people really enjoy listening to my music, whether I composed it or not, when I play it with passion! If you have ever composed a piece, you'll realize that every note you give has a purpose. A softness. Meaning. Try composing just a tiny little song, and play it so that your heart feels good. Then you will be on your way to sounding better. Then, if you play a piece that someone else composed, don't forget about each note. And of course, lots of practice is great for the technical side, but if you over-practice, you will become insensitive to the piece you are playing. This in turn will make you sound worse.

Scales would help, especially the ones in the keys of the pieces you’re playing. Pay attention to the fingering on the piece, it may seem odd at times but it works like magic. If you feel comfortable practicing 6-7 hours a day, that is amazing, however if you are beating yourself to death over tiny things it would be benefitial to take a break. It will also help to go back and play sections you have difficulty with first hands /separately/ (even if you feel you are beyond this) and then together until you feel comfortable with it. If you know anyone who plays the piano (and has taken lessons?) perhaps have them listen to what you are playing and look at the music to see if they can pick up on anything you can’t. Hopefully this is helpful!!

Just gotta say, one thing that a lot of people notice about professionals compared to amateurs is that the pros tend to be able to play with a lot more confidence and energy. Pros know wht they're doing, and as such, having to worry less, they are able to focus on other things, like enjoying the music or focusing on expression rather than the next wall of notes flying at them from the page.

A colleague of mine who composes but is not a pianist, commented to me once that piano is like doing ballet on rocks. As a pianist, I found that a fitting description! A professional pianist dances on the keys gracefully.

In terms of technique you need to consider: posture and tension, getting from one place to another on the keyboard quickly and accurately, and pedaling. If you cannot get a teacher, you need to videorecord yourself to check your posture. Checking tension will be much more difficult because you need a close up of arms, shoulders, and fingers, and you still might not know what you are looking for. Try to find something on Youtube about it. Scales and arpeggios will help greatly in moving around the keyboard. You also need to know your chords and all inversions so when playing something like a stride or waltz bass line, you can go straight to the upper chord without guessing on the shape of it. You need to learn theory if you don't already know what I am talking about. There is more to pedaling than just "what sounds good". You need to know when chords change, and when it is appropriate to hold it over. You need to know how to change a pedal smoothly so the sound connects (if the music calls for that.) You need to know when NOT to use the pedal.

I would not practice for more than 1-1/2 hours at a time without a break. You do not want to teach your muscles to play fatigued. Doing so will increase tension and risk injury. I suggest warming up with scales and arpeggios.

To develop musicality, the best thing you can do is to listen to recordings of excellent pianists whose interpretations you like. Musicality is hard to teach; it is more intuited. That intuition comes from being immersed in music. No practicing is going to make up for a lack of listening, and you will gain more from playing fewer hours and taking the other time to pull out scores and read them while listening to recordings. Listen to several different ones to see how each performer does it differently. Attend concerts, too (any instrumentation.)

  • Why only listen to recordings of pianists whose interpretations you like? It's also good to listen to others - who you may not even know yet - who may then end up on the original list! – Tim Oct 8 at 13:42
  • I agree. Perhaps I should have said "repeatedly." In no way did I intend to communicate to listen to only that which one has already heard, and I did say at the end to listen to a number of various recordings and performers. – Heather S. Oct 8 at 20:01

One of the differences you might be picking up on is knowledge of some music theory (here not so much harmony as form) and history. Knowledge of theory helps you relate different parts of a piece, and knowledge of history helps you relate one piece to other pieces.

For example, one of the reasons that professionals get the pause in Rachmaninoff right is that they also know about similar pauses in Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, et c and the differences and similarities between these pauses. Of course this operates mostly at a subconscious level.

  • I do not understand why anyone downvoted this This is a fine answer. Knowing theory and history gives one insight into how to approach pieces from various eras, and there are huge differences, especially in use (or non use) of the pedal and ornamentation, to say the least. – Heather S. Oct 6 at 23:38

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