I’m trying learn jazz piano. For about ten years I played the violin; solo and in orchestras and quartets. I’ve also absolutely no trouble enjoying for instance Keith Jarrett’s more complex solo pieces (Radiance, La Scala, etc.) in addition to more harmonically sound jazz.

But when trying to learn the piano, where my level isn’t that far from twinkle twinkle little star, I run into the problem that my mental understanding of music is far ahead of my technical, on the piano. As a result I have sincere trouble concentrating, even hearing the simple music I attempt to play. As a result I “zoom out/fall asleep” and lose the focus that I need for actually being present and engaging in learning from the piece.

I’m not sure what to do about this problem. Currently my hypothesis is to obviously try to find pieces that are musically interesting for me but still is suitable for advancing my skills.

Have people run into the same problem as I do? How do you solve it?

This is a very common problem for anyone learning a second instrument after achieving a high level of proficiency at their first. It's humbling to have to go back to basics, and the music you have to play can be boring. People self-teaching a second instrument often have unrealistic expectations of their progress and get frustrated, so they try to jump ahead too far of their abilities.

For these reasons, it's paradoxically even more important to work with a good teacher when starting a second instrument than for the first. A teacher will be able to recommend pieces that are appropriate for your level (along with all of the other things a teacher does, of course). And while there are plenty of great teachers without formal educational credentials, in your case a teacher with a Music Ed degree is more likely to understand these challenges better, as Music Ed majors have to learn many instruments as part of their programs.

To combat the trap of unrealistic expectations, take some time to reflect on your journey on your first instrument, and how long it took to get to particular milestones. We remember the recent past in more detail than the distant past, so we tend to remember only our most recent struggles and forget what it was like to be a beginner. I started on piano, and since I've been playing for about 26 years, it's easy for me to forget that it took me about 5 years to start to be able to play with both hands simultaneously with ease.

Set an expectation that your second instrument will take a similar amount of time, and then you can be pleasantly surprised if you exceed that, instead of demanding it of yourself.

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    YES! As I say in my answer, I primarily a guitar player. I have had a good experience with an amaising piano teacher who really leveled me up! – avi.elkharrat Aug 9 at 10:49
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    Absolutely, keep it realistic. I'm learning flute (my 6th instrument) and when I think I suck, I think where a 5th grader would be after this many months and realize I'm not doing too badly. – Duston Aug 9 at 14:51
  • Hah, turns out there are health issues involved. I got tendinitis for presumably trying to play the third movement of Moonlight Sonata without having worked with a teacher to really perfect hand relaxation on arpeggios :( My main instrument being guitar – Agustín Lado Aug 15 at 19:33

I am battling that problem right now learning my second instrument. I think this is a problem that can be compared to learning a second language. We know how to speak and express our thoughts why would I want to speak like a three year old again. Incomplete sentences, only in the present tense, limited vocabulary, etc...

But think about what you know! You know how to form sentences. You know what things are called in one language. You are more experienced in life than you were when learning your first language. This will help you so much when learning your second language. Trick is get past the very humbling hump of just not being able to speak (play).

All that music theory, rhythm knowledge, reading abilty(if you know how to read), ear training, etc will all translate to your new instrument in some way.

There are things that will be new learning your new instrument but trust me that if you stick with it and push through the boring stuff you will learn faster than you did with your first. Take those boring row row row your boat songs and try to use your musicality to make them into music. Use your strong points from your other instruments to enhance your learning. And also take this as an opportunity to improve what your weak points were on your old instrument. You played the violin. Maybe you never really studied how chords were built. Take the underlying chords of these simple songs and break them apart so you can understand what is happening. Play the chords in arpeggios. They are many things you can do with your knowledge and skill that a true beginner couldn't do yet.

Learning any sort of piano, let alone jazz, is going to be an uphill struggle, even if you're excellent on violin. One main new problem is that many notes can - and are - played simultaneously, unlike the usual two max. on violin. Adding the two staves - bass clef is probably brand new for you, and having to read both at the same time...

There's nothing wrong with nursery slope tunes. It's what you have to and need to do. But, to alleviate the boredom, mess around with the tunes. A jazz version of Daisy, or Row, Row, Row your Boat won't be the first time it's been played thus.

There's lots of things you can do to a simple song once you can play it o.k. Change the key, change timing, swap voicings. A lot of the theory you gleaned while playing violin will come in useful here. Play adagio, presto, accelerando, crescendo, staccato, and lots of other ways that end in 'o'!

When you get good enough, change the key, change the harmonies. Find something you play on violin, and work out, or find a simple accompaniment for it that works on piano. Record it and play with yourself. That sort of thing should appeal in a productive, end product manner. And, yes, it's going to feel like a slow process.

  • A jazz version of Daisy, or Row, Row, Row your Boat won't be the first time it's been played thus. Also, for beginner-level but enjoyable jazzy pieces check out Oscar Peterson's "Jazz Exercises, Minuets, Etudes & Pieces". – Tobia Tesan Aug 9 at 19:12

I'm going to try something here: you seem to lack a challenge!

So this is purely hypothetical, but it could be that you "zoom out" when you play the piano just because you're bored by what you play! And who wouldn't at this point?

Maybe you need a challenge.

If that happens to be true, here are a few suggestions to challenge yourself:

  • Plan a small demonstration. Nothing big, a 10 to 15 minutes set just for friends or family, anyone you're comfortable with. Repeat the experience for a longer set or larger audience whenever you feel ready. And again, and again...
  • Focus on technique. Boy, I would say: this is a good one! Piano technique is awesome. If you focus on technique instead of focusing on simplistic tunes, you may find something fun and interesting that will keep you up. This is a super mental challenge, because piano technique differs alot from the violin**. Go for chords, scales, arpeggios...
  • Change musical style. If you're used to playing Jazz, go Classical. If you're used to playing Classical, go for Improv. This will keep your mind going, as well as your hands. There MUST be some kind of music you always wanted to try, but never had a chance to. Now may be the time.
  • Develop your own style. You know music right? So I guess you have plenty of it in your head. So try a small lick with your right hand. Then try a bass with your left. Assemble the two (watch out for a challenge here). Hey man, you're playing your own music! That's interesting!

** I'm guessing, here. I play the guitar, not the violin. However, I have had a good experience with piano, so I guess there is not much of a difference.

Are you learning technical things like scales and chords, along with songs? Since you know the theory, I would recommend practicing these things as the best way to (more) quickly improve piano skills. There is nothing like scales and chords to help one learn to maneuver around the piano. This may also help your focus, since while practicing these things, you will need to focus on form and fingering patterns. You can also make up puzzles for yourself, like going up one scale or arpeggio, and going down another, or how to go from one block chord to another moving as few fingers as possible. There are also many, many different scales and chords you can learn and practice.

I don't know what method book you are using, if any, but most beginner piano books do not help much at all for learning jazz piano. I would recommend getting a fake book. Start with simple songs with simple chord progressions, learn to play the melody with a chord accompaniment, or sing along while playing chords. You can start simple, just playing block chords in quarter notes and the root in the bass. As you get more comfortable with playing chords, you can move to more of the jazz standards and get a Real Book. As for playing scales, not only learn the fingerings, but just make stuff up. Play around with those scales to improvise and make your own melodies. Don't worry about trying to play chords at the same time. That will come. For now, just try to get to know the whole instrument.

I was a clarinetist throughout grade school and college and played in some excellent ensembles, and I tried (and am still learning) piano.

The main difference that I notice about piano is that you don't get the same ensemble experience beginning piano as you do with a wind, brass, or string instrument. Having had some very good teachers throughout my time learning piano, there are some things that seem to get very little emphasis on piano compared to, say, if you were performing in an ensemble:

  • Learning how to keep time with others (unless you're accompanying, but you usually wouldn't do this until you're decently advanced).
  • Learning how to sightread a piece of music quickly. In an ensemble, it's not unheard of to get a piece of music and have only a few rehearsals to get it down. The great majority of piano professors and teachers that I've had have concentrated most of their time on spending, at some times, months learning one piece. I had to learn and am still learning how to sightread on my own.

If I could give a musician advice who has already had substantial experience playing another instrument and is trying to learn piano, it would be (assuming that there are no significant theory deficiencies and that there's no problem reading the two clefs) to focus on sightreading without looking at the keys. Focusing on sightreading will make learning pieces faster and will help you associate what you see on the page with what your fingers need to do.

I recommend a somewhat gradual approach for learning how to sightread. Choose pieces in the following order, and don't proceed until you've mastered each level:

  1. One hand only
  2. Melody on one hand, mostly sustained notes in the other hand
  3. Similar rhythms in both hands, with a fixed five-finger position
  4. Similar rhythms in both hands, allowing for some leaps
  5. Similar rhythms in both hands, 4-part chorales

Aim for 98% accuracy or more, and go as slow as you need to for accuracy. Don't push tempo unless you know you can do it.

I'm currently at stage 5 when it comes to training myself on sightreading, so I don't have advice for how to proceed beyond here. I am thinking about trying to focus on horizontal playing, so perhaps I may try sightreading the Bach Two-Part Inventions.

  • Good advice. It's the piano equivalent to "touch typing", something I'm forcing myself to do on bass guitar because I didn't learn to do it properly at first. – Duston Aug 9 at 14:49

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