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Most frustrating thing ever: Learning a new instrument when you have a background of being moderately competent on another instrument. I keep expecting my fingers to be able to play things at the level my brain is reading the page. This is not what happens.(r/piano)
I know this situations intimately. I was a music major with trumpet as my primary, but got a job playing piano as a stop-gap after college, but ended up turning it into a full time playing career. I didn’t star playing seriously until I was around 26 or 27. Due to playing basically for a living, I had to learn to practice efficiently and get better fast.
There are so many odd things about it. For one, I can sightread almost anything on trumpet, but my sightreading on piano is nowhere near that good and it’s very frustrating.
Then there’s a particular mixed blessing in that you know how to approach practice better if you were competent on another instrument. If you keep at it, you’ll probably find even more efficient ways to practice and become very pedagogically minded. The reason this is mixed is because you’ll very quickly run into people who take certain skills for granted and can’t give you good advice. Honestly, pianists are the worst in this regard because most of them start so young.
People who only play one instrument and started young just take for granted so many things about how to play. You probably never have to think about fingerings on flute, or reading ledger lines, or being able to aim at the right place to hit the harmonic you want. Heck, you probably learned to read slowly during middle school band and over a course of years got decent at it to the point that you might not remember what parts of it were actually ever difficult.
I frequently hear advice from pianists that is absolutely tone-deaf to these issues. Advice like “Practice hands together 100% of the time.” Or “You need to improve your sightreading? Go read some Chopin etudes, or a hymnal, or Bach inventions.” Imagine how frustrating that advice would be to you as you’re struggling probably to even put two hands together or read more than one note at a time, or play “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
There are so many incremental steps. People who learned all of those things before their brain developed the ability to think abstractly (around 13) just tend to be awful at empathizing with anyone who finds a new concept difficult.
In general, musicians for which something came easy are awful at explaining that issue. I’m guilty as well. My biggest blind spot is in the realm of motivation. I’m self-motivated in such a way that I just don’t know how to advise it. I can make all sorts of suggestions on how to improve, but I can’t give you advice on motivation. I don’t care if something’s boring. If it’s good for my playing, knowing how to work toward incremental improvements is enough for me. Apparently for some people if they aren’t playing a fun song all the time, they just want to quit. But I’ll admit, I know it’s an actual issue, but just one I can’t help with.
It can be frustrating to learn a new instrument, but you just have to take advantage of the fact that you know (or should know) the importance of developing good habits early and practicing slowly and accurately rather than trying to fix all of your practiced in bad habits later.
I also play a bit of guitar for my work, and that’s even more frustrating. There is a point where you can try too had to do it perfectly the first time. I’ve learned the sweet spot on aiming for absolutely perfection while practicing and having certain allowances for mistakes and knowing they will be resolved over time so long as I’m mindful. Guitar offers the issue of tone and pitch which are very sensitive issues to me as a brass player. So it makes it hard to work on things like scales where I’m simultaneously thinking about left hand finger placement, right hand alternate picking, and then muting strings as I go. That last bit is the one I have to be careful not to over-think.
For piano, spend as much time as you can afford on fundamentals and sightread at least a little bit every day. It might be boring, but as a high level musicians, you already know how important it is. You can either bash yourself through a hard lick specific to a piece of music, or you can practice the fundamentals that surround it. If you already know your F major scale and arpeggios, then playing a fast run on that scale on flute is nothing to you because you already know it. But if you don’t have that fundamentals, now you have to work on it painstakingly. So much of your good flute playing comes from already knowing how to play your fundamentals to the point that you don’t have to think about them and can just focus on the music stuff.
It’s so much the same on piano. Really learn your scales, arpeggios, and cadences. This ends up fixing probably 80+% of the fingering questions. Also, as a wind player, you’re probably used to the idea of everything having a fixed fingering (or a few alternates or trills), but on piano, there’s an abyss of freedom. Learn your scales to fix a lot of that.
Some suggested materials:
Great book for working most of your fundamentals.
Probably one of the most useful books I bought and later than I should have. An issue that arises in sightreading for a person learning a secondary instrument is too much assumption about certain physical and technical issues. Often you think you’re getting it and you’re not. In the context of a piece of music, you might not realize exactly what combinations of notes and rhythms are consistently slowing down your sightreading. This book is ridiculously simple. Most of it is the same thing in both hands, it’s all 5-finger, and it covers all the keys. It uses accidentals rather than key signatures, which is annoying to a trained musician until you realize the brilliance of how much it makes you accustomed to seeing accidentals on the line and not freaking out. It basically isolates tiny things because of its relative simplicity. And there are over 500 of these, so if you need to do a little sightreading every day (and you do), this is the way to go. Each exercise is so short and they are so numerous that you really can’t “learn” them which is a big problem with sightreading familiar tunes (and using your assumption about rhythm and such as a crutch to actual reading).
This is the first in a series of books. This first one is very easy. I don’t think there’s anything hands together at all, but this series of books has musical instructions and dynamics and such so you can focus on reading with those things in mind. Rather than being very exercise-y like the Hannah Smith book, the short reading exercises are very musical. It’s not that long, but I’d suggest working cover to cover and then starting over after however many days it takes you to do so. Eventually add Level 2, then 3, then 4, etc. and work through them in cycles with the Hannah Smith book on the side and some other materials like….
There’s a ton of meat here for sightreading. These start simple and get very difficult fairly quickly. I like that, being Bartok, there’s a lot of very odd, often less western traditional tonality things happening so you can’t just rely on the simple patterns so common to other easy music. There are some bitonal ones, some very organ-like ones with odd sustains. There are canon-y things and just tons of odd things. Nothing has had more influence on my reading hand independence than these exercises because they just demand you to really not tie your hands together in simple harmony patterns that are common in other music.
Fantastic books for just working on music. Rather than just sightreading, you should be working on the exercises in these to a polished, performance-ready level. These, especially in the first book, really do stick to the bread and butter of the simple harmonic ideas I said were (delightfully) missing in the Bartok material. Lots of very common I-IV-V type progression with various accompaninmental patterns (which if you’re working on cadences out of the above mentioned book will become second nature).
Some rules of thumb for practicing:
I personally have found that at most a new song should be taking your 1-4 weeks at most. I’m sure you know people who can play competition pieces on flute, but only by practicing the shit out of that one piece, but can’t really do anything else. You’re aiming to not do that. You want to learn the instrument, not just pieces on it. Too many people take 3 months to learn one song by brute-force muscle memory and those skills often don’t transfer to new material and they find they can’t even play certain parts hands separately because the motions are so tied together in their brains.
Practice a large variety of things and don’t spend a lot of time on each. If you don’t meet your goal for the day with the metronome, let it go. Hit it again tomorrow or later. Your brain needs time to make connections. You will hit the wall if you just plow one thing. Give your brain a huge variety of “food” to digest while you’re away. A little scales, a little sightreading, a little arpeggios, and a little work on pieces. Literally set a timer and limit your practice on a given item so you don’t end up mindlessly noodling away your practice time.