One day I watched my brother Dave play piano seemingly effortlessly and wondered what the secret was. I badgered him to show me something, anything. He showed me one little trick. From there, I taught myself the basics and wound up a pretty good player. Eventually I took a few lessons, but by that point, all my lessons did was fill gaps in my knowledge. In other words, I may have had a slight gift, but I know for sure that I’d inadvertently stumbled upon a series of shortcuts to learning how to play this wonderful instrument.
1. One, skip, two, skip, three
The trick that started it all. Dave told me to number my fingers from one to five and then to put my thumb on any white key. Then, he said, skip the next white key and put your second finger down. Skip the next white key again and put your third finger down. Now play.
What Dave taught me was the simplest way to form what is known in music theory as a triad: three simple notes that are the basis of every chord. By starting on C and using the one, skip, two, skip, three method, and travelling up the white keys, you’ll find you’re playing the following chords:
- C major
- D minor
- E minor
- F major
- G major
- A minor
- B diminished
Seven chords in one afternoon. Not bad.
2. Where’s the C
Take a breath. It’s actually fairly simple.
First, let’s just take it for granted that music theory requires us to base our learning of the piano on the first seven letters of the alphabet.
Next, take a look at the keyboard. Notice the black keys are arranged in a repetitive pattern: a set of two followed by a set of three, all the way up the keyboard. Wherever there is a set of two black keys, the white key immediately before it is C. From there, you only have to recite the alphabet up to G, then start over at A. Notice that every time you come to C, you’re at the white key before the set of two black ones again. Every note repeats in this manner. Still think it’s hard to play piano?
3. The major scale (Do re mi…)
You remember the song. Start with your thumb on C. Use your first three fingers to play the first three notes. After you play the E, cross your thumb underneath your third finger and play the F. From there it’s smooth sailing back up to C. When you get good at it, play the second C by crossing your thumb under your fourth finger and continue on.
4. Black keys don’t bite
When you play a triad on the white keys, try moving your second finger to any black key near it. Notice how the sound changes. Practice different combinations of white keys and black keys. Use your ears. What combinations sound good?
When you play piano, your fingers will always be situated on a particular pattern of keys. Notice that there are certain patterns that look alike. The seven chords from step one all have the same pattern on white keys. Start to notice similar patterns with white and black key combinations. It all goes toward getting to know the keyboard well.
Don’t be afraid to make some noise. Experimentation is the best way to see what sounds work and what sounds don’t. Remember the words of Duke Ellington: “If it sounds good, it is good.”
7. Practice every day
I know. This last step isn’t really a shortcut at all. But in a way, it is, for it is the fastest method for learning how to play piano. Faster than practicing every other day or once a week. Strengthen those fingers. Make good music. Above all, have fun.
What are your favorite piano shortcuts?