Updated on 12.28.09

2010 Resolution #3: Learn to Play the Piano/Keyboard

Trent Hamm

In an effort to talk about the power of goal-setting along with some methods of setting and achieving goals, I’m going to discuss my four resolutions for 2010 this week.

For several years, a keyboard has sat in our basement, gathering dust. I’ve looked at it often and wished I could play it, but the skill has eluded me and I’ve always found other things to do with my time.

One big problem is that I’m deeply embarrassed to practice in front of other people if I’m completely unskilled at something. Quite often, this would be enough to keep me from practicing in the evenings.

No more. In 2010, I’m going to finally learn how to play this instrument I’ve wanted to play for so long. Not only do I want it as an expressive skill, I want to know how to play as a social skill – something I can do at social events to entertain others.

Making the Goal Specific
For starters, I’ve found a local lady who is willing to give me a one hour lesson twice a week for a very reasonable price. I’ve talked over what I want to do with her and she’s quite happy to work with me on it. I’m also securing use of the piano at the church I attend, allowing me to practice to my heart’s content during the day. At home, I’ll practice on the keyboard to supplement this, likely with headphones at first.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that practice is the single most important thing you can do towards getting better, and that deliberate practice is the best form of practice. I’ve decided to commit to an average of one hour of deliberate practice a day on the piano (or keyboard) and an average of half an hour of free play on the piano (or keyboard) per day. My teacher has a ton of deliberate practice exercises for me to work on during that daily hour (I actually think she’s a bit incredulous that I’m actually going to follow through on this, to tell the truth).

My overall goal is to be able to play a handful of songs well by the end of the year. Many of the pieces are pop songs, but some of them are classical. I’ve got the sheet music (or am acquiring it) for each of these pieces and I intend to practice them during my “free play” times.

Breaking It Down Into Microgoals
Each week, I intend to get in seven hours of deliberate practice and four hours of free play on the piano. I’ve actually penciled in some practice blocks during weekdays when others won’t be around and can’t hear me flailing at the keys and sounding atrocious.

Once a week, I intend to do a “mini-concert,” where I give my best attempt at playing through the songs that I’m trying to learn how to play. I actually plan to make video recordings of these so I can see (and hear) how I’m improving. I’m almost willing to put these on YouTube.

Along the way, of course, I’m going to be learning how to read music, so I’ll also attempt playing a new song each day during my “free play” practice.

I fully don’t expect to wake up in a month – or even a year – and be able to play very well. I do expect some improvement from where I’m at now (which is roughly able to play “The First Noel” with one hand). I want to be able to watch a recording of how I was doing a month earlier and think to myself that I’ve improved – at least a little – since then.

Feedback and Adjustment
One of the biggest reasons I decided to hire a local teacher for this is for feedback and adjustment. She can provide pointers, tell me what I’m doing wrong, and suggest the right kind of exercises for me.

As I get better, I intend to play in front of my wife, who is at least moderately adept at multiple instruments, and ask her for feedback, which she will unabashedly give.

If I find that I’m not coming up with enough time to practice, I’ll find a social activity to drop. I already am leaning toward dropping a few activities in my life that eat up more time than I feel they’re worth and this goal is an important one to me.

Tomorrow, I’ll address my fourth and final 2010 goal – one that will push me to be more frugal.

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  1. triLcat says:

    I think you’re overshooting here. I can’t imagine that you really have that kind of time free that you don’t need to be doing all manner of other things, especially once the new little’un is born.

  2. Ali Hale says:

    Best of luck, Trent! I’m not sure I agree with triLcat — if you find it relaxing, it’s probably a good use of leisure time.

    I started learning the piano as a child, and never liked it much — but I wish now I’d stuck with it; it’d be so useful for church and family events. I’d like to take it up again some day, but this year isn’t the time for it..!

  3. Tom says:


    I disagree. I have been reading TSD for a long time, and I believe that Trent is extremely thoughtful when it comes to creating goals. I believe that we should create goals that will stretch us and cause us to ultimately grow.

    I don’t think that Trent shared these goals with us only to not follow through with them. I think one of the reasons he is sharing his goals with us is to show us that financial discipline requires discipline in all areas of our life. Also, if he shares his goals with a world-wide audience, he knows some of us will probably ask him how the goals are going, which makes him more likely to follow through.

  4. Maria says:

    Good luck! Keep in mind that practice videos are extremely helpful (you might also consider going over them with your teacher), but they also tend to be extremely cringe-inducing (for the person playing, not necessarily anyone else). They confront you with every success and every error that you make and are proof that no matter how far you have come, there is always much more ground to cover. Accept that an emotional response (as opposed to a purely rational response) is natural, that videos are one of the best ways to figure out where your technique is lacking, and keep reminding yourself that it is a tool to make you better. Then you might want to grab a beer, and maybe a hug. I have never met a musician who actual liked the experience of practice videos, nor have I met one who argues the results.

  5. Nick says:

    Good luck Trent! I did a similar goal a few years ago with the guitar and I love it! The daily practice goal is essential, but totally worth it. I think you’ll be shocked at how fast you actually can learn the basics of an instrument once you set out to intentionally practice.

    Once you have that base then you can be a bit more lax with your practice/play.

    Anyway, good luck! Have you thought about teaching your kids as you learn?

  6. heather t says:

    I say good for you! Piano is a good instrument to choose because it gives you a foundation for all other music. Even if you don’t stay with it, I recommend getting the kids involved as soon as you feel they are old enough or they show an interest.

    I’m the one taking cello lessons (commented on the mailbag this week), and I think both dedicated exercises and free play are important when learning a new instrument. I also love the idea of recording my practice sessions. I’ll have to try that.

    I’m sure you’ll keep us posted on the progress of all of your goals; this is one I particularly look forward to reading more about!

  7. Kevin M says:

    Good luck, the progress video idea is a good one!

  8. Maggie says:

    My son is supposed to practice for 30 minutes a day, and even his teacher says time goes REALLY slow when you are practicing. After playing page after page of music, when the clock is checked, only about 10 minutes have passed!

    What the teacher suggested is practice for 10-15 minutes multiple times with other activities in between.

  9. Jennifer says:

    I’d love to hear regular updates on how this goes – I’m one of those that played piano for a little while in grade school then whined enough that my mother finally let me stop and now I wish I’d kept at it. Every year I promise to start playing again (a few years ago my husband even got me a digital piano for our anniversary) and every year I fail to follow thru… perhaps this will be the year I finally pick it back up. :)

    And if you do post videos, I’ll be sure to watch them all. Seeing how much someone /else/ can progress from near zero to playing the songs they like would also be great encouragement that it /is/ possible for me to relearn this.

  10. Kara says:

    Make sure that the majority of your practice is on the actual piano. I took up the piano as a resolution this year, and that was the advice I got. Apparently, piano keys are weighted, and keyboard keys are not. So to get the corret “feel” you’ve got to play the piano. Just my two cents. Good luck!

  11. Adam says:

    Wow…a goal of 11 hours a week? On top of adding diet and excersize for someone who’s currently 40lbs overweight AND has a newborn coming along to add to his other 2 children?

    This seems like you’re overshooting. Best of luck though, its a great resolution to try to learn it and something I wish I had done as a kid.

  12. ashby corner says:

    I’ve been playing guitar for 20+ years, but have never been able to anything more than “play with” a piano despite always having one in my house.

    UNTIL…my five year old (then 3 year old) started the “music for young children” program. It has helped me learn to read music..and since I have to help him with his homework, we learn together, which is pretty cool.

  13. another josh says:

    Your goals for practice are very ambitious. Good luck!

    With regard to the weighted keys issue, if you get an acoustic piano elitist for a teacher, then you’ll hear the standard warnings against practicing on any sort of keyboard. This isn’t true. If your keyboard really has weighted keys – if you can’t lift it by yourself without pulling something, it does – then your finger muscles won’t miss out on any exercise. Inexpensive keyboards often use springs to simulate weights, and this just won’t give your fingers the workout they need to be able to transfer with minimal effort to a real piano.

  14. chacha1 says:

    Great goal. Can you walk (or ski or bike) to your church? If so, this will tie in nicely with the lose-40-lbs goal. :-)

    Like Maggie, I recommend breaking up practice into shorter sessions throughout the day. I also suggest having your new baby in the room with you while you practice. Most of the time, s/he will sleep, but if you vocalize your exercises as well, s/he will probably start to sing along, and then it turns into a game.

    One of my own goals is to start playing the piano again this year. Good luck and have fun!

  15. Colin says:

    I started in June. First instrument ever and without an instructor. Bought the three volume Alfred’s Basic Adult All-In-One set (0-88284-818-6, 0-88284-995-6, 0-7390-0068-3) to learn from.

  16. Mike Sty says:

    Trent, post them on YouTube!

    I am with those who think 11 hours of practice a week is overshooting, but I am sure yo can figure out a way.

  17. nicole says:

    My husband is doing this right now. He’s only been doing it a week or two and sounds better than I did after 2 years (though he’s an adult who could read music from high school band and I was still in grade school when I started with Piano as my first instrument). He’s doing about 30 min a day. (In my lengthy time with lessons I ranged from 30-60 minutes of practice each day.)

    He says it’s a lot like playing video games and is satisfying that particular urge. He is having some trouble with the notes in the clef that he didn’t play in band… if you’re in a similar situation I would recommend spending some of your time doing written exercises (FACE, EGBDF, etc.) to get familiar with the notes. Unless you’re doing Suzuki, of course.

  18. Michelle says:

    Good choice in getting a local teacher. I found that having a teacher was the best help in learning to play the piano. And I agree with the advice to practice as much as possible on a real piano. Unless your “keyboard” is actually an electric piano, the keys are weighted differently and it will be very difficult to play a real piano if you’ve mainly practiced on a keyboard. You might check Craigslist, I once saw someone in the free section giving away a piano, all it needed was tuning. And I’ve also seen nice pianos for sale for just a couple hundred bucks, if you decide that you want to stick with it.

    I think you can do it, I started playing the piano when I was 25, and am now 27, and I am able to play in church on a few days notice and I play for my children whenever they ask. It’s been a very enriching skill to learn, and it can be done in a short amount of time. Good luck!

  19. Derek says:

    Great goal but I too think you’re overshooting. I’d also say to start with 30 minutes and if you’re really enjoying it, play longer. Forcing yourself to sit there for an hour and get frustrated is just going to make you want to do it less.

    I took lessons for about eight years and after not playing for quite a few I’ve recently pulled out an old cheapo keyboard and it’s slowly coming back to me. The basic fundamentals are what you recall (like learning another language, I think) so even if you lose the ability to play like you once used to it takes much less time to catch up.

    A real piano is infinitely better so play at your church as much as possible. I wish I had the space for one right now. A good music teacher is also definitely a good choice. It might just be how I learn but I can’t really teach myself stuff like that. My parents yelling at me to practice maybe had something to do with that as well.

    I also think the micro-goals are kind of dumb but if that’s what works for you, all the better! Good Luck!

    One more thing – I wouldn’t recommend trying to play fifty new songs at once. Rotate between a few and get really good at them. It’s more satisfying than stammering through a piece, not playing it how it’s meant to be played. Pop music is also not a good choice because you’re playing it how you’ve heard it played and think it should sound. Getting some easy music books with nothing you’ve ever heard of is the best way to learn the nuances of piano, in my opinion.

  20. psychsarah says:

    What a neat goal Trent! You’re inspiring me to get my piano tuned and try to fit in some time to play each day. I started taking lessons at 4 years old, and ended up teaching kids when I was in high school, but come university and grad school, I didn’t have access to a piano and therefore never played. I now posses my Nana’s piano but I haven’t made time for it. I’m going to have to think about making a goal for myself in this area. Thanks for twigging my brain on this one!

  21. I like this goal, it reminds me of my goal to take guitar lessons (and of course, learn how to play). Bravo for pursuing another creative outlet.

  22. Bill says:

    Trent was a programmer/Software Engineer, right? There is a tie-in between music and math/programming skills. Good Luck!


  23. HonestB says:

    Trent, as a fan of your blog and a musician, here’s my advice to help you meet your goal:

    -Music is fun. If the exercises you’re doing aren’t fun, don’t be afraid to play around with them to make them more fun. You’ll be more motivated to practice if you think of playing as a relaxing, pleasant part of your day than if you let it become about monotonous exercises.

    -If your hands hurt, STOP. Come back to it tomorrow, and try to figure out what made your hands hurt. You don’t want to get Repetitive motion stress or carpal tunnel, and it’s not that likely that you will from playing keyboard, but don’t “play through the pain”.

    -Teachers are important. Great teachers are hard to find but will make a tremendous difference in how fast and how well you learn.

  24. DB says:

    I’m with HonestB, don’t forget to ENJOY the whole excercise.

  25. That was a great decision to play the piano! I play too and even thought I’ll never ge “good” it is a real relaxing thing to do!

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  26. You should get over your fear of practicing in front of others. I used to have a similar fear, until I realized that it was standing in the way of me learning new things–namely, learning a second language.

  27. Vicky says:


    I’m spending my New Year learning to get better at sewing, something I’ve just started over the past few months.

    I hope your piano playing goes well!

  28. Jean says:

    I am enjoying your resolution posts, and you have inspired me to think about my own resolutions – making them specific (and attainable), and how I am going to achieve those goals. I was a bit concerned, like a few of the other commenters, when you said that you were going to spend 11 hours/week on learning to play, on top of your exercise goals & having a new baby. But I was glad to see that you’ve already thought this through when I read that you are willing to drop other activities to accommodate your new activities. Hapy New Year – I look forward to hearing about your progress through the year.

  29. spaces says:

    I was a pianist for my first career … Make sure you learn to read the notes quickly and at sight. Flash cards work for a lot of people on this.

    And bonus: Playing burns a fair number of calories. :-)

  30. deRuiter says:

    Great idea Trent. From your writings, you spend a lot of time playing computer games, which really don’t seem to have any benefit but passing time and spending money on new / used games and equipment. Learning to play the piano / keyboard will give you a skill if you stick with it. Good luck!

  31. Leisureguy says:

    I HIGHLY recommend the book Playing the Piano for Pleasure, which has all sorts of useful tips, including the tip of doing some sightreading every day. Best to buy it in hardback: he used two-color printing to show how to mark a score, with his marks in red. In the paperback, they printed everything in black. Duh.

  32. Evita says:

    Oh, Trent, it is a worthwhile goal. I like the fact that you are aware of the daily routine that will be needed to learn and progress. But where will these extra 11 hours be coming from?

    I have played music (piano and wind instruments) since age 7 and have put thousands and thousands of hours into practice. I used to tell my adult students that they were entering slavery and was always dismayed when lack of time forced them to abandon.

    But knowing how determined you are in everything you do, I say: go for it! and have fun with it! only personal pleasure will get you through the daily grind!

  33. Brian says:

    Trent, unless your keyboard has weighted keys, you will loathe the plastic compared to a real piano. There really is no comparison so see if you like it and possible get a digital piano with weighted keys later on.

  34. KC says:

    I have a little experience in this area. I was a very talented French Horn player in high school and college and tried to learn the keyboard as a supplement to my musical abilities. I’ve had varying levels of success. But in order for you to succeed you have to get over your hang-ups. Don’t be afraid for people to hear you – its gotta happen. If you really can’t get over it then plug in some headphones. But you are going to make mistakes and you will sound horrible at times. – its part of learning.

    Also you have to set that practice time and stick to it – don’t over commit at first – if you know you only have time for 30 mins a day then don’t say you’ll do an hour – cause you’ll give up.

    And I highly encourage you to tape or video tape yourself – it really does help. I did that with both my piano and horn playing. I never video’d myself, but I think it would be interesting to see how much you strain to concentrate and how tense you are when first playing. I think it will help you to relax while you play.

    Good luck!

  35. Kara says:

    There are some good suggestions here! Who knew that I could come to a PF blog site and learn good tips on practicing piano? I love that.

  36. I’ve been playing the piano for 24 years and teaching for 17 years (I started teaching when I was 14), and I have to agree with those who say an hour a day is a LOT! I don’t think I spent an hour a day practicing until I was in high school and was playing higher-level classical music.

    Even then, I had to break up my practice sessions so as to spare my hands.

    Anyways, when I have beginning students, I don’t give them a time goal for practicing. Instead, I tell them to play each song 5 times a day, 5 days a week. When you’re a beginning student and have really short songs, practicing should definitely not take more than a half hour.

    I hope it goes well for you! I love being able to know how to play the piano, and it’s given me all sorts of opportunities both for fun and for pay.

  37. Lindsay says:

    I just donated my console piano (as it was in perfect working order but never a particularly good piano to begin with). My husband bought me a new digital piano, and I aim to begin practicing again, too, not an hour a day though. :-)

    My digital has *graded weighted* keys. It makes a difference, and yes you will be able to play an actual piano if you have a keyboard with weighted keys.

  38. Leah says:

    I love the carpe diem nature of this goal. I had a lit teacher in college who would say “you want to learn how to play piano? Start tomorrow! In 5 years, you’ll have five years of experience.”

    Good luck with your goal. Please do update us with your progress!

  39. Jen says:

    Does your keyboard have a headphone jack? I’m a “real piano” snob, but I cannot deny the appeal of being able to practice without anyone else listening. I have always disliked playing in front of other people. Also, make sure your instructor understands your goals and will support them–my teacher in high school was a classical snob who wouldn’t teach the music that interested me. That was a major factor in my decision to quit.

  40. Jen says:

    Note to self: read article THOROUGHLY before posting. :-)

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