You're the Piano, Man! Part Deux

Still here? Good. It's been a couple months since we last talked shop about the keyboard; I hope you've been practicing. You have been practicing, haven't you? Because you know what happens if you don't practice.

If you don't practice, you don't get a lolly.

On this second installment of our keyboard study, we'll be talking about strategies for aspiring pianists — no snickering! —who are just now getting to know their way around the ivories.

Prelude: Getting situated

First, let's make sure we're on the same page.

You're playing on No Fail mode, right? You can still progress through your career and earn achievements with failing disabled, and it'll save you the heartache of facing a fail screen every couple minutes.

Where's your keyboard? Positioning it in a solid, comfortable location is essential. With dozens of keys to learn and hours of playing ahead, you've already got your work cut out for you, so the fewer variables you have to worry about, the faster you'll improve. Keyboard stands are pretty cheap and are available at just about any music store, although a coffee table or desk works just as well.

If you've got no choice but to play with the keyboard in your lap, make sure you're sitting up and not hunching over the keys. And while I understand the temptation to throw on a guitar strap and take the keytar approach, it makes things exponentially tougher to play. Maybe you'll eventually rise to that highest echelon of nerd-rock badassery, but remember: baby steps.

Are we good to go? Excellent. Make some tea, check your email, set your phone to vibrate and get ready to play some music.

Overture: Easier said than done

Something to bear in mind: You're learning a real instrument. Congratulations! It's a significant accomplishment. But nothing worth doing is ever easy.

Now, I'm no expert on mastering an instrument. When I consider that I've been playing music for two decades, my paltry skills are, frankly, embarrassing. But as an expert on not practicing enough, I think I'm pretty well-qualified to talk about some surefire strategies for improving with a minimal amount of effort.

  • Choose a few songs you like and stick with them. When you really love a song, you're personally invested in learning how to play it. Mastering a song often takes dozens, if not hundreds, of playthroughs, and you'll probably want to build your fundamental skills on songs you can stand to listen to ad nauseam.
  • Don't be afraid to bounce between all the difficulty levels. While enabling No Fail mode removes any negative reinforcement from the game, you're still likely to be discouraged when you can't nail a single phrase in a song. And despite each of the songs being accurately rated for difficulty, there's still a world of difference between "Need You Tonight" on expert pro keys — literally just a one-chord song — and "Antibodies" on medium. Don't be afraid to drop down a notch or two mid-song and re-evaluate.
  • Check out the song-specific tutorials. In addition to the general pro keys training mode, each song has a pro instruments trainer that breaks some of the trickier sections down into easily digestible segments. You can slow them down, repeat them, and take the time to develop the muscle memory required to master those sections.

Coda

If there's one fundamental difference that sets pro keys apart from the rest of the game, it's that you'll eventually be able to play songs with your eyes closed — and play them well. Don't believe me? Here's why:

Your keyboard has 25 keys, but those keys always correspond to the same notes: your middle C is always a C, a B-flat is always a B-flat, and so on. And as you play more, you'll probably find that you begin to match those pitches to the corresponding keys intuitively.

That's no accident. Your brain is learning to associate individual notes and chord shapes with distinct pitches and various sounds: major, minor, diminished, etc. While not everyone has the same natural tendency to pick up on those tones easily, most people will find that the logic of music reveals itself naturally over time as they spend more time learning an instrument.

My best piece of advice: Don't get discouraged. If a song is too difficult to pick up quickly, drop the difficulty or try a more familiar song. If you're not making any progress, take a break for the day. One of the funny things about learning an instrument is how you'll be unable to play a tricky riff or nail a four-note chord one day but it'll come naturally to you the next morning. For months I wasn't able to reliably play a barre chord on my guitar, but one day it just clicked. Never underestimate the power of your subconscious mind.