Piano – The difference between self-taught and professional pianists – Music: Practice – Theory Stack Exchange

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The difference between self-taught and professional pianists

As an amateur pianist, I’ve noticed that I can pick up on the difference between someone who has taught themselves piano, and someone who has had a high-quality piano instructor.

It’s hard to detail the differences exactly, but I would describe the people who have been instructor-taught as having:

  • Greater consistency: repeated playing of a musical piece sounds very similar each time
  • Less jitter: suppose you’re playing the same note or chord repeatedly. The variance of the time between sequential notes is much lower, even if each note is on average played at the correct moment
  • High-quality, “non-exactness”: This is most prominent in the world-class concert pianists. It’s basically where their own interpretation of the music, while not matching the precise tempo or dynamics of the score, still sounds really beautiful. For instance, take Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor. There’s a certain split-second pause that most concert pianists take in the part where it transitions from slow to fast. This is absent in almost all amateur recordings. My own attempts to fake this attribute sound artificial and contrived.

Note that I did not describe a difference in difficulty of the musical pieces. For instance, a self-taught person may be able to play Liszt’s Transcendental Études very well and without mistakes, but it just doesn’t have the same “character” that it does from someone who has taken lessons. You’ll quite often find on Youtube for instance people who have taught themselves very difficult pieces and spent many hours practicing, but it still doesn’t sound the same (as good) as a professional playing a technically simpler piece.

Clearly, I’m generalizing here. But I’ve spent many hours in the music rooms at my local university, and I have noticed a very definitive trend regarding the differences between music students and people who go to the practice rooms for fun, even if the ones who are playing for fun practice many more hours.

I ask this question as someone who is myself self-taught, and I want to figure out the way to make my playing have more of the above three characteristics. I practice for many hours each day, and while technically I guess my music sounds decent to non-pianists, I find my own recordings very unsatisfying and I don’t enjoy listening to them, especially compared to someone who has been taught piano. Ideally, I would sign up for lessons with a good instructor, but I don’t have the money for that right now (grad student), so I’m doing the next best thing, which is asking for advice on here.

More specifically, I’m asking what I need to do while practicing to sound less amateur. Should I practice scales? I’ve never done that before. What is the optimal ratio of play time vs. rest time while practicing? How many hours should be practiced a day, and how should I split up the hours? (Most of my practicing is currently done in 6-7 hour non-stop blocks). Should I repeat the whole piece each time I practice, or focus on 5-10 second subsections? What about hand position and fingering technique; I know absolutely nothing about this and just wing it.

These are a lot of questions, so even a good online reference or a book would be helpful to me.

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