two men at piano with sheet music

Am I A Lost Cause If I Was Classically Trained?

Hi gang – I wanted to share a question I received recently, and my response, as it is something I’ve answered many times in the past and I think it will be of some value to a lot of you reading this blog who have taken classical piano lessons in the past. I hope this helps you as you are exploring the possibilities of learning non-classical styles in the way we do.


“Hi Scott. I am considering purchasing one or more of your courses but I am not sure where I should begin.  As a child, I was given private lessons – I did not like to practice and my parents gave up forcing me, but over those few years, I absorbed some music theory and learned to read music.  Later in life, as a mother, I sent my two daughters to private lessons like those I attended as a child.  Same story, could not keep them interested, so I took their music books and got back into lessons myself with their teacher for a couple years, refreshing some of my childhood learning. Then I continued on my own for many years, teaching myself to play intermediate classical pieces.  Then I got into the work force and dropped piano for many years.”

“I am now retired.  I want to get back to playing, but my command of music theory and my ability to read music are both very rusty.  I can’t seem to get back the music that I was able to play years ago.”

“I do not want to go back to private lessons for a number of reasons.  I would like to try your method but I have a few questions:”

1) “Will the music books that accompany the lessons provide the underlying music theory and the complete musical notation (in addition to the kind of abbreviated notation you reference in your advertising)?”
2) “Are my classical training and your method mutually exclusive?”
3) “I completed the free intro lesson pretty easily.  Should I begin at the beginning or start with a later course?”


Thanks for the note with your question… That helps a lot hearing about your previous background as it relates to piano. You are far from being alone! Let me take a crack at answering each our your questions:
“Will the music books that accompany the lessons provide the underlying music theory and the complete musical notation (in addition to the kind of abbreviated notation you reference in your advertising)?”
Yes – and no. As to the theory behind how we play in the styles we do, absolutely yes. And that occurs not exclusively in the books by any means, but also in depth in the lessons you will be watching that are tied closely to the books. Keep in mind I had the luxury when developing this online learning environment to develop the lessons I teach and the course materials in a tightly integrated manner. Neither is sufficient by itself, but with both (I am constantly discussing, expanding upon, and referring to the books during the lessons) it is turning out to be a pretty unbeatable “one-two punch” if you will. I’m just stressing that because from your question it kind of sounded like you might be thinking the books are more important than the video instruction, which is not the case. If all you will have access to is the books, I am probably not a good fit. You absolutely need (and want) both as you work through the Courses.
Now as to the clear “no” to your question … The written notation we use throughout the 6 Course Books and the 3 Music Books is exclusively in Lead Sheet format. You will never find traditional classical notation (i.e. Grand Staff with both Bass and Treble Clef) used. I know it might be hard for you to wrap your brain around at this stage, but that is a good, not bad, thing for the situation you find yourself in. You are welcome to keep reading traditional notation while trying to play any classical repertoire (which i encourage you to do!) But, it is not only a waste of time while learning non-classical genres, it is actually a hindrance because it furthers the incorrect notion that what you play in detail should in some way already be decided for you by someone else.
It is very much a 180º turn mentally for a lot folks who have always considered black dots on white paper to BE music, as opposed to just be a recording of music. It sadly is what causes the “Oh, but I didn’t bring my music …” situation that arises so often when folks want to hear someone play. In addition, it keeps you from learning the most important music theory you need to play in these styles–reading chord symbols. So no, we stick to the musically “correct” style of notation for what it is we are learning and playing, that being lead sheets.
“Is my classical training and your method mutually exclusive, or are they complimentary?”
They are absolutely complementary! That’s the great news! Your previous experience at the piano will put you in good stead in multiple ways such as already being completely comfortable reading a one-note-at-a-time line in only the treble clef, and the finger dexterity and familiarity that comes naturally from the number of hours throughout your life that you have already sat behind a piano keyboard. On the flip side, the theory understanding you will acquire from learning to play chord progressions from chord symbols (as opposed to seeing everything notated) will give you unprecedented insight into your classical pieces once you go back and play them and start realizing you are playing many of the same chord progressions. It’s truly eye opening in a holistic sort of way.
“I completed the free intro lesson pretty easily.  Should I begin at the beginning or start with a later course?”
I think I would suggest you start with Course 2 (or 3.) I absolutely think you should skip Course 1. In Course 2 you will possibly already know a lot of the “basic music” stuff I discuss (like some roadmap things like repeat signs, and some beginning notation stuff for true beginners) but in spite of that you will also get a LOT of eye opening “brain explosion” stuff for folks like you who have studied classical piano previously. I think it is well worth going over some things you may already know, to hear some of the more seminal “big picture” things such as–DO NOT try to read the lead sheet verbatim as it is intended to be interpreted as you see fit, or things like “play it the way it sounds best to you, not necessarily the way it is written.” I know it probably sounds like sacrilege to you at this point, but we are learning something far away from traditional classical piano and it takes a mental shift to separate the rules of classical from non-classical piano.
If you really wanted to start further ahead you could start with Course 3, although I will be mentioning things in the lessons I had referred to earlier now and then (that may be a bit confusing.) You can take a look here to see in-depth what is covered in every Course:
I hope that helps in your thought process.
Happy Playing!
– Scott
  • Bill Olson
    Posted at 15:23h, 11 April

    I played trombone from 5th to 8th grades and learned to read bass clef. I get bored easily and my sisters (both older) had stopped playing their clarinet and alto sax and teaching myself how to play them I learned treble clef.

    I also taught myself how to play Jesus Christ Superstar and the Hawaii 5-0 theme song on my mom’s organ without sheet music. But I also taught myself (there is a theme there) how to play a couple very simple classical pieces on organ (since I didn’t have access to a piano or “keyboard”).

    I’ve learned multiple other instruments also (violin, mandarin, etc.).

    One that I struggled with was organ/piano/keyboard until I saw your “Piano in a flash” on PBS and bought some of your books.

    My answer to the biggest difference “to me” between classical and your style of music is “freedom”. In classical music you are expected to play “as is”. With your style you play “as you sing it” with whatever moods strikes you.

    I’m an off again, on again keyboard player. When I play your way I feel a freedom to play or sing the melody and to “noddle around” at my basic level and I love it. It’s music “my way” and not someone else’s. Like you say, what is written is not music. It is just a suggestion of what notes to play and **approximately** how to play it.

    But you can play a song with any style from Jazz to Blues to … take you pick and play to your level and as you can learn more and have more fun noodling around. Try that with classical music and … STOP. Do NOT pass go. Do NOT play it a you feel it but as it is written. Sorry, BORING!!! Your way is much more fun.

    Thank you for being there.

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 15:55h, 18 April

      Thanks for sharing Bill. 🙂

  • Dianne
    Posted at 18:48h, 11 April

    I studied piano for years and am comfortable with standard music books with full notation. BUT learning to play using chords and a lead sheet is a total blast! I already knew the chords to put with the right hand melody but could only play them as stiff plain chords. With Scott’s lessons and free videos, I’m learning to make it sound like music…playing arpeggios, adding fills, adding extra chords.

    I am thankful for all the piano study that I did growing up. It made playing the lead sheet a breeze. But Scott gave me permission to use a lead sheet as a starting point and then make it mine.

    Even with the fully written music, I finally figured out to play it like I want to. Skip the hardest chords and only play a note or two from them. If I can’t reach a big chord, switch it around to something that fits my hand. So, yes…this is totally compatible with your traditional music background. This is just SO much fun.

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 15:55h, 18 April

      Glad you are having fun Diane!

  • barbara brock
    Posted at 19:31h, 11 April

    I bought the complete course and am extremely satisfied with how things are going. I have noticed, however, a reference above to a 3rd book (in addition to the course books)……Is there a 3rd Gig Book? I only received 2. They’re awesome, but I have also seen referenced along the way a couple a reference to Over the Rainbow (course 4, pg. 21). I would love another Gig Book!

    • Ryan Eldridge
      Posted at 09:55h, 12 April

      Hello! My name is Ryan and I work with Scott at Piano In A Flash. You should have received two gig books, and then another called Scott’s favorites and holiday song fake book. It does not say gig book on it, but acts in the same capacity.

  • Frank East
    Posted at 19:32h, 11 April

    Hello Scott,
    I am familiar with this discussion of the “classical” approach to learning music vs. the “lead sheet” approach, and find it most interesting. It is good that this lady brought up the issue, and glad you brought it to out attention.
    I had the usual classical introduction to music as a kid (by piano students from Julliard) and managed to dope out the famous first part of the “Moonlight Sonata” but that was it–a big failure for me in general. It wasn’t until thirty (sic) years later when I took some bluegrass (three finger picking ) banjo lessons from former national banjo champ, Roger Sprung, that I really became interested in basic music theory, which to me is essentially composed of chording and harmony. Roger taught a chord based system wherein the right hand picking essentially appegiates (sp?) the chord structures. So I learned a lot from him although I had played mountain style (“clawhammer”) for years previously. Obviously, I was searching for something, and eventually left the banjo– sadly because of hearing problems (the 5 string bluegrass banjo can be pretty hard on the ears) for a Hayden Duet concertina, finding a home at last! This great instrument enables me to harmonize and do chording (using lead sheet music when necessary) with the left hand, and melody with the right hand. Instead of a keyboard, it uses a button board as you probably know. Works very well and the instrument is very versatile allowing exploration of many popular, folk, and other types of music. To this end, I use a number of your techniques I found in one of your first books (“Piano In a Flash” was it called?) and am grateful for that. I also like to read books on music theory. To me–as to you apparently–music is all about the chording/harmony, as picking out the melody is pretty undemanding. (I guess that is why I left the clarinet after trying that for a few years, again with a Julliard tutor).
    The upshot of all this is to say that I really appreciate your approach to music learning, even though I play a Duet concertina! Go figure!. So many thanks to you.
    I hope you find this rambling discourse of some interest!
    All the best,
    Frank East.

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 15:57h, 18 April

      Good story! Thanks for sharing Frank …

  • sandra stevens
    Posted at 21:22h, 11 April

    Hi Scott do you have any lesson books on gospel

    • Ryan Eldridge
      Posted at 09:59h, 12 April

      Hello Sandra! My name is Ryan and I work with Scott here at Piano In A Flash. There are many gospel songs that can be found in the course books and gig books that Scott provides in his Courses! His method is great for learning how to play gospel style songs! if you want to learn and see what songs you can learn in each course, you can follow this link:

  • Peter Vogl
    Posted at 03:17h, 12 April

    Hi Scott, what a silly question. I live in Salzburg the city of Mozart and know that modern pop musicians have stolen great amounts of music from our genius.