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The Piano Guy Responds to Wired Story About Using Music Apps and Light-Up Keyboards to Learn to Play the Piano

A recent WIRED magazine story takes aim at music apps and light-up keyboards as a legitimate methods to learn to play the piano for new students of any age. While the author makes some fine points, our own expert at teaching piano for more than 30 years, Scott “The Piano Guy” Houston has some comments about this topic.

First, the author, Boone Ashworth, writes:

Andrew Cooperstock, one half of the piano/violin duo Opus Two, has been a professional piano teacher for over 30 years. He embraces technology enough to use an iPad to read sheet music while he plays, but his educational approach is still mostly conventional. “I don’t think you can really learn to play a musical instrument just by using an app or watching a video or reading a book about it,” Cooperstock says. “I think you need a teacher who can guide you.”

Scott says “I agree – a teacher is vital. But whether that teacher is sitting with you, or is being seen on a video remotely I have found not only is not detrimental, but in fact, can be helpful in the case of adult students who are just too apprehensive and self-conscious to ever be willing to sit with another adult for private lessons and possibly come across and dumb or not talented. That “degree of separation” is exactly what makes a lot of people comfortable enough to jump in and test the waters…”

Next the Ashworth writes:

I don’t know how to read music, distinguish between major and minor scales, or pronounce “arpeggio.”

Scott says “Who cares? You said it yourself here:

My goal is simple: to become as proficient at playing music as I can, as quickly as I can.

The key word there was “playing.” You didn’t say your goal was to become proficient at reading music, or proficient at understanding music theory. I have found it is absolutely vital to break down the preconceived notions a lot of adults have that you cannot sit down and have fun playing a few tunes at a piano without going through all the motions needed to work towards becoming a serious classical pianist. Those are two very different goals, with two very different paths needed to achieve them.”

Another source quoted in the article, an artist named Zhang, had this to say:

“Well, I think first you have to learn how to read the piece, like the notes,” Zhang says.

Scott says “Saying you can’t learn to play something on a piano without reading it first is analogous to saying you cannot learn to speak until you learn to read! How did Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles or George Shearing learn tunes? Music is not contained in black notes on white paper–that is just a “recording” of music, no different than an audio recording. Notes on paper are no more music than words on paper are an oration. You can learn to communicate something verbally long before you learn to read well. Same applies to playing a tune on a piano. Sheet music is not music… what you play is!

Ashworth comments:

Before I can come anywhere close to playing music, I feel that I need to understand the fundamentals.

Scott retorts “I disagree!! What you said earlier is (and I paraphrase) that you wanted to play a tune as quickly as possible and sound good doing it. There will be all the time in the world to learn the fundamentals, and the nitty-gritty of the myriad of things music theory describes, and the techniques that will really allow you to become a great piano player. And any good teacher or method should (eventually) get to all of that. The problem is, unless you can taste how sweet the experience is of actually making music yourself (as opposed to listening to a recording or someone else performing), you’ll never have the motivation to stick around long enough to learn it. As an example, if you offer as payment a bowl of ice cream for finishing a hard task to two people, one of whom has tried it before, and one of whom who has not, it is highly likely the one who knows how good it tastes will stick it out longer than one who does not. That’s why I have found that it is incredibly important to the eventual success or failure of a student to get them playing something THEY love (not necessarily something I as their teacher think is important for them to learn) as fast as humanly possible. Until a new student can experience the sheer joy of music making, trying to dig into fundamentals is, in my opinion, getting the cart WAY out in front of the horse. It is the main reason I’ve found beginning adult students quit most other methods and teachers—and one of the huge reasons we see the success we do.”

Ashworth tested a light-up keyboard by ONE Pianos for his story and says:

The ONE has the edge there, since it is an actual keyboard. The individual keys light up with a dull red glow as they follow the lessons displayed on a companion app.

Scott writes:

“Follow the lights, or follow the colors, or anything that ties a student to one particular instrument has always been problematic for me for this reason: What do you do when you are at someone else’s house and want to sit down to play? One of the GREAT things about playing piano is that you never know where you will run into one besides your own home. I want my students to not be shackled to any technology that would keep them from playing any piano digital keyboard anywhere. “

Ashworth talks about the difficulty of playing different notes with different fingers:

Of course I knew I’d be using both hands to play the piano, but I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to make my fingers hit different notes at the same time. It’s like trying to rub your stomach and pat your head simultaneously

To this, Scott says “Ha! Truer words have never been spoken. That is, without a doubt, the A1 top-of-the-list issue the vast majority of my students run into, and why we spend so much detailed time on it. But in most other methods that is not the case. Why? Because beginning traditional students struggle so much with the importance placed on verbatim note reading that they never get close to testing their mechanical limits until much later.”

Scott then agreed with several things Ashworth wrote including:

After all, competency on a musical instrument is just a means to an end. 


The finished product, the song, is what counts. 


I want to be able to make something. It shouldn’t matter how I get there.

Triple yes!!!

Scott adds, “Again, the goal for someone not necessarily trying to become a concert pianist, but instead to have fun playing, is making music–not necessarily being a good “student” of the instrument.”

Overall, the author and potential player, Ashworth didn’t have the greatest experience and says this —

Maybe it wasn’t a great idea to just decide that I could make something in a medium I hadn’t earned access to.

Scott says, “Earned access to” aggravates me to no end because it is the elitist attitude I find myself pushing back on with a lot of serious musicians that think it is a crime for me to be teaching someone not as talented or committed as they are to just be having fun for the sake of having fun. I don’t think Michael Jordan begrudges folks out shooting hoops in the evening for fun he might see on a drive home because they have not done enough “drills” or gotten in their “2 hours of exercises” every day that it takes to become an elite hoopster.

ANYONE (with fingers) that wants to learn to enjoy playing a few non-classical tunes on a piano in a stylistically and musically correct manner can do just that–in a fraction of the time it would take starting down the path of traditional classical piano.”

8X Emmy Winner Scott “The Piano Guy” Houston’s Piano in a Flash Online Method uses a unique combination of video lessons, popular music, physical songbooks and individual feedback to help adults and seniors achieve their lifelong dreams of playing the piano. So what do YOU think?

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