Learning Piano in Middle Age: Roundup

Some 30 years after quitting my childhood piano lessons, I’ve decided to give it another shot. I’m trying a bunch of stuff along the way, so I thought I’d share my experiences. This is the summary post that I’ll keep up to date as I try things.

About Me

(In other words, how much is my situation like yours?) I’m a middle-aged software engineer living in London. Our flat is just about the right size for the two of us, which means that I don’t have a lot of extra space for pianos or gear. I’m not looking to become a concert pianist or anything, but I would like to be able to figure out songs from sheet music (or listening), and maybe eventually compose some things of my own.

Everyone on /r/piano says that there’s no substitute for a human teacher, but in the vein of the One-Pushup Challenge, I want to lower the bar enough for myself that I can practice at least 15 minutes a day, and hopefully get better over time, so for now I’m trying self-teaching software.

Diary

What’s working for me

Here’s a quick roundup of what’s been working for me so far. I’ll keep this updated as I progress.

Equipment

  • Nektar Impact GX61 USB MIDI Keyboard
    I wanted a basic 61-key (5-octave) keyboard for practice, and this fit the bill. It’s compact considering its full-sized keys, yet still has a few extra function keys that have been useful for mapping extra controls. It can be leaned on its side to put it out of the way. And best of all, it was inexpensive in case I bail on this project.
  • Stagg KEB-A10 Adjustable Keyboard Bench
    (or Keyboard Throne as the box calls it—I guess I’m now on my way to becoming a Piano Overlord)
    A cheap and cheerful bench that I got to improve my ergonomic position, so that my forearms can be parallel to the floor with the keyboard on my desk.
  • Sony MDR-7506 Professional Headphones
    Classic over-ear studio headphones. I got these because the shorter cord on my pocket earbuds got in the way of the keyboard. These have a nice long cord, and they’ll be handy if I ever get further into music production. Perversely, they were about the same price as the keyboard.
  • My old 2010 MacBook Pro
    I thought I would be using my iPad, but using the laptop has been less fussy, and has allowed for more flexibility in my setup. For instance, it’s allowed me to map the extra buttons on the music keyboard to key combinations in practice software using Keyboard Maestro.

Desktop Piano Learning Software

  • Piano Marvel
    This one’s a bit dry and has a very dated interface, but somehow its basic lessons and drills felt more credible than the ones in Playground Sessions, so I found myself gravitating towards this one. You can do a 30-day free trial without giving any payment information.
  • Musiah
    I’m checking this one out because I read that it checks whether you’re holding notes for the right duration, where neither Piano Marvel nor Playground Sessions seem to. This one has the slickest interface and the most hand-holding out of the ones that I’ve tried. Of course, that means that the super chatty instructor makes it a bit of a slog to get through the basic lessons, but fortunately it has extensive keyboard shortcut support, so I mapped the “skip” button to one of the extra buttons on my MIDI keyboard.
  • Playground Sessions (song practice mode)
    While bounced off of the main mode (see below), as part of the 7-day free trial I got a couple songs to practice with: Lean on Me, plus another song download credit that I used to get the easy level of La Valse d’Amélie. During my first week I had a rewarding experience trying to nail the first few bars of La Valse d’Amélie, and I can still practice the songs without a subscription.

Other Software

  • Keyboard Maestro
    This is a fantastically powerful piece of software for automating macros and turning keypresses into other actions on the Mac. Recent versions have extensive MIDI support, which means that I was able to set up mappings for the extra keys on my MIDI keyboard to control functions (e.g. start practice, next/previous track) in various piano practice apps. You can even set up different mappings for when different apps or websites are active.
  • Ableton Live 9 Lite
    In the future I’ll probably want to play around with recording and production, and Ableton Live is a popular “DAW” (Digital Audio Workstation) application for this. This is a cut-down intro version, so I was able to get a license key for $5 by buying the triqtraq app on my phone (instructions). I’ve already had some fun making dumb sounds by piping an organ through 3 sequential guitar amps, and checking out the awesome TAL-U-NO-LX Roland Juno 60 synth emulator plugin.
  • GarageBand
    My ancient copy of this works fine when I want my keyboard to make some basic sounds.

Music Study Apps For The Commute

  • Waay
    This is a very slick music theory learning app, combining well-produced dynamic typography video lessons with challenging drills. My favorite so far.
  • ReadRhythm Sight Reading Trainer
    The interface for this one is fairly cryptic, but once I read the manual (!) this turned out to be a pretty solid app for practicing reading sheet music note durations and tapping out the resulting rhythms.

What hasn’t worked for me

Equipment

  • RockJam KS-001 Keyboard Stand
    This was cheap, so I got it as a first attempt to improve my ergonomic situation. It worked fine for lowering the keyboard to a suitable height for my desk chair, but it was too bulky to keep set up in my office all the time. I moved to getting a taller bench (see above) and just putting the keyboard on my desk, which makes it easier to move things out of the way when I’m not practicing.
  • iPad 3 with Camera Connection Kit
    Even though it’s very old, it did more or less work with the MIDI keyboard and some of the music apps, but I found myself using the laptop for more flexibility.

Desktop Piano Learning Software

  • Playground Sessions (main/boot camp mode)
    After the 7-day free trial, I bounced off of this. The lessons use a nicer variety of songs than other apps, but somehow it felt like more of a slog to me than Piano Marvel. I may still use it for practicing the free songs I got in it.

Other Software

  • midiStroke and Midi Monitor
    I tried these in my first attempt at mapping my music keyboard keys to other actions. Ultimately, they were too cryptic for me to figure out, but Keyboard Maestro (see above) did the trick instead.