Why I Quit Piano Lessons

Hi One Minute Music Lesson Fans,

As a child I began taking piano lessons at the young age of five. I loved playing music even then and I was always fascinated to learn more at each lesson.

I was encouraged by my parents and piano teacher and I truly enjoyed playing the piano. I would practice most days of the week, but I would often get side tracked by just playing to hear the sound of the piano. I really loved just hearing the timbre and liked the challenge of trying to play melodies by ear. Even as a young child I could slowly pick out the notes of a song through trial and error.

As time went on I progressed and began playing more complicated pieces and I began to realize the difficulty of being good at playing the piano. Reading music was not easy and memorizing pieces was really hard even though my teacher always encouraged me to memorize pieces for our recitals.

At the age of fourteen I stopped going to lessons. I began to feel like I was failing at learning to play better. I also felt guilty that my parents, who were not rich by any means, were wasting money on lessons for me because I was not practicing my music.

But I was still playing my piano almost every day just noodling around and making my own kind of music. I had even began to write down some of the melodies I was creating in a rudimentary fashion.

Then years later I was the piano accompanist for my high school choir. It was an experience that ultimately lead me to wanting to be a composer and go to college for music. I tried to begin piano lessons again so I could prepare for college auditions.

This second go round with lessons was very eye-opening and also emotional. I realized then, at 18 years old, that I had lost so much of my ability to read music since I had not kept up the skill. I also realized that I could have been so much better if I had kept going to lessons during those pivotal years in my musical development.

This really made me sad because I understood that I had lost some of my potential as a pianist.

A year later I was in college as a music student because I had been accepted into music school even though my auditions where in my opinion awful. I had forgotten 2 pieces halfway through playing them that I was to play by memory during the audition and I just did not have the confidence to perform that had when I was younger.

But I did get accepted and I was assigned a new piano teacher. This piano teacher was fantastic at motivating me to play. He was by far the best pianist I had ever see play live and I was so eager to learn from him. He taught me so much about my technique of playing and I grew as a pianist faster than I thought was possible. In fours years of college I has become better than I though was possible. But something still persisted that made me really still feel inadequate in my playing ability.

I was still awful at reading music. I still did not like to practice. I still felt nervous when I played in front of people and I still could not memorize music in a way that I felt sure that I would remember it in concert.

A few years later I had a piano teacher during my master’s degree that I thought was a very nice person but was a horrible fit for me as a piano teacher. She was hyper-focused on my technique and the exact finger placement at all times. So much so that when I played for her in lessons we could not get through even 4 measures of music before she would stop me and correct something about my hands.

This teacher left me feeling a distaste for playing piano from sheet music ever again. Sure, I still loved classical piano and other genres that would require me to read and play from sheet music, but I had decided that it just was not possible for me to progress because there was just something I did not get and unfortunately I would never get it.

Then something happened that changed my life as a musician forever.

I was hired to teach music theory to undergraduates. I had never taught music theory before because this was my first teaching gig. I had understood theory in the context of a classroom setting as a student but I never had to understand it well enough to teach it to another person, let alone a class of 30.

But after a year of teaching I began to realize the potential for music theory with my piano playing. I began to see the structures from music theory in the music I was learning to play and using these skills to read music in a way I had never done before.

At the time I also worked as an organist and pianist for a church. I was now able to use the skills that I was teaching to my students to learn the music for the church services in under an hour. I was learning to read music in a way that I didn’t know was possible.

The key difference was understanding the fundamental of music theory in a way that applied to the music I was playing directly.

I began analyzing the music I had to play each week for church before I sat down to play. Then I was able to play the music at-sight nearly and with a little bit of extra practice I was playing the music perfectly.

At that point I decided that I would never take another piano lesson again because I had learned music theory well enough to solve the problems that I had experienced in piano lessons since childhood.

Did you ever stop taking lessons? Let me know your experience in the comments below.

I will tell you the rest of the story about my time as a piano student on another day. For now just know that if you have struggled with music lessons because you could not read music well or just could not grow as a musician there is an answer to your problem.

Unfortunately most teachers are unable to teach you how to use music theory in your playing because they don’t understand it all that well either. If you want to learn how you can take your playing to the next level, no matter where you are starting from, then you owe it to yourself to learn more about my new music theory and ear training academy opening on August 5th. Read more about it here.

That’s it for today. I hope to hear about your musical journey in the comments.

Until next time: Practice Smart, Not Hard.

Leon Harrell

Where to go next:

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  • http://playbyhearing.com Jason

    I never started taking lessons in the first place, and I guess it shows. I’m a rather average guitar player. I’ve tinkered with the piano a little bit. But I think you’re definitely on the right track with your “music theory and ear training academy “. Good luck to you and your students!

    • leonharrell

      Thanks Jason,

      Yes, theory and ear training open up a world of knowledge that allows you to see the hidden structure of music and can literally save you thousands of hours of practice time. Let me know if you have any questions that I can help you out with.

      -Leon Harrell

  • Madie Xiong

    Dear Leon Harrell,

    Thank you for sharing your piano story. I felt moved reading your story because I went through something similar in my pianist path. I had love for the piano since I was a kid and my parents eventually squeezed together whatever money they could to get me private piano lessons. I loved the piano and I always came up with my own short songs, but I wasn’t too fond of practicing and reading every single note. Even to this day I have a bad habit of filtering out notes when I read a music sheet.

    Winning piano contests was not as hard since it came so naturally to me, but my problem was that I didn’t like to count my beats and sort of went with the feeling. The more I won, the more pressure my parents put on me to always be on the top, to always be PERFECT. What changed my confidence was when I completely forgot more than half a song during my performance at a piano contest. It was embarrassing to keep repeating the song knowing I couldn’t play any further. It was terrifying knowing how angry my parents were at my failure to memorize my piece, I was not perfect and I was not going to be on top. It felt like all my passion left me that day. I was 15 years old. I was a high school freshman trying to fit in. I wanted to explore new things and learn new things. Eventually, my parents discontinued my piano lessons. Years went by and I went on to college; the piano was history.

    My calling happened after I had landed a job (three hours away from my home church). I visited my church and my pastor asked me to play the songs for the sermon because they were tired of using a music box. I remember unwillingly saying yes, my hands and feet shaking nervously as I played the piano, and of course, struggling to read the notes. It had been over half a decade since I read any music. That was the beginning of my new journey.

    Any ways, I now lead a choir. I want to be a better and realistic conductor as well as instructor. No one in the choir knows how to read music so in the past I bypassed it by just having them sing as I played the piano and counted the beats. But I have a vision: I want the choir to be able to read music and have the skills to look at ANY song and within a few hours know how to sing it. But to achieve this, I myself must brush up on the fundamentals. That’s how I came across your website =)

    I want to be a better piano player now that I no longer have to deal with the pressures of being number 1 or being absolutely perfect. But… I realize that I need to “master” in music theory before jumping into play complex songs. Thanks for putting this site together, it’s very helpful!

    -Madie

    • leonharrell

      Hi Madie,

      I used to direct a church choir myself and I know how hard it is to teach music in that situation. I also had a similar experience with learning to be comfortable and in control of my musical development as a church accompanist. I can tell you that music theory and ear training skills are absolutely vital to a high quality weekly church performance. I hope you are able to be one of the initial 30 students in The Academy, I would love to help you in your musical journey and choir development.

      Best of luck with your choir,

      -Leon Harrell