As a salesperson who works a ton of outside sales events, I often have the opportunity to hear people of all ages play the piano and it’s never a surprise when someone tells me “I taught myself.” I took many years of “formal” piano lessons from professional teachers and I can tell right away whether someone has had professional training by observing the way (s)he plays. I look at things like hand position, fingering and posture and I pay special attention to the player’s rhythm and tone. The biggest giveaway, though, is the player’s musicality (or lack thereof). That’s what really gives it away.
Let me see if I can paint a picture to explain what I mean…
Let’s pretend you have to give a speech about computer technology and you know nothing at all about the subject. You go online and copy a bunch of information from several popular sources. You don’t really understand what most of it means, but it sounds right to you – and you like the site you found it on – so it must be trustworthy. You string it all together just in time to give your speech. Then – due partly to your lack of performance experience and feedback – you perform your speech in an overly loud monotone (basically shouting in a very robotic way), pausing at awkward times, unnecessarily repeating phrases that sound interesting to you and mispronouncing foreign words. Then – halfway through your material – you just… stop and walk away.
You gave a speech… but do you think it was pleasant to listen to? Of course it’s not – at least not to someone who knows anything at all about computer science. It’s the same kind of thing when you learn to play songs from YouTube. You may be able to play the correct notes for the simplified version of the song you learned online, but – if you’re just loudly banging them out with no variation in volume and with very little sense of rhythm – then your songs aren’t going to sound very good – especially to trained musicians.
You have no idea how many times I hear some teen with a group of friends say “I know how to play piano” before going over to an innocent instrument, banging out the first eight bars of Bohemian Rhapsody, and then quickly devolving into the inevitable train wreck. …and that is assuming you can even make out what (s)he was playing in the first place because (s)he held down the sustain pedal the whole time! Don’t get me wrong. I love seeing a teenager show interest in the piano, but I find myself caught between offering some encouraging words and begging him/her to get some REAL piano lessons!
Music is a form of art and – just like any art – it deserves to be fully explored with proper attention to detail and craftsmanship. Anyone can learn to mash out a few bars of their favorite song or spread some finger paint over a blank sheet of paper, but that’s not the same as learning to master the art form. Making a song sound musically pleasant from beginning to end is as challenging as learning to dance a ballet or paint a landscape. You’ll never know what you can achieve until you give it your all.
So. Can you really learn to play the piano on YouTube? The “tough love” answer is – no. You can learn to paint by numbers… but you’ll never discover your true potential without a little professional guidance. Being a musician requires more than just knowing what notes to play. A great jazz piano player once told me, “It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it” and that “how” comes with practice and experience. Use YouTube as a way to judge your interest in learning to play or peck your way through a song or two for fun… but use it as a supplement to piano lessons – not instead of. Take it from me – you’d be robbing yourself of an incredible relationship between you and your piano teacher and a lifetime of memories that you just can’t make online.