The Power of Doing over Knowing: The Biggest Downfall of the Adult Piano Student

Are you an aspiring pianist who has spent countless hours watching videos and/or reading articles on music theory and piano playing? And do you find that despite all that time spent, your playing skills are rather lacking, so you search and search for that magical article or video that will finally help you figure it all out, will transform your abilities, instill confidence and allow you to play with freedom and passion?

It’s time to press the pause button. Because what you’re doing isn’t helping you.

In today’s blog I want to talk about a sneaky trap some adult piano students fall into that ultimately greatly hinders their goal of becoming a proficient pianist.

The trap? Being overly fixated on acquiring musical knowledge rather than actually playing the instrument. Or believing that accumulating vast amounts of theoretical knowledge will somehow make the act of playing the piano easier.

Does this sound familiar: “Once I can read the music fluently, I’ll be able to play it well!” or “Once I understand the harmonic progression underpinning this music, I’ll be able to play this piece much better” or “Once I understand what all the possibilities are to improvise, I will be able to improvise!”

Students like this always find reasons for why they can’t do something, and almost always those reasons are based in intellectual shortcomings.

However, this line of thinking fails to recognise that true mastery comes from time spent at the keyboard practising and developing one’s musicality. It does NOT come from spending countless hours studying music theory, analyzing complex compositions, and delving into the intricacies of musical notation.

While these aspects are important for a well-rounded musical education, you shouldn’t let this overshadow the practical aspect of playing the instrument itself. The piano is a physical instrument, and proficiency can only be achieved through consistent practice and hands-on experience.

In reality, the path to mastery lies in finding a balance between acquiring knowledge and spending ample time practising the instrument. By dedicating regular practice sessions to honing your playing skills, you will develop muscle memory and improve the physical abilities needed to play, from finger dexterity to whole body coordination.

Ultimately, if you’re piano student, you must recognize that while knowledge is valuable, it is the act of playing the instrument and investing time in practice that will lead to true mastery.

Music theory will NOT automatically improve your playing

Let’s be clear: music theory is an essential aspect of learning to play the piano. It provides a framework for understanding the structure, harmony, and composition of music. It enables us to decipher the intricate patterns and relationships within compositions, enhancing our ability to interpret and express musical ideas. By studying theory, pianists gain insight into scales, chord progressions, harmonies, and various compositional aspects that shape their playing.

However, it is crucial to recognize that having a deep understanding of theory is not going to achieve mastery in piano playing.

Theory vs. Playing Skills

While music theory imparts knowledge, playing the piano requires a different set of skills altogether. Knowledge of theory alone does not guarantee the ability to execute complex passages, convey emotions through touch, or maintain a steady rhythm. Playing the piano demands physical dexterity, coordination, and the development of muscle memory – skills that cannot be acquired by studying theory.

Physical Dexterity and Coordination

Playing the piano involves intricate hand movements, finger independence, and coordination between both hands. These physical aspects require practice and repetition to develop muscle memory and refine technique. While theory may guide us in understanding the notes and their relationships, it cannot substitute the hours spent at the piano, training our hands to execute the desired movements accurately.

Expressing Emotion and Musicality

One of the most captivating aspects of playing an instrument is the ability to convey emotions through touch and dynamics. While theory may provide insights into the composer’s intentions, it is the pianist’s interpretation and expression that brings the music to life. The subtle nuances, phrasing, and articulation cannot be learned solely through theory; they require a deep connection between the player and the instrument.

Rhythm and Timing

Maintaining a steady rhythm is crucial in piano playing, as it provides the foundation for the music. While theory may explain the concept of rhythm, it is only through practice that you can develop a sense of timing and internalize the pulse of the music. The ability to execute complex rhythms accurately requires dedicated practice and an innate understanding that theory alone cannot provide.

Harmonic awareness

Theoretical knowledge provides an understanding of chord structures, progressions, and harmonic concepts. However, playing and improvising with chords requires practical application and hands-on experience. It involves physically playing the instrument, understanding the sound of different chord voicings, and developing the necessary muscle memory coordination to play any chord in any inversion. This practical aspect cannot be grasped by studying theory, it can only be acquired by playing chords in a variety of contexts.

Creativity and expression

Playing the piano is an art form that involves creativity and expression. While theory can provide guidelines and frameworks, it is the individual’s creative intuition and personal style that bring music to life. Theory alone cannot teach the nuances of phrasing, dynamics, and emotional expression that make chord playing and improvisation compelling. It is through experimentation, exploration, and personal interpretation that one develops a unique musical voice.

Knowledge also does not automatically lead to musicality

Another pitfall can be that a lot of aspiring pianists may mistake studying theory for building their musicality. Music theory and musicality are two distinct concepts in the field of music. While they are related and often intertwined, they refer to different aspects of the musical experience:

Music theory is a systematic study of the structure, composition, and notation of music. It provides a set of rules and principles that help musicians understand and communicate musical ideas. Music theory encompasses various elements such as rhythm, melody, harmony, form, and notation. It explores how these elements work together to create a coherent piece of music.

Musicality, on the other hand, refers to the innate or developed ability to understand and express music in a meaningful and artistic way. It encompasses the emotional, expressive, and interpretive aspects of music. Musicality involves elements such as phrasing, dynamics, articulation, and the ability to convey the intended mood or emotion of a piece.

Musicians with a strong sense of musicality have a natural feel for the music. They can bring life and emotion to their performances, interpreting the composer’s intentions and expressing that to the audience on a deeper level. Musicality often involves improvisation, creativity, and the ability to adapt and respond to different musical contexts.

Building your musicality is crucial for anyone looking to become a better piano player, improviser, or composer. But it cannot be enhanced by reading about it or watching video after video on various concepts. Musicality is a lived experience. You enhance it by:

  1. Training your ears: Ear training is crucial for developing your musicality. Start by listening to different genres of music and try to identify the different elements such as melody, rhythm, harmony, and dynamics. You can also practice identifying intervals, chords, and scales by using online ear training tools or apps.
  2. Practice musical expression: Focus on playing with expression and emotion. This involves paying attention to dynamics (loudness and softness), phrasing (shaping musical phrases), and articulation (how notes are played). By emphasizing these elements, you can bring life and personality to your performances.
  3. Improvisation: Improvisation is a great way to enhance your musicality and creativity. Start by improvising simple melodies over a chord progression or a backing track. Experiment with different scales, rhythms, and articulations. As you gain confidence, try improvising with more complex harmonies and chord progressions. Improvisation exercises will help you develop a deeper understanding of music theory, improve your ability to express yourself musically, and enhance your overall musicality.


Watching videos, grasping concepts, making connections are all wonderful activities that are important in building your overall knowledge of music, but they will never substitute for actually practising your instrument. The physical dexterity, expressiveness, and timing required to play the instrument proficiently simply cannot be acquired by reading, watching or listening.

It can only be gained by making the physical movements required to create sound, in other words, by playing the piano.

While it is admirable to want to deeply understand the music you play, and indeed it can bring another dimension to your understanding and appreciation of music, without dedicated practice you will never be able to truly master the instrument.

Remember, theory may lay a part of the foundation, but it’s the hours spent practising your instrument that will lead to true piano mastery.

So if you truly want to become a skilled piano player, there is only ONE thing that is going to lead you there, and that it spending time at the keyboard, over and over again, day in, day out. Stop researching, and start doing.

If you like some more help and creating (and sticking to!) a practice routine, check out my blog here!

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