I'm a violinist, not a pianist - do I need to play the piano?

February 26, 2008 at 06:03 AM · So, auditions for college are fast approaching, and I find myself with yet another dilemma (Am I the only person who has all these problems? I can't be the only one!).

My parents are not musicians. They don't play and have never played an instrument (my mom can read some music, though). Therefore, we don't have a piano, have never had a piano, and will not be getting a piano, period.

This was never a problem when I was younger, because I started the violin when I was five and never stopped. It always kind of struck me as being weird that all my friends played piano in addition to playing another instrument, but I figured it didn't really matter.

Here is the extent of my piano knowledge: I know where A is, where middle-C is, and I can plunk out tunes (including, sadly enough, "Heart and Soul"). But I don't have the slightest idea as to what proper technique even looks like, and I would be hard-pressed to sightread on the piano. Obviously, violin is my passion, and none of this would be a problem except for the fact that pretty much every conservatory requires you to take piano classes, and some even have piano tests as part of their audition process.

Is it really necessary to be able to play the piano to go to a conservatory? I know it helps you hear chords and stuff like that, but I don't even have a piano; if I start taking lessons, how am I going to practice?

I guess my question is (and forgive me for going on so long): should I/do I have to learn how to play the piano before going to college? At this point, it will just be a giant hassle, and I want to be a violinist, not a pianist. I can find notes just fine on the piano, but I definitely can't play pieces on it!

Did anyone else have a similar experience? Did you all have piano skills before going to college? I don't want to not be accepted somewhere just because I can't play the piano. :P

Thanks for any help you can give! :D

Replies (33)

February 26, 2008 at 06:10 AM · I can't tell you whether or not it makes sense to have to learn the piano if you want to become a professional violinist, BUT if you do decide you want to take piano lessons, then I can give you some hints on keeping cost and space requirments down: There are fairly good acceleration sensitive MIDI and USB/MIDI keyboards available which only cost a small fraction of a piano and they take very little space. You can just stand them up against the wall or store them under you bed when you are done practising. Some keyboards have weights inside attached to the keys to make them feel like a real piano keyboard.

You probably have a personal computer already so all you need is a piece of software with the piano sampling. Such samplings are taken from the best grand pianos and are pretty good.

Such a setup should be sufficient for practise if you don't actually intend to become a pianist ;-)

February 26, 2008 at 06:50 AM · Conservatories will require that you take and pass a certain number of keyboard courses to get a degree. If you are a beginner you will simply be placed in the first level.

Some subject that may be emphasized are:




chord progressions

accompanying your main instrument

harmonizing melodies

I think the more training in piano one has before college the better. Besides having an easier time in keyboard class, being able to visualize the keyboard helps a great deal in music theory with identifying intervals and chords. Also, its nice to be able to play back your own harmonization assignments.

Perhaps you have a pianist friend that would give cheap or free lessons?

February 26, 2008 at 07:00 AM · A graduating senior (focus in college is Music Education/Choir) in our area had the same concern and took a summer of piano lessons with us before starting college (10 weeks of lessons). His lessons were more applied in nature (goal: gain understanding of theory concepts at the keyboard) and mostly related to theory, not piano literature/facility at the keyboard. As a result, he was at the top of his keyboard skills classes during his freshman and sophomore years. He also said it really aided him in his theory classes. If would greatly benefit you to pursue some lessons in this way. If you would like to gain some basic understanding yourself, the theory books by Keith Snell are great (ten levels, all from a piano-standpoint). If not as a general theory refresher before entrance exams, these workbooks will help you understand some about the keyboard. As a music major/minor, you will take keyboard skills classes...it's a given. Get a head start, you won't regret it.

As a violinist myself, I have never regretted being somewhat capable at the piano. It won't be a waste of time.

Best of luck!

February 26, 2008 at 10:00 AM · Madeline,

I took piano for four years while also playing violin, that would have been 3rd grade through 6th grade. I stopped because I was simply too busy with violin. To answer your question, though, yes I have found those years of piano extremely helpful in my theory studies, but you don't have to take piano to get into conservatory. It might make things a bit easier for you when you go, but none of the conservatories I applied to required piano studies. They just ask on the application if you have played any other instruments and for how long. I could be wrong but it seems to me if you're a fantastic violinist, they might not care so much if you play piano well or not.

So, it couldn't hurt but maybe it's not absolutely necessary. There were kids in my music theory placement test at one of the very competitive conservatories last month I auditioned at who said they hadn't ever taken theory.

February 26, 2008 at 10:35 AM · Just out of curiosity, which schools require piano as part of an audition into their strings program? I'm fairly certain Juilliard, Curtis, Colburn, NEC, Cleveland, and Peabody don't (just to name a few). Even universities like Northwestern, Rice, USC, and Indiana don't.

Like everyone above me said, having even a very basic knowledge of the keyboard will help loads in theory classes. It's not a bad thing to take the class once you're in. Being able to play the piano is always nice too. I have my own electronic keyboard in my dorm and sometimes I'll bring it out to play little ditties from Amelie or something.

February 26, 2008 at 11:26 AM · This reminds me of a soprano in my ear training class at CIM who could not understand why we sight read in clefs other than treble.

At CIM, we had 2 years of piano and a jury that included a movement of a Clementi sonatina, a Czerny etude, and 3 octave scales and arpeggios in all keys. We also had to accompany 2 pieces for our instrument. Our piano class was with 2-3 other students and was not a fluff class (at least not with Miss Olga). We also had extensive time doing keyboard harmonizations (some on the spot) during theory class. My freshman year was at DePaul university-there, we took a keyboard lab type class and learned more about harmonizing folk songs and transposing. I still can still play "Heart & Soul" in all the major keys.

Why do you need piano?

1. You will have students. You should be able to accompany simple folk songs or at least the book 1 Suzuki stuff.

2. You can figure out the structure of a piece better when you can sit down at a keyboard and see how parts fits together.

3. There are many cheapo keyboards you could buy to at least have familiarity with a keyboard. We did not have a piano in my house either. That doesn't preclude you from needing some of those skills.

4. Remember, the Alberti bass is your friend.

February 26, 2008 at 01:29 PM · Well said Patricia, I agree wholeheartedly.

It may seem strange to have to take piano classes but if all conservatories require you to pass a jury during your undergrad there must be a reason no?

CIM did require a piano audition from what I remember. Even if a conservatory does not require it at the time of audition you WILL be required to take an exam when you attend in the fall for class placement. I entered level 1 with no knowledge of the keyboard like you. I actually felt kind of stupid cause the best best best violinists around me had extensive knowledge of the keyboard and I felt left behind. I continued on my own after my jury. I can now even play a teeny weeny bit of Brahms! Now it helps me to accompany simple pieces for my students and also helps me in my solo work when I have to figure out how my part works with the accompaniment.

You can put this off until your freshman year if you are so against it. But you will have to pass your keyboard classes, and the school will have lots of practice rooms for you to use for this purpose. Take advantage of this class... I have never met a musician who regretted taking piano lessons.

February 26, 2008 at 01:57 PM · German schools require piano proficiency before they'll admit you - you have to perform a prepared piece and do some sight reading in your entrance exam.

In Canada, we didn't have to do a piano audition, but keyboard proficiency was a required first year class (and a prereq for the keyboard harmony that went along with our aural skills classes, if I remember correctly). You could test out of KP if you had done a RCM exam (grade 6 or 8, I think), and you may have been able to audition to get out of it too. Big advantage: one less class = more time to practice. And you'll probably appreciate that in your first year!

February 26, 2008 at 02:45 PM · Agree wholeheartedly with everyone who spoke in favor of piano background, as solid as you can manage, even in this short time. A keyboard will do as long as it has the key size and spacing of a conventional piano. It is possible to rent from a shop for a few months; since playing on a piano feels a LOT different than even a high-end keyboard, that might be a great alternative. Orif you are a member of a church or civic group that happens to have a piano, pay for use, or swap off some volunteer time. // As to your BASIC question: why do I need to do this at all, I want to be a violinist, 1)You can't know now what you may need to do to support yourself as a violinist. If you end up running a studio as your main or supplementary income, being able to accompany your students will be no end practical and cost-effective. Plus you'll be able to provide them some of the useful background detailed by others that you currently lack. 2) If the schools you are interested in and can qualify for require it, they require it. A skilled pianist might be able to audition out of the piano classes in favor of something else, but you'll get exactly nowhere trying to convince them that your needs are so different you should be exempt. (In my head, I hear little voices that say, "Why does she think she's so special??") Sue

February 26, 2008 at 03:14 PM · I like very much what Sue just mentioned about not knowing what you may need to support yourself as a violinist. It's always important to take the unknown of the future into account and having just that additional expertise in another area may change your life. I'm actually taking applied piano lessons at my undergraduate school right now (I'm a freshman, and I began piano 3 years ago when I knew I wanted to do music), and my goal is to really accompany people in the string department within a year or so. Also, the piano music is absolutely wonderful (I'm doing a Bach French Suite, a Beethoven sonata, a Chopin etude), and I can't tell you enough the insight that I'm gaining (esp. the Bach and Beethoven) that I can apply directly to relevant violin repertoire.

I know a member of the Philadephia Orchestra violin section who, when called for, can play as a second pianist and is also the resident harpsichordist. Quite an amazing fellow.

February 26, 2008 at 03:50 PM · I know it seems really dumb to have to take piano, and I felt the same way going into my freshman year of college. At IU we are required to pass a piano proficiency and take group piano class until we can do so. The proficiency consists of scales, arpeggios, sight reading and a prepared piece. It only took me 2 1/2 semesters to finish it, and I, like you, had a very limited piano background. After it is all said and done, I'm glad that I became familiar with the keyboard, because it really helps when you get to some of the more advanced theory and ear training classes. Its especially been helpful for my 20th century music based classes. I even ended up taking piano lessons afterwards, and I actually enjoy playing piano. I've found it to be a great skill to possess, although at the begining I was just as bitter as you about it. It may not seem like it now, but playing piano definitely has the potential to make you a better violinist. Hope this helps!

February 26, 2008 at 08:34 PM · Hello, everyone!

Thanks for all your comments! In response, I would like to learn how to play the piano, and I definitely understand its importance both in understanding music theory and in understanding music in general (perhaps I didn't explain myself well enough), but it would definitely be a struggle for my family to obtain a nice keyboard, get lessons, etc., since everything I do for violin is so expensive already. I think being able to play more than one instrument is wonderful, and I wholeheartedly admire those who can do so.

I have no problem with taking keyboard classes and all that once I get to college. I would enjoy doing so, actually. It will make me a better person and a better musician. I just don't think it is fair for me to have to be able to play the piano acceptably before I get there. Like I said, I grew up without a piano and in a totally (and I mean totally) non-musical family. Had we known earlier that piano skills would be so important before going to college, I am sure my parents would have gotten me lessons. But, since we're not musicians, we didn't know. :)

I guess what I really mean is: I would love to learn the piano, but I shouldn't be required to know how to play it to get into college. I feel a lot better knowing that most schools don't care if you're a complete piano ignoramus before you come there.

I don't think I'm so special; on the contrary, I realize that I am just another of many violinists who will be applying to a handful of excellent schools this fall. I don't want the only reason that I don't get accepted somewhere to be that I don't play the piano, especially since I want to be a violinist. :)

Danny - in addition to a pre-screening recording, audition, and theory test, I believe Mannes has a piano test, as well...

Patricia - I hope I didn't come off as close-minded as that soprano - I do realize the importance of piano, and I love reading in different clefs! :D

Sue - I don't want to be exempt; I just hope that they will understand that I am a total piano beginner. I don't mind taking any piano classes or lessons they throw my way, but I am actually more worried about being rejected from schools solely because I can't play the piano. And, like I said, I don't think I'm special. I just want to do my best. :)

Christopher - you're talking about Davyd Booth, right? My teacher is in the Philadelphia Orchestra, too, and several of my friends study with Mr. Booth. :D

In conclusion, I guess I'll just have to get my hands on a keyboard and start taking lessons! My goal is not to be an amazing piano player; rather, I'll do my best and hope I can become somewhat proficient. Thanks! :DDD

February 26, 2008 at 09:35 PM · Willie M nails it, especially with "its nice to be able to play back your own harmonization assignments." That's good enough reason not to let you in until you can play a little.

February 26, 2008 at 10:41 PM · Greetings,

without piano you will always be a limited violnist and never really know why. Much of making music with this instrument is getting away from tehcnique and leanring how the melodies we create ebb and flow with the underlying harmony. The only way to acquire this sens of music is through the piano.



February 27, 2008 at 12:06 AM · Thanks again for your input! Yes, I understand I will be a limited musician; I do very much want to play the piano, but I will definitely not be a very good pianist before it's time for me to take my college auditions. :P

I'm sorry my original post came out the way it did; I didn't mean that the piano was inferior or that I think I'm too good to play it. I want to play the piano! I just don't think it should affect whether I get into college or not. I suppose that is my main gripe about this piano business. :D

I am more than happy to learn the piano, especially once at college. I just want to get in, regardless of how bad I am at the piano! :)

February 27, 2008 at 12:24 AM · fear not,many colleges will be more than happy to accept your tuition,just assure yourself you are paying for the best you can in music education.

remember,college & university exist only through the collection of funds-its big business !

you will be paying them,go to the school-or teacher- with the greatest return on your investment !

February 27, 2008 at 12:53 AM · Haha true Joe, in the end they do have to pay the keyboard teachers after all. But no school is going to stop you from going because of piano skills. Those tests are so that they can place you in the right classes when you do go. Other schools have the piano test in the beginning of the semester. Mannes does it during the audition and get it out of the way so you can start classes without delay.

Madeline, you keep stressing the point that you're from a non-musical family. Don't let that hinder you because it is not so tragic. My parents didn't know (and still don't know) squat about music and majorly discouraged my from pursuing music. I started the violin at 14 and went on to audition and get accepted to conservatories, without a decent violin and no piano experience.

Here's a typical conversation with strangers when my Dad is asked about my musical pursuits.

Stranger: Where did your daughter get her musical talent?

Dad: From me of course

Stranger: Oh yea? What do you play?

Dad: I play the radio.

February 27, 2008 at 01:37 AM · Hi, Marina!

Thanks for sharing your wisdom and personal experiences! :D

Wow, you started when you were 14? What made you want to pick up the violin? I don't remember starting the violin as a conscious choice; since I was 5 when I started, I feel like my parents saw my friend playing the violin (her parents are professional musicians, and her mom was my first teacher) and decided it would be a good idea to give me a little violin of my own. I'm eternally grateful to them for that, and I appreciate how much they have supported me in a field they are unfamiliar with. Kudos for having the motivation and determination to succeed in such a short time; you really did something amazing! :D

You're right - it isn't tragic at all to have non-musician parents, and sometimes, seeing the pressure the musician parents of my friends put on their kids, I'm glad they're not musicians! :)

But seriously, though, I'm looking forward to becoming the best violinist and person I can be, and, believe me, I'm looking for the best teacher and the best school I can get. I don't want to just be a tuition payer. :D

February 27, 2008 at 03:01 AM · Truthfuly it can be hard sometimes to accept the fact that my parents weren't into music. In conservatory I was faced with the reality that most people around me were raised surrounded by music and I just didn't have that. I always felt it was the skeleton in my closet and my biggest downfall. My parents didn't know how to seek out performance opportunities for me and as a kid I didn't know much either. I always wonder what could've been if I'd had the chance to play since the age of 5. But everything worked out as well as it could and hey I make my living as a violinist. What more could I ask for? It may even have been a blessing in disguise.

February 27, 2008 at 04:14 AM · My teacher is actually first a pianist then a violinist. When I worked with him he was constantly talking about the music in terms of the underlying harmonies. I was lost. My decision to end study of repertory with him was based on my inability to keep up with the discussion of harmony.

I haven't studied regularly with him for 6 years but I do occasionally seek a technical consultation.

Had I been able to play the piano with modest facility I might have chosen differently.

February 27, 2008 at 05:30 AM · "Truthfuly it can be hard sometimes to accept the fact that my parents weren't into music. In conservatory I was faced with the reality that most people around me were raised surrounded by music and I just didn't have that. I always felt it was the skeleton in my closet and my biggest downfall."

The value of your talent is inversely proportional to how bugged you are by...crap that trivial. In other words, there are much better places for people to put their attention and energy.

"I always wonder what could've been if I'd had the chance to play since the age of 5. But everything worked out as well as it could and hey I make my living as a violinist. What more could I ask for? It may even have been a blessing in disguise. "

It was a blessing in disguise, if you like yourself. Simple. But just to assure you beyond any doubt that it was a blessing in disguise, I glimpsed the alternate timeline in which you began lessons at 5. You were run over by a car on the way to a lesson at age 13. Somebody's apparently taking care of this, so don't worry about it.


February 27, 2008 at 05:48 AM · it wa s a Volvo so don`t worry about the passengers.

February 27, 2008 at 06:00 AM · It was hard to decide what was saddest, as usual.

February 27, 2008 at 06:43 AM · a used car salesman and a grieving widow describe an elephant differently?

February 27, 2008 at 08:34 AM · "...But just to assure you beyond any doubt that it was a blessing in disguise, I glimpsed the alternate timeline in which you began lessons at 5. You were run over by a car on the way to a lesson at age 13. Somebody's apparently taking care of this, so don't worry about it."

This made my day.


February 27, 2008 at 12:15 PM · Since she didn't start until she was 14, she wasn't even in the same city as the car, which just hit a pole and burst harmlessly into flames.

February 27, 2008 at 06:48 PM · Ok so I wrote that kind of late last night and was listening to Barber's Adagio for strings and I came off sounding a little pathetic and tragic and self pitying. Shucks, didn't mean that. I know everything worked out because I darn well made sure it worked out. I'm living the life I sought.

February 28, 2008 at 02:35 AM · Life can be very unpredictable for musicians: we can start out in school thinking we will be a soloist, or in an orchestra, or this or that. The truth is, it is difficult, if not impossible to know where your career will lead. When I was in conservatory, I had no idea that someday I would be teaching sight-singing or history or theory.

But having taught college classes, I was REALLY glad I was able to peck out some chord progressions and melodies.

The key to being a successful musician these days is versatility:

Learn some piano. Learn some conducting. Learn some arranging.

You never know.

February 28, 2008 at 03:18 AM · Basic piano proficiency is essential for a college music major for many reasons. It will be an invaluable aid in theory classes as well as in form and analysis classes. Most of the assignments will be on the grand staff and the early material is usually in chorale form (4 part harmony), which cannot be played on a bow stringed instrument (classical guitarists have no problem with it.). Also, most university music programs require students to pass a piano proficiency exam to graduate. Last but not least, if you become a teacher or conductor, the piano is an invaluable tool.

You don't need to become a concert pianist, but basic keyboard skills will help a lot.

February 28, 2008 at 03:21 AM · The key to being a successful musician these days is versatility:

Learn some piano. Learn some conducting. Learn some arranging.

So true.

February 29, 2008 at 04:20 AM · Thanks for your responses!

As I've said before, I'll take any piano course necessary once I'm at college. I'm more than happy to do so. I just don't know if it's absolutely necessary to learn it now, seeing as I have so little time left to actually learn how to play!

I talked to my parents about it, and I'm probably going to have to practice on either the piano at my school (very, very out of tune, but it doesn't really matter) or at my church (also out of tune...haha). Anyway, I'll probably still be completely piano-challenged when I go to college, but, hopefully, I'll be able to use all ten fingers instead of just plunking notes with my index finger. :P

Thanks again! :)

March 1, 2008 at 03:14 AM · I am a pretty good violinist but I failed basic piano twice in college. When I need to accompany a student, I usually play the melody line to the piano part on my violin. Otherwise it's pretty much a disaster!

March 1, 2008 at 06:54 AM · Madeline, practising piano on an out of tune instrument is a very bad idea. When I was a teenager, my parents purchased a garbage piano shaped object because we didn't have the money for a proper one and back then there were no personal computers and MIDI keyboards available. The piano couldn't be tuned properly and it was a total disaster. Eventually I gave up in frustration.

Of course your situation is somewhat different since the piano isn't your main goal (as it was back then for me) but you still won't get much out of your practising if the piano is out of tune.

Get a MIDI keyboard and hook it up to your PC. Even a cheap MIDI keyboard will be better than an out of tune piano.

For example, the Keystation 88ES from M-Audio is a full-size 88 keys piano keyboard with USB interface and Amazon sell it for 200 USD. It has got so called semi-weighted action keys which means the keys have weights attached that make it feel like a real piano keyboard (heavier). It is only five inches thick and weighs only about 20 pounds. You need to buy the pedals separately though (about 20 USD).

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