How does "a little bit of piano" help your expertise on violin?

November 19, 2019, 3:46 PM · Like billions of other people, I play "a little bit of piano", and even quite a bit more piano in solo jazz and ensemble jazz and commercial music contexts.

Of course, some grounding in hearing harmonic progressions comes from this (limited) piano skill, but I have had dozens of students learn to hear chord progressions, using recordings and one finger piano technique on chord roots.

I do agree that quite a high level of piano skill can help a musician efficiently experiment and test chord progressions, (in style, even), and this a great advantage to these people.

But is a few years of basic piano of any use whatsoever to an aspiring violinist?

How has it helped you?

Replies (32)

November 19, 2019, 4:24 PM · I don't know about piano, but I played classical guitar for many years. However it was the study of musical theory that assisted me with understanding.

November 19, 2019, 4:51 PM · I think it does because you are likely to have a bigger picture of music overall vs. someone who only plays the violin. Understanding chords and harmonic progressions can definitely help any string player.
November 19, 2019, 5:06 PM · Studying harmony is great for every musician, and learning piano at the same time is great as well. Basic keyboard skills are useful to help with harmony and music theory.

One of the great things about the piano is that all the notes are there for us to see and it makes visualizing the relationships between the notes of a chord and other intervals so clear.

November 19, 2019, 5:07 PM · I agree with Karl.
I can add that for me, my modest level of piano playing had nonetheless "woken up" my left hand before starting the viola.
Edited: November 19, 2019, 5:46 PM · Both my kids play the violin and the piano - both Suzuki Methods. The piano teacher is glad the kids are learning to play the violin because she claims it's helping our children progress very well in their piano lessons. The violin teacher is glad the kids are learning to play piano for the same reason. I concur with Karl's post. I learned to play both piano and violin, although I always gravitated towards the violin.
Edited: November 19, 2019, 5:56 PM · Having a feel for the piano keyboard is useful because it gives the player a better sense of chords and harmony and theory generally. Why? Because it's visual. You can see your harmonies laid out in front of you. You can explore intervals and chords and progressions without the obvious, serious physical constraints of the violin. Now, a violinist with a profound command of the fingerboard may not need that, but show me a young student who has that command. I play more than a "little bit" of piano and I've found it very very helpful, and I think it would be even more useful if I were teaching violin.
November 19, 2019, 5:57 PM · When I was 5 yeas old I used to check out some of my violin melodies on our piano. I also did it sometime later as well.

So I have to agree it can be a good idea.

Edited: November 19, 2019, 6:25 PM · Not sure that 1 in 3 persons (or more) plays the piano (billionS = at least 2 out of 7 billions people on earth) ;-) but I see several ways it can help however: rhythm, scales, notation reading, tempo, harmony (3rds, 5ths etc.). You learn all of these and you are way ahead on the learning curve.
November 19, 2019, 8:38 PM · For starters; piano skill is needed to do the college music major theory courses. At my school they decided to include keyboard harmony, piano score reading, figured bass, etc. as part of the combined theory classes. I am terrible at piano, so I got mostly C 's and went through most of my life thinking I was not good enough at theory to consider doing arranging and composing.
November 19, 2019, 9:39 PM · Studying harmony and studying piano are … different things. People often link them together because they learn them together, many good harmony students don't play piano to any extent, and lots of good pianists actually don't know a lot of harmony.

But, when advanced string players are happily bowing away, how on Earth do they link this to basic piano skill? Sure, I hear the harmony the music at hand through the orchestra or piano, as I am playing, but I wonder if my skills on piano have any impact whatsoever on my playing.

November 19, 2019, 10:46 PM · Advanced students are probably past needing to visualise a keyboard , but I cannot imagine learning any non linear instrument, without being familiar with the layout of keys on a piano keyboard. How do you get your head round the fact that there’s only a semitone between b &c and e&f and a whole tone between the others?
Scales and arpeggios are much easier to understand if you can see them laid out ( or is that just because I am a visual learner?)
A few years of basic piano gets you quite a long way,
I’ve forgotten most of the theory I learned ( on the piano) which seemed to come by osmosis during lessons.
I stopped when it started to get difficult, but for now, what I’m left with is enough.
Edited: November 20, 2019, 3:09 AM · Similarly to Rosemary, I sometimes wonder how anyone learns to read music without at least being familiar with the piano keyboard.

Other than that, my 12 years of piano lessons before starting on strings mostly helped with the basics: knowing what scales and intervals sound like, and finger and hand independence. Eventually, understanding harmonies and chord progressions gives insights into phrasing and expression.

November 20, 2019, 6:31 AM · To answer Graeme, I might guess that there are perhaps *some* who never have any need of piano instruction to be perfectly fine with harmony, theory, and so forth. But from what I've seen the majority are helped by it. I personally was helped tremendously -- rhythm, sight-reading, understanding harmonic cadences, pretty much all aspects of musicianship except bowing and tone production.
November 20, 2019, 8:13 AM · Playing "little bit" piano helps me in intonation.
November 20, 2019, 8:55 AM · I learned to read music when I was also learning the violin, no piano was involved (I don't remember if my teacher used a piano). I struggle to even find the A on a piano - it's pretty laughable actually! (But I can manage to play something by ear with a little bit of work, with one hand.) I used to have a teeny keyboard with the note names taped to the keys to help me when I couldn't figure out something on the violin, but that keyboard is long gone. Now, I look at a piano and am completely lost. Have considered taking a couple of lessons to get my bearings, but the violin provides plenty of fodder for learning and I'm not inclined to give up some of my precious practice time (and money) for the piano.
November 20, 2019, 8:20 PM · "But is a few years of basic piano of any use whatsoever to an aspiring violinist?

How has it helped you?"

It's more helpful because you'll have a piano, and if someone else can play it to accompany or even help teach the pitch/etc., it can be a big help.

Learning piano is valuable in itself, and is a significantly different skill in large part, because it's mostly about playing two (or more) different parts at the same time.

I learned piano to start, and then violin together with piano. I don't think learning piano helped me with violin, and I gave it up altogether because violin was much more difficult for me and I needed more time on it for that to progress.

But as someone else mentioned, learning piano is sometimes required in addition to learning violin, simply because of its own utility.

Theory is something else, and is also often required in addition. Having a piano around is helpful for that, but being able to play piano isn't really.

Having said all that, I'm also willing to contradict myself a bit by saying that the critical skill in piano - multiple simultaneous parts - is also an important mental skill for violin once we reach the ability to actually play anything like that, which is long ways off if ever for most.

November 20, 2019, 9:14 PM · ............….Theory is something else, and is also often required in addition. Having a piano around is helpful for that, but being able to play piano isn't really...…………

I used to draw a small diagram of the piano keyboard to help in my study of theory, but I don't play piano. I still keep a small xylophone handy when ever I want to quickly hear what a particular scale sounds like.

Edited: November 21, 2019, 12:56 AM · Henry raises a very interesting question: Does one need to PLAY the piano to reap the "visual-learning" benefits for theory, chords, etc.? I would have to guess that it probably does help to know where the notes are so that if you are talking about an Ab-major triad, you can quickly envision those notes on the keyboard. Can that skill be secured sufficiently, without ever having played so much as a scale or a simple tune? I guess it's possible but I think it would be harder.
November 21, 2019, 5:12 AM · I agree that for theory/harmony issues one doesn't actually have to have played the piano (learning proper hand shape and position and when to cross over/under) as long as one understands the keyboard layout. However it has been my experience that many people who don't play anything on the piano have a hard time remembering all that stuff, where playing even simple melodies like "Mary Had A Little Lamb" or "Twinkle" can give a person greater insights.
Edited: November 21, 2019, 5:27 AM · The piano gives the left hand something to do, wakes it up, as Adrian says.
But the piano doesn't require the left hand's fingers to learn to detach quickly. I found the piano useful indirectly - many skills seemed to transfer thence to CG and thence to violin. For theory and circle of fifths kind of thing, some kind of keyboard is always useful. I've screamed that at diatonic harmonica players til I was blue in the face, lol. Otoh, If your idea of music theory is learning about the intonations, the piano creates a conceptual illusion that is a stumbling block.
Edited: November 22, 2019, 5:27 PM · Having read through the above I couldn't believe my eyes, so just to check I put "coun" in the search box, and my eyes were right: Not one person mentioned "counterpoint"! It's an important factor when I improvise on any instrument (in the case of the submentum instruments, mainly with others), but I first learned it on a keyboard. I doubt if my violin and viola improvisations would be the same without keyboard familiarity - Mind you, I did have organ lessons almost throughout High School. I think my non-improvisatory activities have benefitted from familiarity with counterpoint on the keyboard too (By the way, I am an appalling pianist and an even worse organist, and I'm not that wonderful on the other instruments either - but I know how I AIM to play).
Edited: November 24, 2019, 6:53 PM · “I struggle to even find the A on a piano.”

Same here. Before my daughter started piano lessons. I could not find A on the piano. Would I become a better violinist if I had piano lessons? I don’t think so.

November 24, 2019, 3:26 PM · I think you do become a better musician if you had piano lesson with a good teacher.

Our daughter's piano teacher doesn't just teach how to play piano. She talks about music history, theory, musicianship,etc. She also has my daughter play a lot of duets. All of these skills and knowledge help our little one become a better violinist.

Edited: November 24, 2019, 5:12 PM · David wrote, "Would I become a better violinist if I had piano lesson? I don’t think so."

Perhaps not. But if you had had four or five years' worth of lessons as a child I bet it would have accelerated your development on the violin, especially at the intermediate level.

Kiki wrote, "Our daughter's piano teacher doesn't just teach how to play piano. She talks about music history, theory, musicianship,etc."

Right on!! My piano teachers in high school especially were very keen on theory. I had to analyze sonatas for form, Bach inventions for counterpoint, Scriabin and Debussy pieces for harmony, etc. In addition, piano teachers emphasized sight-reading (although my violin teacher always had me play something new at my lesson too), and my piano teachers are the ones who taught me practice techniques like "dotted rhythms" and inserting "gaps" in difficult passages, which my violin teacher *never* did.

So, I conclude that one more reason to have piano lessons in addition to violin lessons is because you then have two music teachers who can teach you complementary methods and skills without the inevitable conflicts that would arise if one had two violin teachers.

Edited: November 24, 2019, 7:08 PM · “She talks about music history, theory, musicianship,etc. She also has my daughter play a lot of duets. All of these skills and knowledge help our little one become a better violinist.”

As string players, we have a lot more opportunities in ensemble playing where one learns to play with many others (not just with one’s teacher).

In the end, no amount of history or theory can substitute for the hours one must spend in the practice room with the violin. There are, unfortunately, 24 hours in a day.

November 24, 2019, 9:14 PM · "But if you had had four or five years' worth of lessons as a child I bet it would have accelerated your development on the violin, especially at the intermediate level."

How do you mean this? Do you suggest postponing a child's exposure to violin for four or five years before starting violin to play piano? I suggest that would do more harm than good in the end for violin playing.

I suppose however that if it had already happened, then it's reasonable to some extent - the learning of reading or practice techniques and habits are transferable to some degree. But there's also a chance of being thrown off completely by the difficulty of playing violin, and in tune, not working out as intended, and the choice about learning a new instrument from scratch and giving up or reducing progress one has already made also arises.

Edited: November 24, 2019, 9:37 PM · "Would I become a better violinist if I had piano lesson? I don’t think so."

Depends on what you mean by "better violinist". If you mean someone who has more musical experience and potential reach, then yes, you'd be a better violinist for putting in the effort on piano. If you mean would you be able to play faster or have an easier time with fingerings or bowing, then probably not.

Edited: November 25, 2019, 5:20 PM · "As string players, we have a lot more opportunities in ensemble playing where one learns to play with many others (not just with one’s teacher)."

As a pianist, you're essentially doing "ensemble playing" 24/7 in the sense that your music has multiple parts that need to weave together in a timely way. I would argue that studying piano will also help a violinist be a better ensemble player. What piano doesn't teach is the listening part, which is a huge part of ensemble playing. With piano you don't have listen (in the same way, externally) because all of the parts and their mutual relationships are already in your own head and your own hands.

November 25, 2019, 7:17 PM · Basically, what J Ray said.

There is something about learning piano that makes you a more complete musician. Our daughter loves to compose and she does that almost exclusively these days on piano. Having that creative outlet to experiment and explore is important to her.

A piano accompanist once told us after their first rehearsal that "It is such a pleasure to play with someone with an intuitive understanding of harmony." Of course, we politely thanked her for her kind words but I was thinking to myself that it isn't exactly intuitive...it cost us 5 years of piano lessons! I am not sure if she really would have that intuitively anyway but playing Bach inventions year after year must help with understanding counterpoints.

She does practice violin hours a day so it's not about supplanting violin practice but expanding her internal musical landscape.

The only problem for us is affording both piano and violin lessons. I think it is a completely valid point that 2 hours of weekly violin lessons is better than splitting that between violin and piano if someone's goal is to become a professional violinist which is not exactly the case for our daughter at this time, anyway.

Edited: November 26, 2019, 12:36 PM · “I think it is a completely valid point that 2 hours of weekly violin lessons is better than splitting that between violin and piano if someone's goal is to be a professional violinist.”

Completely agreed.

The question is really NOT whether learning to play the piano instead of doing nothing is helpful ( of course it is). In fact, one could argue reading through, say, “ A hundred years of solitude” instead of doing nothing could potentially be helpful in interpreting Bach ( you know, being well around and all that....) .

The question should be whether practicing the piano instead of practicing the violin would make one a better violinist. Personally, I don’t think so.

November 26, 2019, 6:57 PM · I haven't played piano, but guitar gave me a lot of chord theory.
November 26, 2019, 7:46 PM · I think the piano can provide practice in playing the polyrhythms that one may encounter in Brahms, Dvorak, and Gershwin.


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