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The piano is one of the most widely played instruments in the world. Millions of people can play a tune, but it takes years of practice and dedication to become a truly gifted pianist.

Some of the most famous classical composers -- Mozart, Bach and Beethoven -- wrote their music on pianos. But today, the piano is versatile enough to be found in alternative rock bands, orchestra pits, jazz groups and everywhere in between.

It takes a few "key" traits to become a pianist. Long, nimble fingers help. A good ear for music is also a bonus. And of course, practice, practice, practice!

Practice makes perfect, but owning a piano can be an expensive investment. Upright pianos cost over $5,000. Grand and baby grand pianos can cost more than $10,000.

Some piano students use digital keyboards instead, which use synthesizers to make piano sounds. Others rely on pianos found at schools or at a teacher's house.

Martine Courage practices on an electronic keyboard between lessons at her jazz piano teacher's house. She started studying piano at age 10 and made it to the classical conservatory level (Grade 9) at 19.

But when she began university, she quit piano when her "social life took over." It would be 10 years before she went back to her studies. She returned to learn jazz technique, to accompany her love of jazz singing.

"Music has always been a part of my life," says Courage. She is a communications strategist. "But now I'm getting to a level on the piano where I can play in front of an audience, so I can get out and express that side of myself."

The secret to every piano player's success is patience. Sarah Jane Cion has spent 28 years as a patient player, loving every minute of it. She began at age four, playing songs she heard on the radio by ear.

Now an award-winning jazz pianist with two albums, Cion makes a fair living playing gigs in New York City.

"I spent 10 years studying classical piano until I was 14 and discovered jazz," says Cion.

"I fell in love with it and never looked back. I immediately started listening to nothing but jazz, especially Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans. I love the rhythm, the swing element, the way you can make it up as you go along. It's the original feel-good music."

Jean Blanc plays the other side of the pianist's coin. He prefers the classics to modern styles. He's chairman of a chapter of the Beethoven Society. That's an international nonprofit group that organizes mentorships between professional concert musicians and young students.

Blanc and his wife, Rose-Marie, also teach piano and violin to hundreds of students in public schools and through private lessons. Teaching has always been his passion, ever since he was taught as a child in Romania.

"I learned music from the gypsies who came through our town," says Blanc. "Then I went on to study at a conservatory in Romania. Always, my goal was to become a teacher, to share the joy of music with children."

David Pocock orchestrates piano culture on a big level. He's the artistic director of the American Pianists Association (APA), which holds national competitions to find and sponsor young piano talent in both classical and jazz music.

A classical pianist himself, Pocock has spent years fostering the craft, as a music professor and founder of Indianapolis's popular 12-year-old music festival. In his many years on the scene, he's come to know many gifted pianists. Some have even overcome special needs to play like pros.

"I know of several very wonderful pianists who are paralyzed from the waist down," he says. "They rig a way to manipulate the right pedal enough to play quite well."

Pocock also mentions the disabilities many pianists must overcome part way through their careers. Carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive use syndrome are injuries which force some to deal with the loss of being able to use a pianist's crucial right hand.

"Greats like Leon Fleisher and Garry Graffman have dealt with it by learning to use their left hand instead," says Pocock. "There's now a huge body of repertoire for left-handed pianists."

Getting Started

Whether they end up in jazz clubs or concert halls, most pianists start playing while they're young.

Blanc instructs three- and four-year-olds using the "Suzuki system." That's a teaching method based on the belief that all children, talented or not, can learn to play music in the same way they learn to talk, through repetition and immersion.

"We give them CDs to listen to between lessons," says Blanc. "When they come in, they already know what they're going to play."

Immersion is key for older students too, says Cion, who teaches between gigs.

"I get them listening to the music right away, as much and as often as possible," she says.

"It builds excitement and interest in what they're learning. Soon they're catching on to the different elements that go into the music -- the melody and solos. Soon they want to come up with their own."

Playing any instrument is all about making a song your own. Blanc teaches his students to play "by heart" -- interpreting music in one's own personal and unique way.

"Before they even start learning a new piece, I tell them to write down how it makes them feel," he says. "It always amazes me, how every child says something very different, but equally beautiful."


The Musician's Guide


The Piano Page
Information on buying pianos and a virtual piano museum

Piano Internet Resources List
A huge collection of links, mailing lists and newsgroups about playing the piano

Piano on the Net
Listen to music samples and get lesson plans

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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.