Reduce Stress by Learning to Play Piano
A Great Way to Manage Stress
How would you like to have a place where you could go, just for a short time, and leave behind all the struggles and the frustrations and the headaches of daily life? A kind of prime vacation spot for your mind. Not only do you get to escape the drudgery of daily life, but what you do while you are there will sharpen your mind, connect you deeply with other people and other cultures of the world, and will leave you refreshed and renewed and energized, ready to return to your life. And what if I said I could take all of this and put it down right in the middle of your living room, ready and convenient for whenever you have a spare moment so sit and take a brief mental vacation?
This is what it is like to play piano for fun.
Musicians speak anecdotally all the time about how playing their instruments relieves stress. There have even been a few studies that demonstrate the value of playing music in helping people to relax. I myself used to throw torrential fits when I was young—knock down, drag out, flailing on the floor screeching sessions—but they went away around the age of nine, which was, coincidentally, the same age I was when I started taking piano lessons.
Even now, as a grown adult with a job and kids, a wife and a life, if I am away from the piano for more than about a week, I start to get grumpy and irritable. After thirty minutes to an hour at the piano, I am back to my normal self again. In my life, there is nothing like playing piano for releasing a bit of stress.
This article is designed to help you understand why by giving you a window into what the experience of playing piano is like—not as a performance musician, but in the living room by yourself for fun. It also provides practical tools and advice for how and where to begin.
Three Easy Ways to "Mess Around" on the Piano
Getting Away From It All by Playing Piano
I have been playing piano for almost thirty years. Over that time, my knowledge and skills have grown tremendously. Still, the fundamental character of the experience of playing piano was the same in the week after my very first lesson as it is today. It is the nature of the experience that makes all the difference for stress relief, not the level of your skill.
You see, playing piano is a chance to create your own space—to create your own world. You choose where to go and what to see while you’re there, and the places you can go are limitless.
My preferences are for classical music, but that is by no means a limitation—jazz, rock, new-age, hip-hop and ragtime all are an open landscape when you learn to play piano. No matter what genre you might be working in, or even in you’re just playing around, you have the unique opportunity for self expression.
Starting with the very simplest elements of sound, you can create something that is uniquely you—something that is a personalized expression of who you are in that moment. As your skills progress and your knowledge of the instrument grows, your ability to articulate your thoughts and feelings musically expands.
Take a moment to watch the very short video just to the right in which I model three simple ways you can do this right away.
Visit Eighteenth-Century Spain and Meet Its People with Padre Antonio Soler!
Meeting People and Exploring the World through Music
Once you learn to read a little bit of music, you now have direct access to many of the greatest souls the world has ever known: Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Selena Gomez and Bob Dylan, just to scratch the surface. Each of them is intimately connected to his or her music. Each spent careful hours crafting a musical experience that is—somehow—a reflection of who they were as people. Performing their music—learning to play it well—you get the chance to dance with them. What comes out is neither entirely you nor is it entirely them. It is a synergy of spirits in which you get to share something personal to you with something that was dearly personal to them.
Playing piano is also a chance to explore the world. Music is a part of every culture and, in the technological world that we live in today, access to that is as simple as the click of a button. In my years as a musician, through the music I’ve played at the piano, I have travelled throughout Europe, into several different places in Asia, spent some wonderful time in Africa, and discovered some thrilling locations in South America and Mexico, not to mention the joys of spending time in New Orleans and the Great American Plains of the United States.
It may sound like I’m being a bit facetious, but I’m not. Every piece of music speaks with a unique voice, and the roots of that music go deeply into the culture from which it was produced. By playing Padre Antonio Soler's “Sonata in Db Major,” I am, in some small but important way, experiencing eighteenth-century Spain and its people. Truly, it is with this kind of world-traveller excitement that I sit down to a new piece of music.
Research on How Making Music Relieves Stress
- Making Music Soothes Stress - CBS News
Music Really Does Have Charms To Soothe, Say Researchers. This is a CBS News report on a study by Dr. Barry Bittman that clearly supports the idea that making music soothes stress.
- Piano playing reduces stress more than other creative art activities...
This article from the International Journal of Music Education details a Japanese study in which it was demonstrated that specifically playing the piano helped reduce the stress levels of study participants.
Stories and Research to Support Why Making Music Works
These are the reasons why playing piano is so much fun, but, when it comes to relieving stress, the important part of all of this is the focus that is takes to do it. It’s the concentration required to engage in this kind of activity that pulls my attention away from all of the other things that are going on in my life. It is this that lets my mind relax because I drop the baggage of all my other worries and frustrations.
I also know this to be true not only for me but also for others because I taught piano lessons for a period of about seven years and that time I had two adult students. One, a mother who had finally sent all of her children off to college, had decided to return to playing piano after about twenty years away. The other was a businessman in his mid-forties, who had always wanted to play, but had never had the chance. He decided to set aside a small bit of time to catch up on that old dream, in part because he was seeking a way to relieve the stress of owning his own business. Both spoke frequently of how much the enjoyed their time at the piano and how it helped them to let the rest of the world fall away as they engaged their minds with the challenges and the joys that the music brought to them.
And the reality of this is not just me making up stories and presenting anecdotal experiences. Mihaly Chicksentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, developed a concept called “Flow.” In , he lays out a theory that supports what I have just said. his book by the same name
Briefly, here’s how the idea works. The moments that we recognize as being the most in our lives are those in which the challenge of doing what we are doing is precisely met by our skill in doing it. When we are in that place, our mind is fully focused and we forget about everything—even ourselves—and concentrate fully on the task. We feel elated because what we are doing is working well. When the task becomes too easy and drops below our skill level, we become bored. If the difficulty of the task rises too far above our skill level, we become frustrated and want to quit. This is precisely how music works.
When you begin, your skills are very low, but the task is not very hard. As your skill level increases there are always new pieces and new challenges to meet that newly developed skill level. Since no one ever reaches true perfection, even Mozart regularly faced musical tasks that were challenging for him. Thus, whether you are a beginning or a professional, playing piano has the power to capture and hold your imagination, releasing you for a short time from the rest of life.
How to Get Started Playing Piano
Getting started is as simple as owning a keyboard. Simple Casio keyboards are available for almost nothing these days, and even something as basic as this gives you a tool for playing around, which, as the research indicates, is one of the most important parts of how playing piano can relieve stress.
Should you decide to actually start taking lessons, it will be important to get a hold of a real piano, or at least a high-end keyboard with weighted keys. The kinesthetic feel of the keyboard is a very important part of learning to play well. Your instrument needs to respond the way a real piano would respond in order for your skill to develop properly. Otherwise it’s like trying to learn to play volleyball with a football; you can mess around but you’re never really going to get anywhere.
If you look around, you can get a piano for as little as about $300 to $400 dollars. Lesson books are very inexpensive. For $15 to $30 you will be set with materials for months.
The tricky part is finding a teacher. This is the part that can become a real financial investment. You can, of course, find free lessons online or simply buy a book and try to teach yourself. For many people, this is not a bad way to go. You can learn enough to be dangerous and have fun, and, when it comes to stress relief, this is the most important part of it anyway. If, however, you are interested in experiencing something like what I have described here, you will need guidance from a trained musician.
The best sources for finding teachers are these:
- Church pianists and organists
- University music programs
- Local music stores
- The local library’s community board
Once you find someone, be sure to ask them about their experience and their background. Generally speaking, the best teachers will be those who studied music of some kind in college.
A Casual Conversation about Playing Piano
To close I have put together a movie for you in which I invite you into my living room to talk a little bit about “messing around” on the piano. This is not a performance video. You will see me in my casual clothes and hear me just playing around on the keyboard. This discussion is not about becoming a concert pianist. This is about learning to have fun at the piano, and so I want to show you what having fun at the piano looks like and the reality of trying to do it with a job and a family and a life.
Thanks for reading. This was great fun to put together.
Now go find a piano and make some noise!