Can piano be self-taught?
Updated: Apr 29
Two famous pianists who started self-learning and their approach.
The concept of self-taught musicians has lately attracted the attention of both the public media and the academic world.
This article will mainly emphasize on two popular pianists from the classical genre who started their career from learning the piano without an instructor, in order to identify their approach and whether having eventually a tutor helped them in any way.
The two pianists that will be explored are Lucas Debargue and Paul Lewis.
To begin with, Lucas Debargue is a French classical pianist and composer signed with Sony Classical, who has achieved considerable success and popularity through his recent achievements.
He won the fourth prize at the XV International Tchaikovsky Competition and the Special Prize of the Moscow Music Critics Association.
In addition, he performed to various prestigious venues such as the Seattle Symphony.
Accordingly, the CEO and President of the Seattle Symphony, Simon Woods states that ‘Lucas Debargue is one of classical music’s most exciting artists and we’re thrilled to share his incredible artistry with our audiences’.
He is an individual who studied piano on his own and started having formal piano lessons after the age of 20.
This data was contested by timtim from pianostreet. He contributed with the following account
Debargue was born in Paris, France, on October 23, 1990. Growing up in Compiègne, he took his first piano lessons there at the age of 11, with Christine Muenier. He stopped his piano studies at 15, becoming more interested in literature. At 17 he relocated to Paris to study for a degree in Arts and Literature at Paris Diderot University. In 2010 he quit literature studies and returned to the keyboard. When meeting with teacher Rena Chereshevskaya, he decided to become a professional musician and prepare for competitions. He graduated under her direction in 2016, at the École Normale de Musique de Paris "Alfred Cortot".
Even though he started having lessons, later on, he claims that his tutor was more of a friend to him.
In particular, he ‘introduced him to lots of music while he was in high school.’
This demonstrates one of the reasons he started having a tutor, which broadened his musical horizons.
Learning and technical approach
With regards to his learning approach, it was mainly achieved by ear.
In particular, he states that he would listen to music for a long period of time and memorize the scores.
For instance, he named spending significant time on Prokofiev and Rachmaninov pieces.
Afterwards, he would reproduce on the piano what he heard.
According to the latter, in an interview, he underpins that ‘one doesn’t ever learn by oneself, one learns from others.
And the people who taught me were the composers and the great interpreters’.
Furthermore, Debargue considers the piano as a ‘coffin’, an object.
He is not in love with the instrument itself or with a particular composer.
However, he asserts that is what you put into this ‘big machine’ that makes music happen.
In other words, the emotion and the pianist’s own interpretation of one piece.
This is also one of the qualities that make Debargue unique.
Even though his technique is considered to be ‘brilliant’ according to the Seattle Symphony, what separates him from others is his approach to interpretation.
In other words, when Debargue is playing, his performance sounds like he is improvising in front of an audience than replicating a piece.
From an audience point of view, ‘Debargue is an uplifting experience, in part due to his unabashed love for music’.
Even though research suggests that one of the main commonalities among self-taught musicians resides in their early childhood home environments, and in music being played at home, Lewis contends that there was nothing musical in the house apart from the music being played on the radio.
He is an English classical pianist and despite the lack of music in his house, he managed to explore classical music from an early age, through listening to records from a library near his house.
This is how he discovered music and how he started learning the piano.
Particularly, he commented in an interview that he started playing keys when he was around the age of four on an organ.
After being self-taught, he went to Guildhall School of Music at the age of 18, where he asserts that he had studied piano intensely and particularly learnt how to connect with the instrument and be relaxed while playing.
Learning and technical approach
Lewis claimed in an interview that a pianist always develops their technique, suggesting that technological development is as an ongoing process.
In another interview with the Guardian Music, he focuses on the importance of balance. He particularly associated having balance while playing the piano, with the metaphor of a black canvas.
For instance, as soon as he triggers a chord, there is ‘a chink of light’ coming out of a distant window, and gradually becoming more and more prominent. This indicates the visualization approach he developed while playing the piano. This is a technique often used in piano teaching to improve focus and enhance the piano performance experience, as suggested by the director of WKMT Juan Jose Rezutto.
Even though both of these popular classical music pianists started as self-taught and had mentors and/or formal education later on in their life, what was found to be common at the beginning of their learning is the intense listening to music, which eventually results in bringing their artistry in it.
Nonetheless, even though they started learning their piano on their own, they both had mentors across their musical journey, which enabled them to refine their technique and approach to learning, making their performance an easier experience.
With regards to Debargue, having a tutor can open doors to new musical ideas, which is also supported in an article on musicnotes.com, written by a piano teacher.
With reference to Lewis, he had proper education starting at the age of 18, which enabled him to perform with a more relaxed approach, depicting that having a mentor or formal education cultivated an easier way of playing the piano.
Therefore, it can be concluded that it is possible for someone to start learning the piano on their own.
However, it can be argued that having a tutor can potentially improve the technique and approach of a pianist, not only their piano performance and technique but also their approach in music in general, which can widen their creativity.