Robert Estrin - piano expert

The 3 Essential Skills of Piano Playing

Discover the essential skills to play the piano as a great pianist

In this video, Robert reveals the 3 most important skills any pianist needs to be a great pianist.

Released on June 26, 2013

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, I'm Robert Estrin here at and with three essential skills to piano playing.

Well, you know, I've had many students from other teachers and oftentimes people come in and they kind of, the first thing I ask, one of the first things after listening to them play and such, is has anyone ever showed you how to practice? And that is a great question because I think one of the most important things a teacher can ever share with a student is how to practice because no matter how brilliant a teacher may be, it's only an hour a week sometimes even less. It's the other hours, what the student is doing the other six days of the week that is going to make the difference in the progress the student makes. So the three essential skills is very important you know what it is you're trying to accomplish.

One skill that is essential for any pianist is memorization. Well, that's right, some instruments you can get away with not memorizing and be fine because you don't have to look. If you play a flute, you can look at the music the whole time. On the piano there is some music you just absolutely have to look at your hands when you have big leaps. Plus the score is very complex. It's hard to see everything you need to see.

That's why memorization is one of the essential tools that a pianist has. Fortunately, I have videos, by the way, on all three of these subjects that you can follow the links to at the end of this video. And I go into great detail how to memorize, and I learned how to memorize from my father, Morton Estrin, who has a very simple system that virtually anybody can master.

The second skill is sight reading. Now, you might think, can't you just read through a piece a lot and eventually learn it. Well, I guess just like playing a video game and starting from the beginning every time you mess up. You could do it that way, but it's not a very efficient way to learn. And, in fact, you can do what I call anti-practicing if you try to memorize simply by reading through again and again. Why?

Well, if you're reading through and you can't read it perfectly the first few times, you are reinforcing mistakes and you have to unlearn which is a very tedious process and very difficult. If you've ever learned something wrong and tried to correct it, you know how hard that is. So you want to avoid that by having memorization as one process and sight reading, a completely different methodology. And again, I have several videos on sight reading you can reference.

The third skill, and I can't believe there are some incredibly skilled pianists who have developed the first two skills to a very high level and yet have no idea at all how to improvise. Improvisation or playing by ear is not only fun, but it's absolutely essential for many styles of music from jazz, blues, rock, country, new age. If you try to play these styles just from reading, you'll never really get fluent and you won't really have the style because it's all about arranging the music yourself. Playing with other musicians, listening, fitting in, finding an intrinsic part. And yes, I believe to be a well rounded musician it's essential to have all three of these skills.

So this is a very important lesson for you today. Reference the other videos. I want to hear from you if any of you have experiences where you've developed one or two of these skills and have been very deficient at one or two and felt somehow inferior. This might be of help to you, and I'm happy to provide further insight for your particular situation. Thanks for joining me. Robert Estrin with and I'll see you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Gib Rogers on August 6, 2015 @4:11 pm PST
Thank you for the video on the skills that a Pianist might need. I do disagree with you on the third skill: improvisation. I don't think it is essential to have this skill in order to successfully play the piano. I have worked hard on your first two skills, and have developed them. My piano life is full without having to worry about improvisation. That is NOT my style. Sorry. Just expressing my opinion. Thanks!! gib Rogers
Robert - host, on August 7, 2015 @4:20 pm PST
You may not have any interest in improvising at the piano at all. Yet, it is important that you develop the ability to play by ear to some extent because it offers tremendous benefits to your playing. Ultimately all playing on the piano must be playing by ear even if you take it from the score to begin with. Because you must be listening to your music in order to engage your audience.

More than that there is a practical element to being able to produce music at the keyboard that you hear in your head. No matter how accomplished you may become, there will always be times that your memory fails you. If you can play by ear you can easily recover by finding your way until you get back into the groove.

When sightreading, improvisation skills are also incredibly important. As you flesh out the music, the connection you have for hearing the music and producing it with your hand is invaluable for fleshing out music you are reading.

So, I encourage you to explore improvisation. You will also be able to experience the joy of discovering music inside you which may surprise and delight yourself and others.
David Creighton on July 29, 2015 @6:35 am PST
We are still unable to access the referenced Memorization and Sight Reading videos, even though others have already pointed this out. Where are they please?
And thanks
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on July 29, 2015 @9:01 am PST
I am sorry about that David.

Here are the videos you are looking for:

How to Memorize a Piece of Music You Can Already Play on the Piano

When is the Best Time of the Day to Memorize Music?

Advanced Memorization Techniques

Sight Reading - Part 1

Sight Reading - Part 2

Keep in mind that you can search for all videos by starting from the main Experts page below:

And then entering your keywords inside the "Search Videos:" field under the Experts top graphic banner. I hope this helps.
David Creighton on July 29, 2015 @9:44 am PST
Perfect. Thank you Fabrizio!
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on July 29, 2015 @12:11 pm PST
Dear David, you are very welcome! Glad to help any time!
Millie * VSM MEMBER * on August 28, 2013 @12:13 pm PST
Teaching a granddaughter; sight reading (not bad); but need help with improvision.
Robert - host, on August 29, 2013 @12:25 pm PST
Here is a video that may be helpful for improvisation:
suspenseful * VSM MEMBER * on August 13, 2013 @4:54 pm PST
I am good at sight reading and improvision, but on memorization I suck.
Robert - host, on August 13, 2013 @7:32 pm PST
These are 3 independent skills. Here is a video on how to memorize:

Please let me know what kind of success you have with it!
Bev * VSM MEMBER * on June 28, 2013 @5:54 pm PST
I have played the piano for many years and yet I am learning so much from you Robert. Thank you.
Linda * VSM MEMBER * on June 27, 2013 @7:17 pm PST
I just watched the short video of 3 essential skills ... And am looking for the videos referenced in Robert's excellent clip: On memorizing and improvising. I could really use help in those two areas and yes, feel deficient in that I'm lost and even panicked without music in front of me! Thank you for these excellent videos and sharing the joy of music. Linda.
Pru Balatero on June 27, 2013 @5:32 pm PST
Robert, you mentioned links to improving memorization and videos for sight reading. Could you please share those links. Thank you.
Sharon Ball on June 26, 2013 @7:19 am PST
I couldn't find a link to help files for memorizing and sight reading and improvization. I would love to purchase them because I like the way you explain techniques and I am an older student returning to the piano. Sharon
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on June 26, 2013 @8:40 am PST
Hi Sharon, and thank you for your comment. This is a really interesting topic and I'd like to find a way to create material helping just improving memorization as well as sight reading... Robert, do you have any specific ideas?
Sharon on June 26, 2013 @9:53 am PST
Thank you! I thought that excellent sight reading skills was the main thing. Many people who kept piano as a hobby and then try to resurrect their skills want to play in church for both choirs and congregational singing. Hymn books do cry for runs and frills during those sustained notesI know.
Robert - host, on June 27, 2013 @10:35 am PST
If you send me your email address, there is a program in the works you may be interested in. You can email me at
You will also get my piano newsletters. Thank you!
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on June 26, 2013 @7:00 am PST
Thank you Robert. Now I know why I have been having problems memorising an entire piece of music. I was trying to play with both hands too soon, being overconfident that I could do it by sight reading from the beginning!
I will be interested to hear about improvisation, I don't think I can do that, I think it is part of the individual character and I have always suffered from lack of fantasy. lol
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