This is one of the most popular questions asked by beginner piano students as well as their parents. So how long does it really take to learn to play the Piano? I know you may not like the answer, but the answer really is ‘It depends’.
However, one thing is for sure. Passion beats age always. As long as you truly have the passion and drive to learn something, it is never too late to start and you can accomplish things much faster.
Take the example of Minh Pham, who after only two years of piano study, was competing against piano students with several years of practice.
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Listening to and watching Pham play, it wouldn’t occur to most that he only started taking lessons for piano — his first instrument — two years ago at Orange Coast College.
Pham, 21, took first place with his duet partner Yuri Minami at the California Association of Professional Music Teachers Ensemble Auditions on Oct. 12, performing “Concerto in D Minor for 2 Pianos” by Francis Poulenc.
“I’m not a competitive person,” Pham said. “Winning or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s more for the experience.”
This was his second CAPMT audition, and he is currently preparing for another on Sunday. Pham also looks forward to representing the Orange County district at the CAPMT Honors Auditions State Finals in February, as well as participating in an OCC sophomore recital next semester.
“Working with him is very fun because he has good musicality. He just started so I know it’s hard to catch up, but he’s improved a lot,” Yuri Minami, 22, a piano performance major said.
Unlike Pham, she has been playing piano for almost 20 years.
All of these accomplishments and aspirations come with hard work and motivation. Although Pham didn’t start learning at a young age like many of his peers, he’s always had an interest in piano that would develop into a talent.
“One day my mom took me to her friend’s house and I saw how her kids played really well,” Pham said. “I never really had the chance back then, but I hoped that one day I would be able to learn to play like that.”
Pham wasn’t exposed to a lot of music as a child. He moved to the United States 11 years ago from Vietnam, where he said the school system focused more on mathematics and didn’t foster much musical development. He moved to Sacramento, then Virginia and finally settled in Garden Grove, where he attended Garden Grove High School.
It wasn’t until then that Pham took his first piano class as an elective in his junior year of high school. He first used YouTube tutorials, but began teaching himself how to read notes and rhythm properly with the class as guidance.
Pham said his mother noticed how serious he was about learning piano when he performed in a school talent show his senior year. After much convincing, she bought him an upright Samick piano that Pham said he couldn’t wait to practice on every day after school.
Pham decided to enroll at OCC because he watched music professor Ricardo Soto guest-conduct the Garden Grove High School choir and was eager to take theory class with him. Pham also enrolled in a Piano 3 course at OCC with music professor Brian Gould, who introduced him to the Applied Music Program Scholarship.
The program allows the music faculty to award scholarships for free private lessons to students, which are earned by auditioning.
The night he received the call confirming he was chosen for the scholarship, Pham said he was speechless. Despite his inexperience with classical music and technique, OCC piano instructor Teresa De Jong-Pombo said she had faith in him and took him as her student.
“He absorbs everything I tell him and takes it so much to heart — he has done 10 years worth of work in the last two and a half years,” De Jong-Pombo said. “It was the beginning of an amazing journey — he has huge potential and there’s no question that he’s going to go very far.”
Pham has been taking private lessons with De Jong-Pombo ever since, and is able to renew his scholarship by auditioning every semester.
Although the scholarship only covers the cost of a 45 minute lesson each time, Pham pays for an extra 15 minutes. He has lessons every Friday, and sometimes twice a week prior to big events like competitions.
Pham said it was difficult at first to transition into learning technique and more challenging pieces, such as his first classical Sonata by Clementi.
“As an amateur I would just hit notes, but classical music taught me how to control and process the touch and feel keys differently,” Pham said.
Before long, Pham progressed into learning pieces from several of his favorite composers, including Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms.
De Jong-Pombo holds workshops once every two months at her house, in which each student practices performing and receives feedback from one another.
“The other students don’t act competitively and never look down on me, and are always supportive and honest,” Pham said.
Although he is an only child, Pham said he is never lonely because he keeps himself busy with piano and has formed close friendships with peers.
One of his closest friends is also his duet partner Minami.
“We’ve been best friends since we met three semesters ago,” Minami said. “We both love music so we go to concerts with each other, and we’re both foodies so we always go try new Japanese and Vietnamese restaurants together.”
Playing among peers like Minami, who have had many years of experience, Pham said he doesn’t get discouraged but instead takes it as a learning experience. It has taught him to be humble and be open to others’ opinions and constructive criticism.
Pham invites his mother to workshops and recitals. Although she initially aspired for him to become a pharmacist, Pham said she is nevertheless very supportive of his choice of studying music.
Pham plans on transferring within the next year to Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Long Beach or Chapman University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in piano performance and piano pedagogy.
In fact, Pham started teaching piano when he was 19 at his students’ homes. Their ages range from 5 to 10, and also include a 50-year-old woman. Pham said that he is always trying to find ways to understand each individual student and help them improve by finding different ways to motivate them.
“I have close relationships with all my students. They always drop what they’re doing and run to the door to greet or say bye to me when I come and go,” Pham said.
Although piano is a significant part of his life, Pham also enjoys other hobbies. He was on the swim team in his senior year of high school and also likes to go hiking, but is more of an artsy than sports person.
In addition to classical music, Pham is also into various types of music from oldies to electric dance music. He admits that he shows a completely different side of himself at raves.
Pham is currently taking a German course at OCC because he hopes to study music in Vienna, Austria in the future. He wishes to take lessons from professionals there, like De Jong-Pombo did. De Jong-Pombo, Gould, and all of the OCC music faculty are his biggest inspirations, Pham said. After he masters piano, Pham would also like to learn how to play the cello.
Well, as long as there’s a will, you’ll always find the way to accomplish what your heart wants. And that includes learning to play the piano.