5 Famous Self-Taught Piano Players

Think that you can’t learn piano, or be a professional piano player if you’re self-taught? Think again. Here’s five incredible piano players who taught themselves.

Art Tatum (1909 – 1956)

Art Tatum was a jazz pianist who was born in the early twentieth century, and is regarded as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. His father was a guitarist and his mother played piano. Tatum taught himself to play piano by ear as a young child, and would go on to influence an entire generation of jazz pianists. To make all of this even more incredible, Tatum was nearly completely blind.

Floyd Cramer (1933 – 1997)

Floyd Cramer was an American Hall of Fame pianist who pioneered a piano style known as the “slip note” style, where one note slides into the next. Cramer grew up in a small town in Arkansas and taught himself to play piano before he graduated high school. He would go on to have a very successful recording career in Nashville, and after his death, was inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Walter Wilhelm Gieseking (1895 – 1956)

Walter Wilhelm Gieseking was a German composer and pianist who started teaching himself piano at the age of 4. He was known for having a near photographic memory and would learn new pieces while not at the piano, studying the notes and memorizing them. Once he got to a piano, he could play the piece flawlessly without glancing at the music. He later performed for sold-out crowds at Carnegie Hall.

Les McCann (1935 – )

Les McCann is a soul jazz pianist born in the first half of the twentieth century. After decades of successful recordings in the jazz genre, McCann crossed over into the R&B and soul genres and has continued to find success with crowds in the US and abroad.

Gene Harris (1933 – 2000)

Gene Harris was an American jazz pianist born in Michigan and known for his blues and gospel influenced style, popularly called soul jazz. His playing had a warm sound that delighted audiences. He played for more than forty years before his death from kidney failure in 2000.

These are just five of the many hundreds or thousands of famous piano players who taught themselves, at least to start. It’s true that some of those players have natural talent, but most would tell you that working hard and regular practice are more important than inborn talent. They taught themselves to play piano because they had to, because they longed to play so bad that they had no choice. They had fun every step of the way, and in that regard, you can join them.

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