The Cordes method: Learn to play piano without notes

Paul Cordes helps budding musicians learn to play piano with his self-teaching method.

Paul Cordes of White Bear Lake has decades of piano experience, including teaching, playing and tuning. Cordes also created his own teaching method, called the “play by ear method.”

Cordes said it’s not a one-to-one teaching method, but rather a self-teaching method. Cordes method provides all that’s needed to learn to play the piano confidently without notes and totally by ear. 

After paying a one-time cost, all materials needed will be sent. Because there are no in-person lessons, anyone anywhere can learn the method.

Cordes started teaching the method when he published it in 2004, but he created the method over a 30-year period.

He explained he started out using a different method that worked well at the time, but then he wanted to create a better method that was more appropriate for self-teaching. 

“Through a process of editing over and over again, I ended up with four steps. If one follows the directions very carefully and does it once every day for maybe 10 or 15 minutes, you get to at least a first-grade level by four months,” Cordes explained.

Cordes said the value in using the self-teaching method is that learners can repeat a step or do it as much as they want and go at any speed they want.

Cordes said he doesn’t want anyone thinking he doesn’t appreciate the traditional teaching method, but believes people can get farther with the self-taught method first before going to a teacher.

“I always wanted to be able to play by ear myself, not only someone else’s music but spontaneously make my own music as well. I feel that the people who can do that at any level will play for life. Many people who take lessons, that’s the last time when the lessons are through that they play the piano,” Cordes said.

The first step in the Cordes method is about melodies, the second step is to learn six scales, the third step is learning three cords that fit with any melody and the fourth step is the one-cord progression that’s universal. 

Cordes said the method can be applied to other instruments as well. 

“They could probably transfer the method to making up their own music on the violin or flute,” Cordes said.

Cordes said people have to be willing to trust that they may not see any progress the first few weeks. He said they’ll have to wait while their brain works to process the method.

“If they stick with it, at some point in the first three or four weeks, it clicks. It’s something like riding a bicycle, all of a sudden they’ll know how to balance,” Cordes said.

Cordes grew up in the Midway area in St. Paul. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, he spent 10 years teaching in the classroom, five in San Francisco in the ’60s and five years in St. Louis after that. Then he moved to the Twin Cities to finish his master’s degree in fine arts at the University of Minnesota.

Cordes is not only educated as a teacher but a church musician. He is currently a director of music at Berea Lutheran Church in Richfield. There, he plays at nearly every Sunday service.

He has been a church organist for 61 years and began playing at age 5.

“My brothers and my sister were getting lessons and I wanted them too, but I guess I was the one that had the gene that said I should keep going,” Cordes said.

Anyone can learn to play the piano, but the one ingredient that people need for his teaching method is the desire to learn, Cordes said. 

For more information about Cordes or his method, visit playbyearmethod.com.

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