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Can I say "I play a little " to mean I am not an advanced player? How would a native speaker say they can play a musical instrument but only easy pieces of music?

I searched for an adverb that means "in a beginner way," but google mostly showed information regarding adverbs for beginner English learners.

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    I agree with the answers given but on the other hand. If someone asks "Do you play the piano?" I think answering "I play a little" would be fine and communicate your intended meaning. No one would then interpret that as being about the size of the instrument Jan 29, 2023 at 11:27
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    I most associate the phrase with people who are actually very good but trying not to brag about it.
    – OrangeDog
    Jan 29, 2023 at 16:08
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    @MartinSmith Unless they're a comedian of course. youtu.be/P22gPwGuLa0?t=15
    – AndreKR
    Jan 30, 2023 at 16:05
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    Your search ("in a beginner way") gave you little because we say; I'm a beginning player or I'm a beginner at/in piano.
    – Lambie
    Jan 30, 2023 at 17:52
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    Are you Schroeder from Peanuts? He literally plays a little piano. And when Lucy smashes it up, he has a cupboard full of little pianos.
    – gnasher729
    Jan 30, 2023 at 23:40

7 Answers 7

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+100

I'm a native English speaker originally from Canada currently living in the US.

YES, it is perfectly acceptable for you to say "I play a little piano." with the intended meaning that you are not a very skilled player. As explained below, it might help if you emphasize the word "little".

Some more details...

The phrase is somewhat ambiguous, as it may mean either that you are not very skilled or that you do not play very frequently. If you are in the unusual situation that you play lots of piano but are still very bad at it, you might want to consider an alternative phrase: Maybe, "I play piano, but I'm not very good."

It will not be misinterpreted as you misspeaking and claiming that you play a small-sized piano, except that -- because that is a technically possible meaning of the phrase -- someone might make a (terrible) joke: "Yes, I play a little piano." "Do you have a tiny bench, too?" "Ha, ha, ha! I see you made a little joke there." See the "I play a little guitar" meme for another example.

Here are a few random examples in bios, interviews, or blogs of people using the phase with the intended meaning that they don't consider themselves very skilled: "I play a little piano...I have a long way to go" and "I play a little piano and drums but certainly not well enough that I would ever consider playing them live.". Here are some examples of people using the phrase with the probable intended meaning that they don't play very often, usually set in contrast to some other activity: "I play a little piano, but I mainly sing." or "I play a little piano, but mostly guitar"

As someone mentioned in a comment, it is the sort of phrase that may used by someone who is very skilled or plays very often, but is either being modest or ironic. For example, Magnus Carlsen is a very skilled and famous chess player. If someone were to ask if he plays board games, he might jokingly say "Yeah, I play a little chess." Or see "I guess I play a little chess" from an amateur who has played many games.

As noted above, emphasizing the word "little" is likely to make it clear that you are not being modest. It also may indicate that you are talking about skill rather than frequency. If you say "I play a little piano" or "I speak a little English", it will probably be interpreted to mean that you are honestly claiming your skill is limited. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a reference to support this claim. Maybe someone else can find one.

Note that the meaning may be different for other activities, even when "little" is emphasized. If you say "I do a little exercise" or "I watch a little TV", you are more likely to be commenting on frequency rather than personal skill.

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    I think I'd be more likely to say "I play piano a little" in the given situation, but you're correct that the utterance is perfectly valid as stated. Jan 30, 2023 at 15:17
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    Despite all the jokes, this phrasing is very natural. Jan 31, 2023 at 2:09
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    Jokes are of ZERO help on ELL. It just confuses non-English speakers.
    – Fattie
    Jan 31, 2023 at 13:04
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    @Fattie I don't know - it's pointing out that English speakers know about this ambiguity.
    – user253751
    Jan 31, 2023 at 16:09
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    Also "I speak a little French". These are idiomatic. Jan 31, 2023 at 16:43
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To play a little piano (and play piano a little - the position of the adverbial element makes no difference) is relatively "formal" compared to, say, I play the piano a bit.

It's inherently ambiguous whether the intended sense is not often or not expertly (or both, but rest assured no-one would think you meant a small piano! :)

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  • I don’t really agree with the first paragraph here. To me, the position makes more of a difference in formality than the choice of little or bit. “I play the piano a little/a bit” are both more formal to me than “I play a little piano” – and especially than “I play a bit of piano”, which would be the least formal to me. I fully agree with the second paragraph, though. Jan 31, 2023 at 14:03
  • I don't really recognize your distinction based on the position of a little. I wrote "makes no difference" because we're getting down to fine nuances that even native speakers couldn't all agree on, so on a *learners' site might be counterproductive to say "makes little difference". But your ear for English is as good as anyone's, so I'll happily engage with the issue in comments... Jan 31, 2023 at 15:28
  • ...to my ear, it's the absence of an article before piano that makes most difference (including the seems far more natural / informal to me). And it's "impossible" (unless you're a TEFL student! :) to say I play a little the piano or I play a bit the piano, so I'm left with the general impression that versions with the adverbial element last are more formal (because only they allow the more formal phrasing with the article). Plus I'm unshakeable that a bit is informal compared to a little, so my net perspective is more or less the opposite of yours! Jan 31, 2023 at 15:38
  • I agree that bit is less formal than little – the only difference is that, to me, the position trumps that difference. So I would rank them this way from most to least formal: I play piano a little > I play piano a bit > I play the piano a little > I play the piano a bit > I play a little piano > I play a bit of piano. With that said, I would find all of them perfectly natural in normal conversation – just perhaps the first pairs slightly out of character from a South London teen and the last pairs slightly out of character for a Mayfair socialite. Jan 31, 2023 at 15:53
  • (I hadn’t actually noticed that you’d left out the article in the more formal example in the answer – I’d only seen the little vs bit difference. I agree that leaving out the article is definitely more formal.) Jan 31, 2023 at 15:55
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As Yan.Yurkin says, "I play a little piano" sounds as if your piano is small. We (in UK) would say,

I can play the piano a little.

or

I can play the piano a bit.

Or you could say,

I can play the piano, but only simple stuff/things/pieces/songs.

People (especially, I think, in the US) sometimes omit the "the": I play piano...

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    I can't say I agree with you. A little piano isn't a thing that commonly exists. It is common for people to play some small amount of piano, but it is exceedingly rare for people to skillfully play a diminutive instrument.
    – fabspro
    Jan 29, 2023 at 13:48
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    @fabspro on the other hand, there are toy pianos that are in little sizes. I'd imagine that thing instead of a real-size piano when hearing this sentence.
    – Andrew T.
    Jan 29, 2023 at 14:09
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    "I play a little piano" is exactly how people in the UK would indicate they play piano but not to any great standard.
    – deep64blue
    Jan 29, 2023 at 21:06
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    Interesting. It wouldn't sound that way to me (American who spent three years in England as a boy). If you Brits don't often say "I play piano" it would make sense that it sounds that way to you. In the US, "I play a little piano" would have to have significant context to be taken as a reference to the size of the piano. As in "Do you play a big piano? No, I play a little one." Otherwise, it would be taken to have the usual meaning of "I play a bit of piano."
    – BobRodes
    Jan 30, 2023 at 4:45
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    @EspeciallyLime I don't agree with you - but there is a subtlety that you are not emphasising. The sentence "I [verb] a little [noun] in the piano sense, refers to a particular type of noun - for example, I play piano, I play golf, I play badminton. Adding 'a little' in this situation is an unambiguous reference to frequency - it would be absurd to think that 'I play a little golf' means you play miniature golf, or 'I play a little badminton' means you play miniaturised shuttlecock...
    – fabspro
    Jan 30, 2023 at 11:09
2

I'm by far not a native speaker but just to make it less ambiguous with playing a small sized pianos i'd rather say

I play a piano a little.

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    Hi Yan.Yurkin. Welcome to ELL! We would generally say "play the piano" in this context. Jan 29, 2023 at 5:23
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    @OldBrixtonian we normally don't use an article at all. I play piano a little.
    – Chenmunka
    Jan 29, 2023 at 8:50
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    @Chenmunka - UK uses the article, US doesn't. Jan 29, 2023 at 9:03
  • @KateBunting The article is still perfectly common in American English; it's just not strictly required. Did you play a little baseball after work? Does anybody play a little guitar at parties? Can we play a little poker tonight? Would you play a little Chopin? I used to play a little piccolo but playing the flute was easier. :)
    – tchrist
    Jan 29, 2023 at 15:34
  • @Chenmunka - Sorry! I forgot the "in the UK." It was in my answer but not my comment. Jan 30, 2023 at 1:19
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for me (and I know I do think differently to everyone else) it sounds like false modesty. Imagine the scene

guy with friends talking to woman at a party

Mick: ask Fred he plays the piano
Fred: Oh I only play a little
Woman: oh please play a tune for us

Fred gets up walks to the piano and plays perfect Rachmaninov.
Rachmaninoff : Piano Concerto No. 3

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  • The most useful answer here.
    – Fattie
    Jan 31, 2023 at 13:03
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    There is a tradition among accomplished musicians, at least in America, to downplay one's own skill. "I play a little piano" could be said by someone who is quite good and nobody would think anything strange about it. Jan 31, 2023 at 23:27
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In Australia, a reference to playing 'a little' piano means you play infrequently. But it says nothing about the musicians' level of skill.

A native speaker could say I can play a little bit of piano or I can play the piano a little bit. The key point is the word 'can' - it refers to capability.

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    I disagree with this. In my world, it speaks to the level of skill, not the frequency of play. Of course, the two go together, assuming the pianist has any talent . :)
    – BobRodes
    Jan 30, 2023 at 4:50
  • I agree with this (answer, disagreeing with the view described by the prior comment, though not meaning to disagree that BobRodes's viewpoint may differ). The examples given in this answer are more likely referring to frequency, although could also mean skill. While I also agree with multiple points of K.A. Buhr's answer, and so using the word "bit" (as shown in this answer) is not strictly necessary, using the word "bit" (as shown in both bolded examples in this answer) does make things more clear.
    – TOOGAM
    Jan 30, 2023 at 5:59
  • @TOOGAM Why do you imply that your view is "more likely" the correct one? Really, neither of us have any idea whether our semantic interpretation is the more common one.
    – BobRodes
    Jan 30, 2023 at 6:16
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    @BobRodes It definitely could mean both in your part of the world - I take the view that lack of skill and infrequent playing go hand in hand, and the difference is rarely critical!
    – fabspro
    Jan 30, 2023 at 7:17
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    @fabspro Just so. I play a little piano, a little less than I did when I was majoring in music 40 years ago, and never enough to be a pro. :)
    – BobRodes
    Jan 30, 2023 at 12:00
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As the others have mentioned, I play a little piano may mislead the person you are talking to and confuse them. The message you want to convey is

to mean I am not an advanced player

So, the sentence I play a little piano is not correct in this case.

It is better if you use the sentences given below instead

  • I play piano a little.
  • I can play piano a little.
  • I play piano, but I am still at the basics.
  • I play piano, though my skills are mediocre.

If you have started piano recently, you can say the following:

  • I started playing piano just a while back.

If you played the piano long ago, but have forgotten the basics over time, you can say the following:

  • I played the piano years ago, so I would need to practice playing it again for I have forgotten some of the basics.

Hope this answer helped you.

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    I'm sorry but "I play a little piano" does not imply that you are playing a small sized piano, except if the speaker is a performing comedian.
    – fabspro
    Jan 29, 2023 at 13:50
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    This is like saying that "Lionel Messi plays a little football" means that the football he uses is smaller than normal. I don't think it means that at all, to anyone. It's fine to say that Ronnie O'Sullivan plays a little snooker, for example, and there's no such thing as a larger or smaller snooker.
    – BobRodes
    Jan 30, 2023 at 4:52
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    I'm upvoting this answer, not because I agree with it. However, I think it is useful (which is what the hovertext indicates an upvote is intended to mean). This does show that there are some different perspectives/interpretation. So, like fabspro's answer, "a bit of piano" is more clear, but just saying "I play a little piano" can seem a bit ambiguous, enough that some people may interpret thingsa bit different.
    – TOOGAM
    Jan 30, 2023 at 6:03
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    @TOOGAM You may have noticed that I said "In the US, 'I play a little piano' would have to have significant context to be taken as a reference to the size of the piano." Your example sort of makes my point, doesn't it? Sure, I could totally think that given your significant context, "little piano" could refer to its size. Similarly, a six-year-old who "plays a little violin" probably plays a quarter-size violin. An average human who plays a little violin probably plays the violin a little. So yeah, context.
    – BobRodes
    Jan 30, 2023 at 6:26
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    @BobRodes absolutely - and in the context of an informal chat about piano playing, the ambiguity doesn't really matter because playing infrequently and having a lower level of skill or seriousness are all (in effect) the same. To be sure, I would struggle to imagine someone really meaning a 'small' piano if they said 'a little piano' unless there was context to suggest that might be a realistic possiblity...
    – fabspro
    Jan 30, 2023 at 7:20

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