Teaching adult amateur pianists

A pleasing trend is the increasing number of enthusiastic adult amateur pianists who are enrolling for lessons. Some are players who had lessons in their youth but who gave up, for various reasons, and who are returning to the piano after a prolonged period away from it. Others simply want to learn a new skill, or, in the case of two of my adult students, want to learn so they can help their children who are learning to play the piano.

I am what is classed as an “adult returner”: I took lessons from the age of 5 to nearly 19, with two teachers, and worked through all the exams (practical and theory). Then I went to university, fell in love, started work in London, got married, all things that conspired to keep me away from the piano. It was only when I started writing a novel in which the principal character is a pianist that I began to play again, figuring the best way to research the music I was writing about was to actually play it. It was hard, at first, to return to pieces I’d played well in my teens, but it was also cheering to find I hadn’t forgotten that much.

I started taking lessons again in my 40s, in part to try and understand the psychology of being taught as an adult, so that I could help my own adult students, all of whom are very nervous and lacking in confidence.

This is a key factor in teaching adults: building confidence. As we get older, we seem more aware of the embarrassment of making a mistake or appearing foolish in front of someone else. Just as my teacher does with me, I try to make my adult students feel comfortable and confident. Yes, it is hard to play for someone else, but they know I am not going to bite them!

Confidence comes through good and thorough preparation, self-belief, and praise from a teacher or mentor. Many adults arrive at lessons with an idea of what kind of music they want to play, and many find their own choices are too difficult. I try to select repertoire which will suit my adult students, taking into account their individual abilities and tastes.

One of the nicest aspects of teaching adults is more involved communication than one enjoys with a child. One can explain concepts and technical issues, and feel that the student has understood what is being asked of them. There is greater opportunity for more discussion about the music, and many adults have a good grounding in music history and/or theory (if they had studied music as a child), or general music appreciation, which helps enormously. The relationship often becomes personal and close; one of my adult students has become a very good friend.

Some of my other observations on teaching adult amateur pianists:

Practising: many adult students have busy lives with other commitments such as work, family and so forth which can prevent them from practising as regularly as they would like to. A teacher should be able to guide and advise an adult student on best and most effective ways to practice given time constraints. I encourage focussed practice: breaking down the music into manageable chunks and learning how to spotlight tricky or problem areas for special attention.

Repertoire: some adults, especially “returners”, can have ideas somewhat above their capabilities and will arrive with music that is, in reality, beyond them. Rather than dampen their enthusiasm, I will either find a simplified version of the piece for them to learn, or suggest learning just a small part of the piece – though it can be frustrating, as a teacher, to listen to Debussy or Chopin being mangled week after week (!). I always let adults select the repertoire they would like to learn, rather than be dictatorial about it.

Exams and benchmarking: No one, neither adult nor child, is forced to do exams in my studio. I have two adult students who want to take exams because they enjoy the challenge of studying for an exam, and find that this keeps them focussed. When my student Sarah, who has been learning with me for four years now, achieved a Merit in her Grade 1 exam, we both enjoyed a huge sense of achievement! Other adult students are more than happy to play for pleasure, with the teacher offering more advanced repertoire so that they have a sense of progression. Another of my adults regularly asks me what level the music she is learning is (roughly around Grades 2-3 at the moment).

Performance anxiety: Many adult students can be very very nervous when faced with a performance situation. I can sympathise with this, having been in a similar condition myself a few years back when I first started having lessons again. But adult students who want to take exams need to be taught how to overcome their anxiety. First, they should be encouraged to play within their capabilities; and, secondly, they should take every opportunity to practice performing – be it to the family, pets, neighbours, or in the more formal setting of a music festival. “Mock” exams are useful, along with physical exercises away from the piano to help relieve tension.

Enthusiasm: Adult amateurs are generally very enthusiastic about their piano lessons, usually because they are learning for completely different reasons to children (sense of enjoyment, fulfillment, personal development etc). Never dampen that enthusiasm, and be accommodating if the student cannot make a lesson one week (I find it helpful to have adult students on a “pay as you play” basis) or hasn’t completed their practising.

Courses and workshops: a great way for adult amateur pianists of all levels to get together, share repertoire, receive tuition from top-class teachers (often professional pianists), and simply enjoy playing the piano! More on courses here.

3 thoughts on “Teaching adult amateur pianists”

  1. Adult students tend to be more rewarding than youngsters simply because they want to learn, rather than being there “because Mummy / Daddy thought I ought to learn”!
    I always check what styles / eras of musical composition they are interested in before we select repertoire (jointly) with me playing through some options and them choosing their favourites. One charming retired gentleman owns a superb Spinet (not a piano), so we focus largely on the Baroque era, for instance.

  2. I loved this. I’m a piano teacher too, and I love teaching my adults. They’re usually incredibly open about their life and enthusiastic about playing. You’re right when you say that they have lots of responsibilities, and that they have a tough time finding that magic combination of time + inclination to practice, but I love how logical their brains are and how well they listen.

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