“I wish I’d kept up my piano lessons!”

How many people do you meet who express this regret, that they’d continued childhood piano lessons into adulthood?

At my piano club, there are people who have played all their life; others who, like me, gave up, often in childhood or their teens, only to return to the instrument later in life; and those who have taken up the piano from scratch as adults, setting themselves on a path which brings pleasure and frustration in equal measure. For all of us, there is a huge sense of personal growth, self-determination and fulfilment.

The idea that once one reaches adulthood it is “too late” to take up the piano – or indeed any other instrument – is nonsense. The body and, more importantly, the brain is still receptive and highly malleable, and research has amply demonstrated that the brain remains “plastic” (able to adapt and change) throughout our life. Learning a musical instrument stimulates almost every part of the brain, especially those areas associated with memory. Contrary to common misconceptions, the adult brain continues to carve new neural pathways throughout life, and learning an instrument stimulates this and improves cognitive function.

Dismiss any idea that it is “harder” to learn an instrument as an adult. Unlike children, who may be compelled to learn an instrument by their parents, the adult learner makes the personal choice to pursue music and has the motivation, intent and self-discipline to stay the course.

It takes a degree of courage to decide to learn, or return to, an instrument, and to take lessons with the teacher and the first few lessons can be extremely daunting, but find the right teacher and the activity is an extraordinarily fulfilling experience. No dull exercises or drills or exams, but a stimulating flow of ideas and inspiration, exploring repertoire and honing one’s skills, while life experience and maturity bring a special dimension to lessons and learning.

I first started to learn the piano when I was about five years old, took all my grade exams, and then abruptly stopped playing when I left home to go to university (to study not music but Anglo-Saxon and Medieval literature). I hardly touched the piano for 20 years, but when I returned to it, I did so with an all-consuming passion. I took lessons with master teachers and attended masterclasses with leading concert pianists. I set myself the personal target of learning and preparing music at a very high level to fulfil the requirements of professional musical qualifications (two performance diplomas which I passed with distinction) and organised and performed in my own concerts. Today the piano is my life – and my work – and it has put me in touch with so many wonderful, inspiring and interesting people. I certainly intend to go on playing the piano and engaging with the literature and those who play it for as long as I can.

It’s never too late!

I was recently asked for some tips on returning to the piano after a long absence.

I stopped playing the piano at the age of 18 when I left home to go to university and I didn’t touch the instrument again seriously until I was in my late 30s.

It may be two years or twenty since you last touched a piano, but however long the absence, taking the decision to return to playing is exciting, challenging and just a little trepidatious.

Here are some thoughts on how to return to playing:

Stick with the familiar and play the music you learnt before

To get back in to the habit of playing, start by returning to music you have previously learnt. You may be surprised at how much has remained in the fingers and brain, and while facility, nimbleness and technique may be rusty, it shouldn’t take too long to find the music flowing again, especially if you learnt and practised it carefully in the past.

Take time to warm up

You may like to play scales or exercises to warm up, but simple yoga or Pilates-style exercises, done away from the piano, can also be very helpful in warming up fingers and arms and getting the blood flowing. This kind of warm up can also be a useful head-clearing exercise to help you focus when you go to the piano.

You don’t have to play scales or exercises!

Some people swear by scales, arpeggios and technical exercises while others run a mile from them (me!). As a returner, you are under no obligation to play scales or exercises. While they may be helpful in improving finger dexterity and velocity, many exercises can be tedious and repetitive. Instead try and create exercises from the music you are playing – it will be far more useful and, importantly, relevant.

Invest in a decent instrument

If you are serious about returning to the piano, a good instrument is essential. It needn’t be an acoustic piano; there are many very high-quality digital instruments to choose from. Select one with a full-size keyboard and properly weighted keys which imitate the action of a real piano. The benefits of a digital instrument are that you can adjust the volume and play with headphones so as not to disturb other members of your household or neighbours, and most digital instruments allow you to record yourself and connect to apps which provide accompaniments or a rhythm section which makes playing even more fun!

Posture is important

You’ve got a good instrument, now invest in a proper adjustable piano stool or bench. Good posture enables you to play better, avoid tiredness and injury

Little and often

Your new-found enthusiasm for the piano may lead you to play for hours on end over the weekend but hardly at all during the week. Instead of a long practice session, aim for shorter periods at the piano, every day if possible, or at least 5 days out of 7. Routine and regularity of practice are important for progress.

Consider taking lessons

A teacher can be a valuable support, offering advice on technique, productive practising, repertoire, performance practice, and more. Choose carefully: the pupil-teacher relationship is a very special one and a good relationship will foster progress and musical development. Ask for recommendations from other people and take some trial lessons to find the right teacher for you.

Pianists at play at a summer piano course in France

Go on a piano course

Piano courses are a great way to meet other like-minded people – and you’ll be surprised how many returners there are out there! Courses also offer the opportunity to study with different teachers, hear other people playing, get tips on practising, chat to other pianists, and discover repertoire. I’ve made some very good friends through piano courses, and the social aspect is often as important as the learning for many adult amateur pianists.  More on piano courses here

Join a piano club or meetup group

If you fancy improving your performance skills in a supportive friendly environment, consider joining a piano club. You’ll meet other adult pianists, hear lots of different repertoire, have an opportunity to exchange ideas, and enjoy a social life connected to the piano. Piano clubs offer regular performance opportunities which can help build confidence and fluency in your playing.

Listen widely

Listening, both to CDs or via streaming, or going to live concerts, is a great way to discover new repertoire or be inspired by hearing the music you’re learning played by master musicians.

Buy good-quality scores

Cheap, flimsy scores don’t last long and are often littered with editorial inconsistencies. If you’re serious about your music, invest in decent sheet music and where possible buy Urtext scores (e.g. Henle, Barenreiter or Weiner editions) which have useful commentaries, annotations, fingering suggestions, and clear typesetting on good-quality paper.

Play the music you want to play

One of the most satisfying aspects of being an adult pianist is that you can choose what repertoire to play. Don’t let people tell you to play certain repertoire because “it’s good for you”! If you don’t enjoy the music, you won’t want to practice. As pianists we are spoilt for choice and there really is music out there to suit every taste.

Above all, enjoy the piano!


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Pianist friends Alison Bestow and Claire Vane set up Pianissimi, an adult piano course, five years ago. I caught up with them to find out how their venture is progressing….

Pianissimi has been running for five years now; what is the secret of its success?

Claire: We have both been to many other piano courses, both in the UK and abroad. We are therefore very clear about what we want from a piano course; maximum face-to-face tuition, both in masterclasses and in individual lessons, and opportunities to perform every day. We also want to create a supportive, friendly environment and excellent organisation to keep the whole thing running smoothly. Many people have been with us for several iterations of the course, so we think we’re on the right track.

What do people most enjoy about Pianissimi?

Alison: Our tutors are first-rate. Warren Mailley-Smith and Penelope Roskell have been with us from the start, and this year we have achieved our ‘dream team’ which includes Graham Fitch and Nicholas Moloney. The tuition is intensive and so we make sure to keep participants fuelled with home-made cakes during the day and wine and snacks in the evenings, which people always appreciate, especially after performing following dinner.

Claire: Participants always say how friendly everyone is. The location is really beautiful, on the side of the river Orwell with spectacular views, so the environment is inspiring.

Alison: For me one of the highlights is playing the Fazioli grand in the recital hall with its tiered seating. Although I know you prefer the Bechstein, Claire….

What are the challenges of both running and attending the course?

Alison: We split up the organisation between us, and we have very different skills, so it works very well.

Claire: I do publicity, networking and the loot. Alison does the tedious timetabling which would drive me mad.

What have been the best moments of the course?

Alison: I love all the evening concerts; there is always such a variety of performances and I always come away with something new that I am inspired to learn. I have made many new piano friends.

Claire: We did a scratch eight hands two piano duet last year which was hilarious. I loved the visit from Chris Norman of 1066 pianos who told us more about how pianos work, Steinways in particular, and how he goes about voicing them.

Alison: And the talk from Colin Hazel about women composers was fascinating.

Any sticky moments?

Claire: The accommodation is in school boarding houses, and one year we were given high bunks beds with a desk underneath – not ideal for one participant who was pregnant and another with a dodgy knee. The school sorted it out for us; never again!

Alison: The staff at RHS are brilliant.

Who is this course aimed at?

Alison: We want the course to be very inclusive for anyone who loves the piano as much as we do, so we suggest that attendees are grade 7 onwards and including diploma level and post-diploma. The levels of experience and performance are varied, but we try to ensure that everybody feels comfortable and confident playing in a group. The course is also ideal for those with a specific aim, such as preparing for a graded or diploma exam, or getting ready for a particular performance. There will be lots of performance opportunities for those who want them. But there won’t be any pressure on people to perform if they don’t want to.

How can I book?

Claire: There are a few places left for the June course. All the information about the course is on our website: http://pianissimi.wordpress.com/


Pianissimi is held at the Royal Hospital School, 8 miles from Ipswich, Suffolk.

Course dates: Thursday, 2nd June 2022 (5 pm) to Sunday, 5th June 2022 (5 pm)

View the location and facilities here

Guest post by Howard Smith


Glenn Gould once said “One does not play the piano with one’s fingers, one plays the piano with one’s mind.” Sounds plausible, but what did he mean? I’ve heard similar ideas from my piano teachers. One suggested, “spending time away from the keyboard with the sheet music.”  Another urged me to “fully concentrate while practicing”.  And, an experienced concert pianist told me that “Practice must always be ‘mind led’. Do not touch the keyboard until you are sure of things.”  

What does it mean to play the piano with one’s mind?

I should explain why I am writing about this topic. I am an upper-intermediate pianist struggling to make a solid transition to ‘advanced’. I stress ‘solid’. How come? I did little piano as a child and my gap before returning to the keys was 45 years! The cards are stacked against me. Whenever I use this cruel fact as an excuse with my teachers, they ramble on about practice approaches – of course – and the conversation always ends in the same place: “It’s all in the mind, Howard.” Well, is it? 

I must start with how I feel. It is taking me an inordinate time to bring new pieces to fruition. I won’t go into details but I will make an assertion. Unless I can get on top of pieces more readily, I simply won’t be getting through enough varied music to make progress. Imagine a tennis player who rarely played against more able opponents. The only way top-ranked players progress is to play regularly against their peers. Likewise, the only way musicians progress is to expand their repertoire. If the amateur pianist is taking weeks, months or in some cases a year or more to get a new piece under their fingers, is it surprising that their progress will be limited? No. One could easily find oneself going backwards!

I am sitting with my regular teacher and explaining the dilemma to her. She explains that it is common to take weeks and months on new work. She also explains that she generally requires her students to tackle the set pieces for upcoming grade examinations in a single term, or at most two terms. I tend to agree with her.  I don’t think you can count yourself to be ‘at’ a grade level if it takes a year or more to bring the required three pieces to a good standard. But I am no exam chaser. Far from it. My interest in this topic is borne out of my own frustration in crossing the chasm from upper-intermediate to advanced. It is also an intellectual curiosity. My teacher observed, for example, that I have no trouble moving my fingers and hands once the piece is absorbed. “It is not your fingers that are the problem,” she said. So what, precisely, is the problem? 

Another teacher talked about patterns.  “It’s all about patterns, Howard,” he said. “You must be able to recognise the patterns, not the individual notes”. I can relate to that, my sight reading is sub-standard. But I am unconvinced this is the only, or even the main, thing that is holding me back. Even after I have spent time ‘learning the notes’ the hard way (rote repetition) I still feel an impediment buried deep in my playing. It rarely feels … easy, relaxed. There is a hesitancy in my transitions, especially in more complex or rapid passages. I must admit, it does feel as though it is my mind being the sluggish laggard in those moments, not my nimble fingers. It ‘feels’ as if a signal is not being communicated from my brain to my hands as quickly as required to keep the music moving forward. Or perhaps the conjuring up of the correct signal, the moment of thought, is lacking. It is often enough to disturb the play. I can enjoy the occasional sense of ‘flow’ but it is rare for me to experience what other pianists have described as ‘letting go’.  When I do, everything falls apart, more often than not.

Teachers cannot easily see into the mind of their pupils. My starting point for thinking about this impediment can only be, therefore, how I feel while playing. And believe me, I have tried. This kind of self reflection is like trying to swivel your eyes to look inside your head. Yes, I do have a sense that something mental lies at the heart of my blocks. The question is, what? 

It’s easy to become paranoid. I am in late middle age and only too well aware that the mind is less agile than perhaps it once was. It starts with little things, forgetfulness, not remembering people’s names, forgetting where one left one’s glasses, etc. Is this what is holding me back? Am I simply the victim of biology and the ageing process? The thought horrifies me. I stepped into this ‘piano journey’ game late in life. I understood there was a diminishing ‘window of opportunity’. But every time I raise this with a teacher they assure me the impediment can be overstated, that adults have certain advantages over children. We are able to spend more time at the keyboard for example, and with developed intellects we can immerse ourselves in more of the theory and practice that tackling this instrument requires. There are stories of amateur pianists still making progress well into their late 70s and early 80s. Will that be me, I wonder? I have to believe so. 

If the ageing process is not as much an impediment than I once feared, what else could be holding me back? My career was spent in the computer industry, specifically, software development and complex systems design. That takes intelligence? What is the role of intelligence in piano playing? I’ve never met an unintelligent musician at the top of their game. There is a reason why you find super-intelligent people around music. Perhaps I have the wrong kind of intelligence for the piano? Is there such a thing as ‘musical intelligence’? Am I lacking it? My penfriend, a biologist, is quick to point out there are not different types of intelligence, just differences in the way the brain develops depending how it is applied, the object of our attention. Does the child who plays music from the age of six develop a musician’s intelligence different in kind than the intelligence required of a software engineer? Is it now too late to change the wiring? 

When I think about great pianists, when I marvel at their superhuman feats of virtuosic performance and memorisation, I have to conclude that raw IQ must play a significant role. Is that what is holding me back? Am I less intelligent than required for piano? I never was any good at those ‘recall twenty objects on a tray’ games. Or perhaps my kind of intelligence (logic and math) is simply the wrong colour for music? The thought terrifies me. Having taken the decision to step out of a career of one kind for an activity of quite a different nature, to have spent years in the journey on a quest that leads nowhere, I’m not sure how I could handle that. My friends, sensing such a possibility, urge me to have ‘realistic’ expectations. So what’s to be done? I’m not ready to give up. On the other hand, unless I can make more progress and tackle more advanced music more readily, I do not believe that playing a stream of simpler pieces could sustain me. There is a real possibility of never touching the keys again. For someone as passionate about music as I, who has entered into the spirit of the journey as fully as I, this is quite a statement to make. But I have to admit it: as I write this article, I am on a knife edge. To use a metaphor from my book, Note For Note, I may be about to fall off the escalator and never jump back on. 

What’s to be done? 

A friend from my piano circle urged me to reassess my practice regime. He was kind enough to send me a detailed systematic approach that he is experimenting with. I looked at it, but was unconvinced. I have used some of those techniques before, perhaps not as rigorously as he would advise, but I don’t think doing more of the same will help me. He also suggested that I step back and work on simpler pieces, a few grades below my current level, so as to get through more music and, at the same time, benefit from the sight-reading.  Sounds sensible, but I was not immediately motivated to do this. No, another idea popped into my mind, and it was reinforced by an experienced pianist I met at summer school. He said, “Given your age, Howard, it’s now or never.  I would recommend you tackle a few works far in advance of your grade. Stretch goals.”  His idea held great appeal to me. His theory was that even if I did not complete the pieces to the standard required for performance, I would learn a lot in the process. And so, somewhat tentatively, I chose such a piece. 

Have you ever come across a piece that, on first listen, touches you so deeply that you decide, there and then, that you simply must be able to play it, no matter what the cost in time and effort. Not ‘wish’ or ‘hope’ to play it, but ‘must’ play it, with all your soul. I have found such a piece, by complete chance. It is more than gorgeous. It is not one of the greatest works of music, nor is it so complex that a diploma level pianist would find it daunting. For me it is pitched just right. It lies far from my comfort zone but not so far as to be permanently inaccessible. And so I have set myself this goal: unless I can truly perform (not merely play) this piece by the Spring, I hereby make a solemn oath: I will never play again. 

Postscript

I’ve not yet learnt to play with the mind, but I have learnt this:  As I practice I must practice even more slowly than I had previously realised. Every note and every chord must be ‘read’ from the sheet music. I must never assume my fingers will take me to where I need them to be. I must will them to do so, by brain power alone. Every movement must be fully considered. As I move through the music I must make no mistakes. For to make a single mistake will engrain it for next time. If I am making mistakes, even small ones, this is the signal that I must slow down even more. If necessary I must not move to the next beat until the positions of the hands and fingers for the subsequent beat are correct. This correction must occur in the mind before it is manifest in the fingers. This mind-led practice is what I will strive to perfect from now on.  Whether this is what Glenn Gould or my teachers meant I am less sure. I must find out. 

As ever, I wish to learn from the piano community, many of whom will have made more progress than me. Let’s have a conversation. What do you think Glenn Gould and my teachers meant? Please feel free to comment below


Howard Smith is a keen amateur pianist and author of Note for Note, a compelling account of his piano journey. Find out more here https://linktr.ee/note4notethebook

 

“A hugely valuable day”

“Inspirational”

“Fantastic to listen to such great playing and I picked up a lot of tips from Graham”

The London Piano Meetup Group presents its fifth Diploma Day on Sunday 28th November 2021 at Morley College, London SE1 with acclaimed teacher Graham Fitch. This full day event is aimed at adult amateur pianists who are preparing for or are considering taking a post-Grade 8 performance qualification (ARSM, DipABRSM, ATCL, LRSM, LTCL etc). 

Diploma Day now open for booking for observers, and applications for performers.

If you’re thinking of taking a performance diploma, then Diploma Day is for you! It’s an excellent opportunity to perform part of your programme in front of a supportive and friendly audience, and to work on it with Graham Fitch. Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) will be on hand to give advice on choosing a Diploma, planning a programme, writing programme notes, stagecraft and managing performance anxiety. It’s also a chance to meet and chat to other pianists and to share experiences.

This very popular event has been praised for its friendly and open atmosphere in previous years, as well as how useful the day is for those preparing for a diploma, and it promises to be stimulating, informative and fun.

The event takes place in the Holst Room at Morley College, near Waterloo Station, which has a beautiful Steinway D concert grand to perform on. The day will run from 9am to 5pm and is intended not only to provide resources and information for participants, but also to network with other like-minded (and diploma-aiming!) pianists.

Performer places are £90 and the closing date for applications is 31st October. Please download and complete the form on the booking page.

Observer tickets – £20

BOOK TICKETS

If you have already taken a performance diploma, we would love to hear from you as personal experiences are very valuable for those embarking on the path. Please feel free to contact Frances to share your experience.


Feedback from participants at previous Diploma Days:

“I got the feeling that a diploma is an achievable goal for me”

“I appreciated the positive, supportive atmosphere”

“I enjoyed hearing lots of different repertoire, some well-known and some new”

“Graham was fantastic at getting to the nub of things quickly and was hugely inspiring to performers and observers alike”


Graham Fitch has earned a global reputation as an outstanding teacher of piano for all ages and levels. He is a popular adjudicator, a tutor for the EPTA Piano Teachers’ Course, and a regular writer for Pianist Magazine with several video demonstrations on YouTube. His blog www.practisingthepiano.com features hundreds of articles on piano playing and together with his multimedia eBook series is read by thousands of musicians all over the world. His Online Academy, an invaluable resource for pianists of all levels, celebrates its fifth birthday in October.

Frances Wilson is a writer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist, and an advanced amateur pianist. A passionate advocate of adult amateur pianism, Frances co-founded the London Piano Meetup Group in 2013. She completed Licentiate and Associate Performance Diplomas (both with Distinction) in her late 40s, having returned to the piano after an absence of 25 years, studying first with Penelope Roskell and latterly with Graham Fitch. She has also attended masterclasses and courses with Murray McLachlan, Charlotte Tomlinson, Stephen Savage and Sarah Beth Briggs.  Frances has acted as a syllabus consultant for Trinity College London and London College of Music, and wrote teaching notes for the current ABRSM and TCL piano exam syllabuses. 

In this wide-ranging conversation Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) talks to pianist, recording artist and teacher Eleonor Bindman about the world of the amateur pianist, the pleasures and frustrations of being an amateur pianist, how teaching adult amateurs presents interesting unique challenges for teacher and pupil alike, and much, much more…..