The adult ‘returner’ pianist

I’m a returner pianist – and maybe, if you’re reading this article, you are too and therefore what follows will chime with you. Or perhaps you are thinking of taking up the piano again after a long absence (as I did), in which case you should definitely read on…..

I played at a piano club recently and during the coffee break someone asked me if I was “a professional pianist”. This gave me a momentary glow of pride – evidently I had “made an impression” – and I know that many amateurs dream of reaching the dizzy heights of ‘professional standard’ in their playing. It’s one of the things that keeps us motivated to practice; alone with that box of wood and wires we dream of playing to a full house to the Wigmore or Carnegie Hall.

So I replied that no, I was an amateur pianist, an adult ‘returner’ and that I had given up the piano at the age of nineteen, returning to it just shy of my fortieth birthday with an all-consuming passion for the instrument, those who play it and its vast and varied literature. (You can read more about my return to the piano at the end of this article.)

The world of the adult amateur pianist is a curious one – at once rich, vibrant and varied, but also obsessive, anxious and eccentric. But above all, it is inspiring, and in my encounters with other adult pianists, through my piano group and on piano courses, I come across myriad stories of triumph over adversity, personal tragedy and dogged determination, of unhappy childhood lessons abandoned only to rediscover the joy of the piano later in life, of exam successes and failures, the frustrations and pleasures of practicing, and the fear and thrill of performing, but what runs, fugue-like, through all these accounts is a genuine and often profoundly deep passion for the piano.

When you tell people you’ve taken up the piano again they always ask, “Are you any good?” And I never know quite what to say. Some days when my spirit and fingers are in sympathy with each other, I think I make a reasonable sound. On other days, spirit and fingers aren’t on speaking terms and the result is fumbling, dismal, depressing.

Alan Rusbridger, journalist and amateur pianist

When I put out a call for contributions to this article via Twitter, I was deluged with responses, as varied, fascinating and moving as the literature of the instrument we play. What follows are just a few of the responses, but what they demonstrate is that, while there are some obvious common threads, our reasons for returning to and playing the piano are often deeply personal and hugely meaningful to us as individuals, and that our passion for the piano is all-consuming. Never forget that the word “amateur” derives from the Old French word meaning “lover of” from the Latin amator: all the amateur pianists I meet and know play the piano because they love it and care passionately about it. Our love drives our commitment to the instrument – amateur pianists are possibly the most dedicated practicers – and many of us are absorbed by a compelling need to get better, to progress, to master. It’s a lonely road to travel, which is why piano clubs and courses are so popular for the opportunity to meet others who are similarly driven and obsessed. Those of us who commit to the journey do so willingly; it’s an ongoing process, one which can provide immense satisfaction, stimulation and surprising creativity.

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That is not to say that professional pianists don’t love the piano too – of course they do, otherwise they wouldn’t do it, but a number of concert pianists whom I’ve interviewed and know personally have expressed a certain frustration at the demands of the profession – producing programmes to order, the travelling, the expectations of audiences, promoters, agents etc, which can obscure the love for the piano. Because of this, professionals are often quite envious of the freedom amateur pianists have to indulge their passion, to play whatever repertoire they choose and to play purely for pleasure.

Now, back to those inspiring adult returners…..

My primary reason for returning was that both my parents had lived the last ten or twelve years of their lives with advancing dementia, as well as some second degree relatives. I thought the best way to really work my brain was to go back to playing music. The secondary reason was to help relieve stress which was something my piano teacher had told me I would need at some point in my life……For me, having started to suffer the lacunar strokes in my family history which have a type of dementia related to them, I keep hold on the fact that the part of the brain the works with music is usually the last to fail. I still feel that playing the piano is probably one of the best avenues to take to keep working the brain. Apart from that I simply love playing again. – Eleanor

It was the death of an uncle which prompted me to return to the piano. He was very musical, and after he died my other uncle asked me whether I would like his piano, a rather fine Steinway grand which had been in the family for ages. However, grand pianos are somewhat incompatible with the three bedroom semi in which I live, but it did remind me how much I’d enjoyed the piano. I was lucky enough to be left some money in his will, and with that I bought a Yamaha upright with silent system fitted. I wanted a proper acoustic, but I have young children so a silent system means I can practice at night after they are in bed. I have lessons once a fortnight and they are completely indispensable for my enjoyment

– Sarah

I studied music at university and did two years of a performance major but struggled with various chronic injuries and dropped out as a result (I had two operations and had seen many medical specialists in attempt to resolve these problems). I then “sold my soul” to capitalism and started a business, following which I continued along a corporate career. I had always dreamed of getting back into playing but my schedule was punishing and not at all conducive to playing. I started to play again and unfortunately ended up with RSI (tennis elbow) which swiftly ended my return to playing. Then a few years later I managed to extricate myself from the corporate world and…..I managed to start playing again and although I had some niggles from the RSI, was able to play around 0.5 – 1 hrs a few days a week. I also started going for lessons with [a teacher who] focussed very much on reducing tension…..and I realised how much of my injuries came down to poor technique and tension. I wish a greater emphasis had been placed on this when I was a music student because while [my teacher] helped me find a much more natural, comfortable way to play, it was already too late and my RSI flared up again to the point where a few minutes of playing would leave me in agony for days. It was devastating after so long of trying to be in a position to have the time to play that I wasn’t able to. A few years later (whilst consistently seeing medical specialists and trying various approaches) I managed to have a breakthrough in which I was able to slowly start playing again, a few minutes every second day and was able to gradually build up. This was a useful exercise in that I had to be more focussed on practising effectively given the limited time available. Despite being told by numerous doctors that I wouldn’t play again, I’m now able to play for up to an hour on some days. This has been sufficient to learn some new repertoire and to perform in some amateur meet-up groups which has really been a wonderful experience. In fact, once I was able to let go of the inner critic (as a former music student, the inner critic remains highly developed even though one’s technical ability wanes without practice!), I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed playing. It would have never have occurred to me all those years ago when I dropped out of university that I’d be able to derive so much enjoyment out of playing as an amateur.

– Ryan

I originally started piano lessons aged 13, of my own volition; I’d had one of those 80s electronic keyboards that were all the rage back then, and wanted to progress to something more substantial. My progress was very slow, however, and ultimately not very fulfilling. I managed to pass my Grade 1 but found the exam experience stressful. I think a lot of it had to do with the prescriptive way children are typically taught: everything was just scales, sight reading and set pieces that weren’t especially fun or engaging to play. Nearly twenty years later, I was in a piano bar on holiday, and the pianist was playing modern music set to piano. It was beautiful, and I felt a sense of regret that I had abandoned such a beautiful instrument. On returning home, I did a spot of research and found that digital pianos had come on a long way in the intervening years and were now touch-sensitive with weighted keys and even a sustain pedal. I took the plunge, ordered a decent model (the Yamaha P115) and signed up for lessons with a local teacher. It’s been a wonderful decision, and I have fallen in love with playing. It’s still small steps, but I practice regularly and have actively witnessed improvement in my own playing.

– Colin

I discovered classical music as a teen (Bach) and started taking lessons. I wanted to be a composer, and eventually became a composition major at a local university. Having started late, and not having received family support and good advice from those who did support me, I let my insecurities defeat me, and I ended up getting a degree in English. Decades later, we inherited a spinet from a relative, and I found my passion once again. I finally have a good teacher, and am making progress toward being the pianist I wanted to be.

– Bob

And what of me, the author and creator of this blog who through my activities tries to support and advocate for amateur pianists? Discouraged from applying to music college with the suggestion that I wasn’t “good enough”, I threw myself into other studies (Medieval English), followed a non-musical career path for 10 years, while setting up home, getting married and starting a family. But in my late thirties, when my son was about eight, my mother bought me a digital piano and urged me to start playing again. So I dug out the music I had loved as a teenager – music by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy – and also some I had hated: Chopin’s Nocturnes. I fell in love with Chopin’s music; coming at it as an adult with a greater degree of life experience, I found it vivid, beautiful, passionate, poignant – and incredibly satisfying to play. I also returned to Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux, music I’d first started playing (badly!) at the age of about 12 when my mother bought me an Edition Peters score of this music, having heard Alfred Brendel play the Impromptus in concert. Within a couple of years, I was teaching piano to the children of friends and acquaintainces I’d met via my son’s primary school, and in 2007, my husband bought me a proper acoustic piano. The instrument arrived, and I spent hours and hours playing it and learnt the first movement of Schubert’s final sonata – in a day. Within eighteen months I was having lessons again with a sympathetic teacher who improved my technique beyond recognition and built my confidence. When she suggested I start looking at Chopin’s Etudes and Ballades, I knew I had reached a significant point in my piano journey – I felt I was now a “real” pianist – and she supported my decision to take a professional performance diploma (in fact, I took two and passed both with Distinction, under her guidance). Meanwhile, I had started writing this blog, initially to record my thoughts about the experience of playing the piano again, music I was enjoying at home and at concerts. (I had no notion of how successful and popular this blog would become in the subsequent 10 years.) Today I work in music: I’m not a professional pianist, but I am a ‘music professional’ (a writer, blogger, teacher and, more recently, a publicist working with musicians, and concerts manager), and everything I do now goes back to that decision to return to the piano at the age of 39. I’ve forged firm friendships through piano courses and clubs, and made significant connections with professional pianists, teachers, bloggers and others, and I know I would not given up this life for anything now.

My piano journey has been relatively straightforward compared to some of the accounts of other adult returner pianists, but we are all on our own personal path, some of us supported by teachers, others choosing to “go it alone”, but all driven by a common, consuming passion for the piano.


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Last weekend I ran a masterclass for members of the Hitchin Piano Club who are taught by a teaching friend of mine. It was the first time I’d taught adults in this format and I found the experience hugely enjoyable and stimulating – and I think the participants did too. In addition to one-to-one coaching while the others observed, we covered warm up exercises away from the piano, managing performance anxiety and finished the day with a listening game in which participants were asked to try to identify nationality, period and style of a selection of pieces chosen from Spotify. The day ended with me giving my friend a brief lesson, which was interesting for both of us and an important test of mutual respect and trust.

The commonest issue with adult amateur pianists tends to be performance anxiety – by which I don’t mean the fear of playing in an actual concert, but simply playing in front of other people. This anxiety has its roots in a number of places, including negative musical experiences in childhood and the simple, and entirely understandable, fear of making mistakes and feeling a fool in front of one’s peers. Whenever I discuss performance anxiety with any student, I stress that such feelings of anxiety are normal, natural and common – even amongst top-class professional musicians. Until fairly recently, performance anxiety – like injury – was not discussed amongst professionals. It was considered taboo to mention it for fear of admitting to a weakness, but recent projects such as Charlotte Tomlinson’s Beyond Stage Fright and interviews with leading musicians who have revealed their own anxieties and how they deal with them, has led to greater openness. Personally, I find a state of acceptance about the symptoms of performance anxiety, coupled with solid preparation of one’s music, can lead to greater confidence in performance, whether this involves playing in someone’s living room on a Sunday afternoon, as at our Piano Day, or in a formal concert.

The participants in Sunday’s piano day had not been taught in a masterclass format before and I tried to ensure that even while I was giving individual coaching, everyone found something useful in what I was saying and doing with the other student. In fact, the masterclass format can be one of the most useful and inspiring ways of being taught – one can learn a great deal by listening and observing, and I encouraged the others to comment on one another’s playing, including differences in sound and touch. We covered a number of technical aspects, such as rotary motion and lateral arm movement to help certain players release tension in their hands and arms, and to help them achieve the kind of sound they envisaged.

My main aim when teaching is to help students to achieve the sound and emotional content they desire in their music and to enable them to play with colour, expression and confidence. To achieve this, I use visualisation techniques in my teaching, asking students to explain what they like about the music they are playing, to describe the character of the music and ascribe a narrative or mental picture to it to help them create a vivid portrayal in their playing. Technique, such as a cantabile legato or particular type of staccato, gives us the tools to create timbre, mood and emotional impact in music, and technique must always be seen as something with a clear musical purpose. Combine solid technique with imagination and the rather elusive “artistic vision”, and one can create wonderful music, and play with confidence and authority.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable and very stimulating day and a pleasure to work with a group of such engaged and receptive students.

Repertoire played:

Mozart – Fantasy in D minor, K.397

Philip Glass – Metamorphosis 3

Beethoven – Sonata in F minor, Opus 2, No. 2 & Sonata in D, Opus 10, No. 3

 

Further reading

Masterclasses without tears

More than hobbyists – the world of amateur pianism