The adult learner

It’s always pleasing to meet people who play the piano as adults (I am of course referring to amateur pianists as opposed to professionals who play for a living). Some have played all their life; some return to the piano after an absence; and some take it up from scratch as a hobby or personal challenge.

Those of us who teach adults appreciate that the experience can be enjoyable, stimulating, challenging and occasionally frustrating, and requires a slightly different approach from teaching children and teenagers. Adults often come to piano lessons with pre-conceived ideas about playing the piano and their own abilities, ideas which may have been inculcated in them from a young age by a dogmatic teacher or pushy parent, and can be hard to shift. We all carry with us baggage from our upbringing and our past, yet it never fails to amaze me how much baggage some of us carry around from our childhood piano lessons, and it can have a detrimental effect on one’s attitude to returning to or taking up piano lessons as an adult. One of my current adult students (a retired lady in her late 60s) told me during our initial interview that her brother and sister are “proper musicians”, by which I thought she meant they were professional musicians. In fact, her definition of “proper” was that they had completed all their grade exams, and she had not, yet when this lady played some Handel for me, I could tell immediately that she had the kind of musical sensibility that would fall into my definition of a “proper” musician. Another former adult student of mine had been denied piano lessons as a child by her piano teacher mother, who apparently had not had the time, nor the inclination, to teach her. When her mother died, this woman decided to make learning the piano a way of both celebrating her mother’s memory and also proving to her late mother that she was capable of learning the instrument: the lessons, while they lasted, were less about piano music and more about the emotional hang ups this woman had carried with her from childhood. Some adults simply want someone to talk to, and the piano and music become secondary to having someone’s undivided attention and positive or kindly feedback once a week. At £45 an hour, it’s a relatively cheap form of therapy! (Unfortunately, I am a piano teacher, not a trained therapist!)

Adult learners are often fiercely self-critical, which again can be detrimental to their progress. To constantly criticise oneself or allow the toxic voice of the inner critic to rule one’s practise time and lessons sets up an unpleasant circle of negativity that can be hard to break, and as a teacher one needs to be sympathetic, positive and supportive. Other adult students have unrealistic expectations about their ability and progress and most have issues with confidence and playing in front of other people. Again, patience and gentle encouragement from teacher, along with sound advice on how to practise intelligently to make the music really secure, are crucial in helping adult learners gain confidence.

Many adult learners display a very high level of commitment, largely because they have made the decision to take up piano lessons because they want to. Nobody has told them to do it, and they are paying for the lessons themselves. They are keen for personal fulfillment or a challenge or new focus, and many are conscientious about lesson attendance and practising. Yet they can also feel frustrated if their day job or the exigencies of family life intrude on their time at the piano. One of the key roles of the teacher is to offer advice on practising to enable the adult student to practise efficiently between lessons, even if they have limited time, and to tailor lessons to what is achievable given their other commitments. Other adult students have very regular practise schedules and unsurprisingly these are the students who tend to make more noticeable and faster progress.

Confidence is nearly always a significant issue amongst adult learners, even those who play at an advanced level. The decision to take piano lessons as an adult is an act of great courage, and a good teacher of adults understands and respects this, and appreciates the fear that lurks on its flip side. It took me half and hour of gentle encouragement to persuade a new student (a London black cab driver) to actually sit at my piano at his first lesson, and I had to constantly reiterate that I would be non-judgemental and always positive in my language and approach. Feelings of inadequacy or anxiety about playing in front of a teacher often stem from childhood experiences – a demanding parent with unrealistic expectations or the perfectionist attitude of a teacher, the memory of a bungled performance or a failed exam. A good teacher will be sympathetic and will do his/her best to make the student feel comfortable, encouraging them to play through any errors and not to worry about giving a perfect performance but rather to focus on communicating the music with colour and expression. Taking adults back a few stages to easier repertoire can be helpful too: this should never be seen as an “easy option” but rather an exercise in improving confidence and learning how to make one’s music very secure so that one can play with fluency and confidence. Understanding the physiological aspects of anxiety, which are common to all of us to a greater or lesser degree, can also help adult learners manage their nerves.

Some adult learners are keen to take grade exams as a means by which to benchmark their progress and for the thrill of a challenge; others are happy to play for pleasure and one of the nicest aspects of being an adult learner is the freedom to select whatever repertoire one wishes to play. This does, however, lead to some arriving at lessons with music which is beyond their current capabilities, and so the teacher must be adept at managing expectations without discouraging the student. Sometimes it is possible to find simplified versions of the pieces in question, or the teacher will suggest good alternative. Fundamentally, one is there to support and inspire, not to question the student’s motivation or discourage them, and getting them playing and gaining pleasure from their playing, rather than spending time on dull exercises or technical work, is at the heart of the teacher of adults’ role. It’s not about quantity of notes or notching up grade exams, but the joy of music making and the fulfillment of personal goals.

Just as with younger students, the choice of teacher is very important to the adult learner, and a teacher with whom one feels comfortable is crucial to one’s progress – and vice versa. Every student is different and a good teacher is adept at structuring lessons to suit each individual’s needs and ability. Teaching is a responsibility, at whatever level one teaches or the age of one’s students, and mutual respect creates positive interaction and conversation. Adult amateur piano students demand as much respect (if not more, given the courage it takes to embark on piano lessons as an adult) as students in conservatoire or aspiring professional musicians, and as teachers we should never patronise nor talk down to them. Many are extremely knowledgeable about the music they are learning, others are ready to soak up, sponge-like, the knowledge and experience we as teachers can impart to them. Ultimately, the relationship between teacher and adult student can be intense and long-standing, one which starts as a professional business transaction and develops into a rewarding friendship which benefits both student and teacher.



3 thoughts on “The adult learner”

  1. Thank you for this great article. It is heartening to have the challenges faced by the adult learner acknowledged, and so eloquently. I have been chipping away at piano and organ for nearly 20 years, through the many ups and downs of life, having started learning both in my late 20s. The journey continues.


  2. I agree – an eloquent, insightful and touching article! I am a piano teacher to adult students. Thank you for this wonderful read. Thank you so much!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s