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  • Writer's picturerhapsodydmb


Updated: Jun 4, 2023

Shaky self esteem and self confidence seem to be major challenges for many senior or "older" adult piano students. A former piano teacher pointed out that one of my principle challenges in learning the piano, was "lack of adequate self confidence." They apparently believed that I had more ability to learn than I believed. I lost patience too quickly and did not fully comprehend or appreciate how difficult learning to play the piano is, the teacher said. These comments seemed somewhat amusing to me because they were like "preaching to the choir;" I had been struggling with these matters throughout the prior nine-months of lessons!

(As an aside, and furthermore, upon reflection I decided that my frustration and seeming "lack of patience and self confidence" were not principally about those matters, nor due to "not listening" as the teacher also said. In fact, they came from exactly the opposite: a teacher rushing me to accomplish five things at once, rather than allow me sometimes to slow down and experiment in a way that to me, made more sense in the moment. I wasn't, and am not, in this learning endeavor only, or even principally, to "be productive." I have no timetable in which to accomplish some technique, since I'm not going to perform on the concert stage.)

But as for self-esteem and self confidence, are they significantly different, the same or related, from where do they come, and how can I enhance mine? If the two words differ in meaning, how can they both be developed by oneself and what is the role of a teacher when it comes to piano lessons and gaining competence in pianism?

Wikipedia says that self-esteem is an evaluation of one's own worth. Self confidence is trust in one's ability to achieve some goal (called self-efficacy by one researcher). Psychologist Albert Bandura noted that you can have general self confidence, but lack it in one specific circumstance or activity. That seems to apply to me. I have in my professional and avocation endeavors, mainly been quite confident. These days I am more and more confident about what I observe/hear and like in music -- but not so much in learning and implementing technique in playing my piano

But in the end, do I really care if there is a difference in those two words or concepts?

What seems relevant for me is to develop and have more of both. What I concluded is central to doing just that, is to change my belief system. I needed to find ways to believe more in myself and my ability to learn and grow. Ilinka Vartik is an expert at assuring me of that in her awesome online piano videos!

But how to do so? I had some vague ideas about that, but the answer wasn't brought home to me until I came upon Carol Dweck's detailed academic research and writings on self-esteem, and her book, Self-theories: their role in motivation, personality, and development.

I had a good bit of self esteem and confidence when I came to piano lessons two years ago, in part based on my upbringing, but also based in experience in a long life pursuing two challenging former careers. Yet I came to think that perhaps I had no ability to learn the piano. I had a belief system that talent in playing the piano was a fixed matter, and that I had been born without much of that, despite my former accomplishments as an amateur in other new endeavors including in some other arts such as dance and painting.

A belief system that sees one's "abilities" as fixed and God-given, makes for a "simpler world that is easy to know" and feels secure, says Dweck. But do I want to always live a "safe" life? That has never been my mantra or how I lived life prior to post-retirement piano lessons. So my belief system did not match my life experiences, or my values. Yet when it came to piano lessons, something was terribly out of synch. The discord augmented my confusion and frustration during some piano lessons when I reached the breaking point and twice wanted to give up (I did not!). I needed to get my beliefs regarding the piano consistent with my life experience, and back into alignment with my core values: adventuring, curiosity, and learning!

When I read Dweck's book, I realized that I could shift my belief system about the piano, back to how I have always lived and believed:

Confident that I am able to learn

with effort, time, and proper strategies in a

relatively safe learning environment.

That realization has restored my motivation to continue learning to play the piano and to put in the effort and patience required to achieve my long-term goals. I know long-term changes and persistence require reinforcement of one's belief system, but I can do a lot to secure it by self-messaging and need not rely on a teacher or others. One method I use are the positive and specific flash cards on my music stand that I review daily. Another method is associating with others who encourage and have faith in me (pictured above, I'm with my always-encouraging neighbor piano mentor-friend, Joe Torres). Another is to keep my mom's smiling photo on the music stand side tray, because her message was always to work hard and persist!

After all, positivity is catching, and as Maya Angelou said:

"If you try, you may fail -- but you may fly!"


Standing at my kitchen sink,

The warmth of water immersing hands,

Something reaches within to an unknown place,

And a memory of Mom comes back unplanned.

Nearing now the ninth year

Since she opted to finally lie down,

Leaving me like all the rest

Of us who in life move on alone.

But in my pause from washing dishes,

A lovely thought came to mind:

The childhood gift my mother gave

As our creative natures intertwined.

It started with the joy of art,

As together we happily passed the time

Sitting on the floor to make

Collages with things we’d find,

Like feathers, sequins, crayons, and lace,

Finger paints, colored chalk, and glue,

We’d draw and paint some butterflies

Plus flowers and milk weed pods, too.

Then proudly, both, we’d hang them up

On my pink bedroom wall to cheer,

The reason, oh, so clear to me:

To see the enormous love we shared.

But best of all the gifts Mom gave?

My high school Baldwin spinet piano,

Far beyond my Mom’s experience,

But somehow, somewhere deep she knew

To plant the seed and let it grow.

All these years, the melody there,

Resting silent as life I lived,

Until at last I became aware:

Something called from deep within,

A need to self express, a drive

To play after such a long time,

A senior now, coming alive!

So many years now that you left

Me to move on with life alone,

I wonder if when looking down

You see me thriving on my own,

Sitting at my sweet small spinet,

Striving to get better as I play,

Sometimes cursing, fingers overlapping

In the most frustrating, awkward way?

And so you smile, undoubtedly,

Because you taught me to persist!

Then you fold me in your angel wings,

And strum your harp as we rise at last.

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