Are we adult piano students horses of a different color when it comes to lessons taken up in later life? Are there different ways we learn, compared to conservatory-track younger students? Are there different kinds of teaching relationships under which adults vs. youthful students thrive? The clear answer is "yes!"
An excellent summary of the differences required in teaching adults vs. youth is set forth here in an online article by the Teacher's College of Western Governor's University. Judging by my two years of piano lessons taken up in my late 70s, the most salient points are these:
Andragogy: The teacher acts more as a facilitator, encouraging collaboration, mutual respect, and openness with learners.
Pedagogy: The teacher acts more as an expert, bestowing knowledge, skill, and structure to learners.
According to the article,"andragogy demands that educators innovate and connect with adult learners in meaningful and applicable ways, and value the input and experience that adults bring to the learning environment. Pedagogy is focused on teacher-led instruction, while andragogy is focused on student-led instruction with the teacher as a facilitator."
I have previously asserted that (1) partnership, (2) mutual respect, (3) an unrushed process, and (4) a cordial, trusting relationship are key features of the lessons that I seek.
But I go one step farther to say there are substantial distinctions to be made between the mid-life mid-career adult student who returns to take up instrumental studies, and the retired older senior student like me. I'll address some of those nuances below and as my thoughts develop, likely in a later blog.
I've scoured my burgeoning musicology library and online for published discussions by piano teachers of adults who address the above questions. I've found only three piano teachers who comment cogently on this topic: Frances Wilson (thecrosseyedpianist.com), Andrew Earles (pianodao.com), and Gaili Schoen (UpperHandsPiano.com).
I also searched for music teacher associations or conferences focusing on the older adult student, but I found none. I recently received email notice of a major October conference in Britain for music teachers and wrote to inquire if students will be offering their perspective, even though the adult student seems not to be the focus of the conference. It made me wonder all over again: where are the conferences or lectures focused on improving teaching for hoards of baby boomer and retired instrumental students coming back to learn the instrument in their retirement years? (Seems like a great but overlooked source of new income for many piano teachers!)
Had I the present time or resources I'd surely like to organize such a conference, because the need is so obvious.
GAILI SCHOEN might be one of the original authors, or "the" original author writing about the topic of this blog. She is the author, Upper Hands Piano: A Method for Adults 50 to Spark the Mind, Heart and Soul, and dedicates a large part of her teaching efforts to the older adult. She has produced a prodigious amount of encouraging, helpful YouTube videos and compositional books "to spark the mind, body and soul" and dedicated to students over age 50. (She also loves poetry and arranges voluntary student "recitals" as poetry Salons!) She is incredibly generous to provide gratis simpler arrangements of classic and jazz/pop standards plus wonderful informative pdfs on a variety of piano theory. I can spend hours reading her encouraging, wide-ranging and informative blogs! Relevant to this blog's topic, you can access online her fabulous article in a pdf called "Geragogy", the teaching of older adults. She calls the delights and challenges as they are, including that adults often suffer more from lack of self confidence in starting from the ground up, than do younger students, and deserve particular understanding and empathy.
ANDREW EALES focuses his Piano Dao website on evaluating standard British graded-level compositions or collections of original works. He has a great article discussing the topic of the older student, and acknowledges that "many adults attending lessons grapple with anxiety in doing so." He summarizes the needs of adults as:
Adults need to understand why they need to learn something.
Adults need to build on and learn through their experience.
Adults need to feel responsible for their learning, including planning and evaluation.
Adults engage best with lessons that have immediate relevance to their needs and interests.
Adults respond best to lessons that are problem-focused rather than content-driven.
Adults learn best when motivation comes intrinsically.
FRANCES WILSON is a multi-talented pianist, teacher, musicologist, publicist, and writer -- certainly one of my favorite writers of pithy blogs on musicology, students, and the amateur adult. We share some of the same perspectives on leaving a piano teacher, not always the easiest thing to do but sometimes the proper solution to getting unstuck or encountering distress with another teacher.
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Eales says that "I am often approached by adult learners who have previously found themselves disappointed," and sadly, a friend with 40 yrs. of teaching experience concurs. Where piano teachers have failed in my case, include:
a. Not understanding and respecting my personal learning goals, goals that do not include "productivity", "efficiency" or "fast" as principle concerns. They do include joy, relationship, reasonable progress toward a credible expression of the composer's intention and the foundational elements of music, plus respect and time for how I learn best and things I want to try during my lesson.
b. Sending inconsistent messages such as "I want you to enjoy your lessons and music," then focusing mainly on productivity, doing it the teacher's way, not allowing me adequate time to learn or implement a new concept or technique or answer a theory question, or focusing on doing it the "easier" way, when easy and quick is not my goal, but is clearly the teacher's goal.
c. Quickly "diagnosing your problem" when they are not trained therapists, and haven't taken the time to ask me, the principal paying partner in this equation, "How do you feel about toady's lesson? Is there anything confusing or bothering you lately or today? What can I do to make our work together fit your goals better?" I wonder if many or most piano teachers have very fragile egos and are petrified of hearing a negative, having to change a routine applied to "most" students, or modify some of their own behavior? (The major problem of course, is an emotional one, that is, how to lead teachers to be open to receiving feedback, just as much as they like to give it).
THE RETIRED SENIOR STUDENT: One of the keen benefits of being a retired vs. a mid-life working adult piano student is that we are principally our own bosses these days, setting our self-determined (for the most part) priorities and enjoying, when we wish, a more leisurely pace than during our work lives. We play and study an instrument not for professional development, but for personal reasons and principally from a deep love of music and the instrument we choose, even if some amateurs become quite competent and perform in recitals or in public By retirement we know how we learn best (the teacher does not, or not yet; I'm an incremental learner, start simply or with what I find comfortable even if not the "easiest" then when I feel at ease, suggest another option and let me add or try that, and gradually I may come around to the "teacher's way!" However, the goal for me, is-well--simply to reach my goal plus enjoy the process all the way through.
For certain we have a keener sense of the passage of time and don't want to waste a minute of it suffering or playing and learning things that don't rather quickly give us ultimate pleasure. Not long ago a young professor in the Music Department of the Univ. of Calif. at Berkeley insisted that I "needed" to or "should" be willing to play Brahams, Mozart and Messian (of course, no women composers were mentioned), and etc. to "round out" my musical education, and another friend, a professional long-time piano teacher, suggested I study all nine or so books of Keith and Snell's piano theory -- but no, I don't and simply won't. I will learn theory gladly, if it relates to the piece I yearn to play.
I have more focused needs now that I am keenly realizing my personal and time limitations in life and health. Frankly, I have a number of other ways I want to spend my time and other things to learn. When it comes to music I want to learn first things first, namely the music, even simple lyrical pieces, that most brings me pleasure, and sooner, not a lot later, hear myself play it!
For my part I am extraordinarily happy playing purely for my three listening (or sleepy) kitties, or simply to credibly produce and be transported by a gorgeous or ingenious melody, or exercise a recently-acquired physical competence or sight-read more easily or identify the structure of a piece, or recognize a wider range of dynamic markings and other (recently I was thrilled to notice on a new score, then google and implement a new-to-me notation "swing 8ths"). I simply don't feel compelled to share my music with any person, yet I feel absolutely compelled to play it on my lovely Duchess!
In that sense, all discrete expressions of music, including writing about it, contribute to what Royal College of Music Professor George Wadell calls the wider "music ecology" and promote in our own unique ways, our keen love of music.
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