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TEACHING PIANO TO OLDER STUDENTS

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

There is nothing different -- and everything different -- about teaching the piano to older students! Working in a cooperative partnership seems to be the key to happy and successful lessons for us.


What does partnership specifically mean? Here are six answers:


1. SHOW MUTUAL RESPECT AND TRUST - The teacher must trust and respect that we older students often know how we learn best, and thus, we can sometimes choose an effective way to learn something. That way may differ from how the teacher was taught and what works for them, but some teachers ineffectively focus on "productivity" rather than focus first on joy and the student trying out this or that. They seem to teach from the paradigm of "my way or the highway."


2. TAKE AMATEURS SERIOUSLY - Too many traditional piano teachers consider only concert-track pianists to be "serious." but nothing could be farther from the case. Well-reputed pianist and teacher Seymour Bernstein makes it clear:


"On the positive side, amateur musicians protect the sacred art of music even more

than most professionals do. There are, to be sure, dilettantes among them. But some

amateurs have achieved the level of competence that we associate with professional

musicians. They differ from professionals, however, in two respects: they make their

living in non-musical fields, and they perform and compose for one reason only – a love

of music, as the word amateur implies. Strange as it may seem, many professional

musicians, caught up in the vicissitudes of careers, have all but forgotten their initial love

of music. To elevate serious amateurs to the status they deserve, I have placed them in a new category – the professional-amateur. The future of music is safe in their hands. In the

end, it is they who will defend and promulgate music, not to gain public acclaim, but to

benefit from and communicate music’s harmonizing properties, and not for financial

gain, but for the spiritual enlightenment which money cannot buy." (From "Monsters and Angels: Surviving a Career in Music")


3. ALLOW THE RIGHT TO CHOOSE WHAT I LOVE - Part of "partnership" involves having the right to play exactly what most pleases and interests you! I prefer Romantic era pieces but sometimes what I want to play extends to a modern pop song if it's in a leisurely, romantic, mellifluous, and lyrical style having a clear melody line that I can hum during the day. Mendelssohn and a number of pieces from "Songs Without Words," and then the gorgeous George Fenton score from the film "Dangerous Beauty," come to mind!


Francis Wilson, a British piano teacher, and prodigious music writer and blogger, has written extensively about adult piano students as well as about the struggles and spirits of musicians. I resonate to her perspectives that you can find published in articles on the Interlude music website. In one she says:


"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!"


It was as if she were speaking right to me personally.


Recently I discovered piano teacher Gaili Schoen, another prodigious, generous, and talented writer in the piano world, a writer of many piano books for those over age 50. She sponsors a website chock full of encouragement, and fascinating resources for the later-life student. Of particular note is a cogent paper she wrote on the topic of teaching the adult student.


She well knows that we adults come to piano lessons wanting to play a particular style of music, not just learn basic music theory. We want to "play" and have fun; a point I have made a number of times in my other blogs and to each of my three former piano teachers.


4. GIVE AFFIRMATIVE HELP INCREASING SELF-CONFIDENCE - (not saying as I one time heard, "I can't give you self confidence" -- as if I thought that they could!)


No -- but you can certainly create safe, joyful learning conditions encouraging exploration of various strategies and hard work to achieve success and become more confident! And without care if you apply the same rules to all students without individual consideration and first listening to watch and learn each student;s best style of learning, a teacher is liable sooner rather than later to trigger an unwanted response and even residual trauma in the student.


Gaili, like Francis, also knows that we adults suffer a lot of self-doubt, and recommends that the teacher "without being disingenuous" tell the adult student what they have improved and encourage them to judge progress not by comparison to child geniuses populating YouTube videos today, but by comparison to themselves. Our doubt is clearly self-imposed, most likely caused by a number of reasons going from "perfectionism" we learned as a child up to adult experiences involving humiliation in public from a failed performance of some kind. Self-doubt also likely comes from having a belief that talent and ability are fixed from birth. I now realize that is true for some, but others of us can learn and improve with effort and trying different strategies (called by Professor Carol Dweck, a "not yet" mentality). I am now focused on "how to improve" and a positive mindset, rather than erroniously wondering if I am just not able to learn. I now know I am!


Even professional musicians in orchestras suffer self-doubt, according to cellist Janet Horvath. She concluded however, that "Most often, I think, colleagues are very supportive, and it’s our perception of ourselves that is coloring our interpretation."


5. GIVE ROUTINE POSITIVE AND SPECIFIC FEEDBACK - When one teacher told me that they do tell me where I have made progress, my response was basically to "please keep telling me!" Once is just not enough! That's precisely because I have a struggle with self doubt to overcome. I think older adults deal with this issue more than do younger students, and Gaili seems to agree with me. Further, early on I was unsure of the meaning my teacher's silence in response after I played some passage I had been working on. if I did it correctly, why did he not say so? Was there some problem remaining that he would come back to later? I had to ask him for specific feedback when I did something right, and if I excelled at it, a brief and honest statement of the same.


6. DON'T REQUIRE ME TO PERFORM, THEN DO RESPECT MY ANSWER BY NOT ASKING ME AGAIN - Like any person and particulaly women whose voices have traditionally been ignored or discounted, even by some male teachers today, I want my voice heard and respected. As Gaili mentions, some older students like me have no intention, much less opportunity or urge to perform on a concert stage; we simply want to learn and grow, and that is not possible when we "recite" or "perform." which is only a demonstration of skill in technique, musicality, and nerves. In fact a neighbor and I share an intention to never "perform" on the piano, even in the company of only a friend or two and at home. From time to time I agree to "share" music and play for a friend, but that's a creature of a different color from "performance," at least in my mind.


For me, it's a matter of framing the issue in the least threatening way. I wrote and read at my Christening Party for The Duchess, the below poem to let my guests know they were welcome, but not required, to come up and play a piece on her. Perhaps my favorite quote about releasing self-doubt is that by Francis Wilson:


Gaili well understands some or many late-life students' hesitancy to "perform" in public. Instead of setting up periodic "recitals" which can be a nerve-producing thought even for younger students, she sets up piano and poetry gatherings or tea parties at her home! Now that I would happily attend, read some of my recent music-related poetry, and most likely also sit down to play one of the sweet, simple, short and lyrical pieces that I've lately memorized (Heller's Etude No. 38 from his collection of 50 Etudes, or Louise Farrenc's No. 1 from 25 Etudes, come to mind).


In the meantime I am always pleased when one of my three cats, normally the magnificent "line backer" Prince (weighing in at over 20 pounds), lies under my piano to enjoy my concert. At least I'm never nervous when he listens!


Solely From Love This is not a night for perfection, but a time for reflection and being with friends who share a love for music, but without care for other than what inside we hear, without barrier, strife, or fear that from our ego emanate. So rest in peace and wait for your inspiration should she come, and play or express solely from love.


Thus, any teacher of mine cannot have as a professional goal, to demonstrate her or his teaching skills by my "student recital" in public, because that just won't happen. My teacher has to teach and reach me from a shared and keenly-felt deep love of classical music, particularly the kind of music that I adore, namely from the Romantic period.

* * *

In sum, it is critical for me:

(1) to feel respected as a partner in our teaching-learning paradigm,

(2) be able to work mainly on pieces I love, and

(3) see my teacher welcome (and not express frustration or impatience with me) when I need to slow down, think through the answer to a theory question (not easy for me), learn one technical element at a time, and sometimes ask,"may I try my approach first, then we can evaluate that and I'll move on to your suggestions."


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