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Are Adult Piano Students Stigmatized?

Here are riveting quotes from two adult students:
The Italics are my emphasis.

1) “I feel like I’m in the adult student ghetto, where much latitude is given and few results are expected. We’re all supposed to be doing it ‘for fun.’ In a way, of course, that’s right. But in another way, if we wanted pure fun we’d spend our free time riding roller coasters.” http://www.mymusiclifeblog.blogspot.com/

2) “Here’s what I believe teachers often find among adult students:

“Wanting to be able to play favorite music without taking much time and without getting into depth that would create musicianship. That is the experience, and therefore the expectation with adult students.

“Result: Either adult students are rejected by good teachers (leaving us with those who have to take anyone), or the teaching is geared to that mindset. This is the general picture out there.”

“…. Supposing that the adult has never studied music, and so does not know what is involved. The teacher keeps it superficial on a level the student can easily relate to; how the piece goes, a bit of reading, just enough theory to get by, if that. The pieces get harder, but it stays like that. This adult student will not know that anything is missing. No other dimensions open, no tasks or studies to stretch the mind and physical being. Even though this student has a teacher, he does not have access to the teaching, and also doesn’t know it! He is shut out. If a teacher never tries to present these other things, how can these doors ever open? How can we seek what we don’t know exists? How can we change our mindset?”

Both powerful statements evoke periods in history when oppressed peoples gathered in public places to have their voices heard.

Sadly, for adult students, who are not as yet part of a mass movement, their private feelings of rejection and expressions of dismay are localized to blog sites and niche driven Internet forums: Piano World, Piano Street, Piano Addict, Piano Society, Piano World Wide, you name it.

Not everyone who should, gets to hear them.


The tendency to characterize a whole population of adult students with a catchy one-liner is the REAL PROBLEM and music teachers, (and let’s zero in on piano instructors) are often guilty of applying stereotypes to them.

I’ve heard the full blown prejudice unmasked at music teacher meetings; at festivals with down time in the break room; and just walking past a group of chatty teachers in the lounge following a university-hosted recital. The environment can be so hostile that if a teacher dares to disagree with the prevailing sentiment, he or she is alienated from the “club.” Are we back to adolescence, peer pressure, and social ostracism?

Any teacher who thinks all adult students are goofing-off, time- wasting, billable units, needs a wake up call, or a serious form of psychotherapy.

In a previous blog that was meant to be humorous, I had insisted that adult students sometimes said the “darndest things.” I was not referring to the greater population of 20 plus to perhaps 75, but just those pupils who had occupied a significant amount of weekly time in my studio over years.

One pupil, an attorney by profession, in his 50s, took his piano studies so seriously, that to come to a lesson without sufficient preparation (in his mind) had required a “pardon” of sorts. He wanted me to know that the session would be a “practice,” only. In jest, I ran with that, and suggested he feared the dire consequences of not meeting his own expectations. It was a bit of an extreme image, involving a public flogging, but it illuminated the intensity of this student’s musical study.

Another student, age 70, posted at the Fresno Beehive that her GROUP lessons were unsatisfying and wasteful. She admitted that private lessons afforded an in-depth journey on multiple levels: Theoretical, musical, historical, which ironically related back to the second quote at the opener of this writing.

To be completely honest, this pupil, whom I’ve know up front and personal for years, can’t always devote the kind of time she needs to progress as quickly as she wants, but it’s not quantity that’s relevant to her studies, but rather, quality.

Still another adult I’ve worked with comes from the other side of the spectrum. She has a list of repertoire of such an advanced nature that to keep up with her is a daunting task. Certainly, she does not fit into a boxed category for her demographic, and could not be easily dismissed by piano teachers as barely treading water from lesson to lesson. Yet, she has periods where her work and travel interfere with a forward-moving curve of progress, but this is real life with accommodations that have to be made to keep a sensible perspective.

If we step back and examine why teachers insist on harping about adult students winging it from week to week, having no commitment to practicing and wanting only superficial musical exposures, then we might just figure out that these instructors are WINGING it themselves and not INDIVIDUALIZING their teaching to meet the needs of each and every student regardless of age.

Students from 7 to 70 cannot be easily categorized. If they are, then we as teachers, should reconsider our career choices.

An eight-year old student with a very pushy mother, might practice daily under a form of coercion. (A Tiger mom, perhaps?) Another could have a parent who views the lessons quite casually, not supporting the framework introduced by a very committed and conscientious teacher. Such a pupil, even if motivated by a competent instructor, might find lessons to be culture-alien. Culture encompasses a lot more than an ethnic association. In the main I’m referring to baseball, football, soccer, and basketball that unswervingly compete with piano. These sports-related activities often absorb a lion’s share of a child’s life, leaving piano practice on the sidelines.

Adult students come to lessons as free agents….

Adult pupils, in my experience, are not forced by anyone to sign up for lessons or to practice. To date, I’ve never had to deal with interfering soccer practices, or high school tennis matches. There are no hovering, pushy moms or dads to get in our studio space.

Most adults want to learn as best they can given complicated work schedules, and family obligations. That’s a fact!

Ruling them out as prospective students because of rampant innuendo is an injustice to the group as a whole and to each and every one who has a unique past, present and future.

Getting down to individuals and their needs is the bottom line best way to proceed.

Just as some younger students don’t make the best use of their time, or fail to practice assignments with any degree of regularity, there may be adults who do the same. I’m sounding like a broken record!


Piano teachers and adult students need a lesson or two in how to communicate.

The first interview should enlighten, and encompass the following:

1) What does the student set as goals for his/her piano study?
2) How much time can be realistically devoted to practice from week to week?
3) What music genre is of special interest to the student?

The Teacher should spell out the program or curriculum in detail as well as the requirements for optimum advantage to the student and his progress. It should include the materials recommended that will lay a substantial foundation for the study of a wide variety of repertoire. (Include incremental doses of theory, music history, and keyboard harmony)

If there’s a meeting of the minds about the goals and how to reach them, the path to a harmonious two-way relationship between adult student and teacher can begin to be paved. (Incidentally, cancellation and make up policies should be explored in detail from the outset, barring future misunderstandings)

Along the way, any bumps in the road should be addressed without a long time delay that could cause a deteriorating relationship and a resentment build-up on both sides.

A reasonable perspective embraced by the teacher, stripped of perpetual myths about adult students would get the ball rolling in the right direction.

P.S. If you’re an adult piano student, please feel free to share your experiences.




26 thoughts on “Are Adult Piano Students Stigmatized?”

  1. hi shirley, i’ve been following your blog posts for quite a while now. i am an adult piano student and i am a very ambitious student, i can say. i set my own goals and the kinds of pieces that i’d like to play in the future. although i’ve just taken up piano lessons for 2 years now, i’m currently working on Mozart’s 12 variations of Twinkle2 little star, chopin waltz no. 7 and partita no 2 (just the sinfonie) and beethoven’s pathetique (mov 2 and 3). it’s not that i want to play BIG pieces; it’s just that i fell in love with them whilst listening on Youtube particularly Valentina Lisitsa’s channel and some other pianists that i found on youtube. the pieces are always playing in my head and if i can’t play what i hear in my head, i’d feel frustrated. i don’t mind practising long hours so long i can play the pieces that i love. i know that i still have to learn a lot, like my fingers are still not strong enough and my theory in music is only grade 1 (i get bored easily learning them). i don’t know why i am writing this but let’s take this comment as an adult student’s perspective of individuality in learning.


    1. Hi Nadia, Thanks for sharing your rich musical experience as an adult student. You have admirable passion for what you are doing and lots of musical rewards. Adult students can be a joy to teach because they have elected on their own to study piano. You certainly represent so many like yourself who relish the journey through so much great literature.


  2. I just started piano lessons a month ago. My kids ages 14 and 11 asked to take lessons. What I have found is that I am more interested in practicing than them. Things i have discovered is at at age 49, the memory, at least mine does not retain as easily and coordinating my fingers to move
    more fluidly is challenging. I want to learn for pure enjoyment. Am I just kidding myself ? I have been reading up on how pianists can play big pieces. It starts when you are a kid. A child’s memory builds upon pieces they have learned over the years. As an older adult, I won’t have that luxury and can only build what I can learn and remember at a much slower pace. I love listening to piano and jazz..I discovered a book fundamentals of practical piano and how to learn better and faster. If you have any tips for adult students in how they can improve MP and finger dexterity, I am all ears. I do practice daily…How much should adult students practice daily?
    The teacher I have like theory. I likes to compose. If I could learn to play fur elise some day that would be a goal of mine. Feel free to email me. I hubbed about learning piano at hubpages. alphagirl.com. I love it.


    1. Thanks for sharing. I just returned from fabulous concert given by Daniil Trifonov and will be blogging about it. One of my adult students was present at the interview I did with the artist, and asked some pertinent questions that might have relevance for you.. I will also think on your query, and get back. I leave for the Bay area early tomorrow, so there might be a delay in responding.


  3. I have always enjoyed teaching adult students far more than kids. Self motivated and it is always so interesting establishing a workable relationship with them. Even if they don’t always get the opportunity to practise I know that the fact they have committed to lessons is important and beneficial for them. Some incredibly rewarding memories of the achievements many of them attained and how in some cases it changed the course of their lives and their belief in themselves. Teaching is the greatest profession of them all!


  4. Hi, I’m an adult student (63), no previous music theory knowledge, who started 2 years ago and keeps to weekly (excepts for hols and trips etc) individual lessons. I practice 45 minutes everyday, and a bit more when I can. My teacher deals with kids mostly, but she is very good with adults in that she teaches us how to teach ourselves and make the best of practice time, rather than teaching us to play particular pieces – although that does come into it as well. I am quite forward in demanding what I want when I want it, be it how on earth to time triplets, or why the Grade One book imposes this or that fingering when a different fingering is easier, etc. And I bring her the issues I’ve met in practice, which we discuss. She then tries to find exercises that will work on that particular point.

    Lest you should think that this is Paradise, well … no! It bothers me that in spite of all this I am SO SLOW in my progress (for example after 2 years I could not do what nadia does, no way). And the other thing is that I cannot play anything correctly if someone’s listening to me. Which is kind of a damper on things when friends or family say “go on, play something!” I can’t play correctly to my teacher either – compared to what I achieve on my own with my digital piano’s headset) – but at least she and I can joke about it and I am learning not to mind so much.


      1. Thank you Shirley! And please keep writing the blog. Your posts and videos often give me the extra little push that I need when the keyboard is glaring reproachfully at me and I’m trying to procrastinate…Marie-Noëlle


    1. I wanted to add a tad to what I wrote: I find so many adult students have expectations to progress at a certain rate that they have set for themselves. And this can hem them in.
      I tell my students to allow for a gradual ripening process.. as has it’s analog in learning to walk from a crawling stage. Each journey is so unique, and teacher/student, collectively tailor make it in a patient environment. The more I read about your mentor, the more I admire her whole approach, most similar to mine, especially with adult students. You have a treasure, and she has the pleasure to work with you.

      Shirley K


  5. HI Shirley, congrats for your brilliant blog!
    I recently starting playing music after 15 years of rebellion (pushy parents who obliged me to play the piano against my will- I took a long teenage hiatus!). I have changed instrument (choosing MY instrument, not the one my parents wanted me to play: I chose thee, cello). I can’t tell you how frustrating it is and how I cannot stand playing infinite variations of twinkle twinkle little star (l recently found out that AM Bach’s menuet, a first year staple for first grade pianists,is a treat reserved for third- to fourth-grader cellist -so ridiculous!). However I am pleased to see how much easier it is to pick up than when I was a kid: first, I have control over my body (I know what is tense and what it is not, I know where things are in my body- which was not the case when I was growing up) and second, I understand music theory so much better ( I had learned by heart when I was a kid chord progressions, but only now I can fully appreciate e.g. why a a diminished fifth needs to be played in a certain way so that the whole tension can come out).
    Music is certainly fun but is also a mental exercise, and I think kids miss this experience that is extremely rewarding both to the student and to the teacher.

    SInce I am still so incompetent as cellist, I also took the opportunity for signing up for chamber music and rekindle my strained relationship with the ivories (we are playing next week Grenados’ Andaluza and we are not half as bad!)
    I think everyone who was forced to play some instrument as a kid (and believe me, I cried every week begging my parents not to go) and hated it as a consequence should try to see the full picture through the lenses of an adult and see if there is something salvageable: for me going back to music school was the ultimate smack down to my parents.



    1. Great set of comments that enlivened my day! And please “rekindle” your precious ties to the 88s. It’s worth the journey at every and any stage of life. I just took on a senior/senior citizen if one can piggyback age levels. It was quite a surprise, observing this woman’s immediate re-connection to what she thought was lost in the dark ages of time. Incidentally, a walking partner of mine, mentioned a study conducted by a psychologist attesting to the positive outcomes of parents who did NOT let their kids quit piano prematurely in the face of the usual complaints. Those children, when they became adults were GRATEFUL to mom and dad for not capitulating at the kids’ whim.
      Bravo to those wise guardians of youth!


  6. I’m extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s rare to see a great blog like this one today.


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