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Adult Piano Student Themes and Issues

Marie back Aiden frong

After decades in this teaching universe, I’ve acquired novel insights about the adult students with whom I’ve shared musical epiphanies. Of course, it goes without saying that they’ve provided more than a backdrop for my musings.

Surely, there’s no stereotype in this cosmos of retirees and a bit younger, but I’ve noticed common threads weaving in and out of their lessons.

Many exhibit a feeling that coming back to the piano at a more advanced age, or starting their studies in adulthood means they can’t possibly progress to a level of playing they envision for themselves. (Patience is sorely lacking)

Their built-in pessimism is not an attitude that best nourishes a musical journey.

In truth, state of mind, is a more significant ingredient of progress, than pounding away at scales and arpeggios.

So how does one deal with slipping and sliding egos and a pervasive lack of confidence among the adult pupil contingent? I affirm with reassurance that we are embarking upon a personal, tailor-made journey without value judgments and set-in-stone expectations.

The latter can seem like a superficial approach to teaching/learning but at least it invalidates an ultra performance environment that befits the corporate executive, not the nest-searching piano fledgling.

A few case histories:

Joan, a 63-year old returned to piano after a hiatus of 50 or so years. Her European mom taught her for a time, and there was classical music streaming through the house.

Strangely, her confidence gap was glaring and I got the sense that a second piano teacher along the way was punitive, harsh, and obsessed with a perfect, arched hand position, not to mention a fixation with playing the RIGHT notes or be escorted to the nearest exit.

(Another student, about the same age, had retread her traumatic experience being taught by a nun at a southwest Texas parochial school. It was break out the ruler, and burn the knuckles knee-jerk response when the hand collapsed–OUCH!!! Who could recover from that?)

A Polish grad student had suffered abandonment by a music teacher in the homeland who doted upon her older sister, and felt the latter could be primed for the concert stage at the expense of the younger sib. When the injured pupil arrived at my studio a decade later, she was a bundle of insecurity– beating up on herself for not “getting everything right” the first time.

Joan, my senior, had no playing sample for her first lesson, which was common among hyper-sensitive adults who tiptoed across my threshold. (Their thinking was I would audition them out of the running even when no such chorus line existed)

Many who’d previously taken lessons didn’t necessarily have remnants of their musical history stored in the piano bench. And that was a bit of a surprise.

Others, however, might come to the first lesson, with an armful of hymns, old collector’s item method books, like Diller-Quaille primers or John Thompson Red books, that had yellowed over time.

(One of my earliest piano teachers bestowed an old edition of the Chopin Waltzes bound in red hard cover, that when opened poured tiny flakes of parchment all over the rug. It was the stuff I’d seen tossed from balconies along Wall Street in ticker tape parades. Van Cliburn, upon his victorious return from the Soviet Union, was one of the few rarely feted MUSICAL heroes. It earned my personal BRAVOS!!)

Repairing past injuries

Pupils with fragile egos needed a form of on-the-premises psychotherapy that involved non-threatening, relaxed entrees into the learning environment. (A desensitization process that tested the merits of my NYU-awarded Music Therapy Master’s)

It was common sense that the very first lesson or interchange could make or break a budding musical relationship.

(I vividly recalled the first lesson with my traumatized, aforementioned senior with European roots. She sat hunched over the piano worrying what directions I would dispense and if she could meet the challenge)

In this teaching situation, intuition and instinct quickly replaced any method book approach. I had no intention of propping music on the rack with a required reading demand.

Instead, I just picked one note at a time, and worked with the timid student on producing a singing tone. It hearkened back to my own first lesson with NYC-based, Lillian Freundlich who promised to teach me to learn on my own, the most endearing gift she could have bestowed.

I borrowed from her in my own teaching universe. Likewise I wanted adult pupils to enjoy going BACK to an era of musical innocence– not perceived as being LEFT BACK –but building a good, solid foundation for the future.

We’d have a fresh expedition–a creative learning PROCESS that we’d nurture together for its own sake and intrinsic worth. Such seeped into my veins from Lillian, and enjoyed passage to my flock of adult students.

And that brings me to the subject of those who came full circle to the studio paralyzed by performance anxiety, a psycho-dynamic spectrum providing a field day for shrinks.

In past years, there was much talk about early psycho-sexual development and injuries to the Ego and Super Ego.

If an individual got stuck with the wrong parents, and later, an abusive piano teacher, there wasn’t a chance in hell he’d enjoy the spotlight of his own musical performance on stage, or even before a handful of “friends” who were quickly transformed into enemies through self-spun fantasies.

One of my poor adult students, a strapping US Attorney, bumped into a chandelier on the way to playing a Clementi Sonatina. That was worse than having his head pushed into music sitting on the rack after a few unwelcome clunkers. (He had recounted this nightmarish experience during lessons with a former teacher)

First he had to recover his senses before daring to participate in another home-based recital. (I made sure to stage these in a friendly environment, not up on a podium simulating a piano competition) My adult pupils shrank from such opportunities and barely wanted to come to potluck music-sharing. I’d be the only one playing amidst the popcorn popping.

Back to the performance anxiety milieu and how it affected adult piano students.

At least from my humble perspective, I believed the seeds were sown in childhood where parents registered disapproval or withheld love for imperfection.

To have confidence in anything one did–was to be at peace with oneself–to love oneself with all one’s short-comings—-a good first start to performing well.

Perhaps it was just the tip of the iceberg..

Love-starved kids might put all their energies into acquiring adoration through high intensity accomplishments–can you imagine the internalized pressure—and the world crashing down when their own expectations fell short–Impossible demands to meet.

It fed the adult anxiety spectrum and the nerves associated with playing for the TEACHER or any other warm body that entered the room–not to mention European juries that awarded certificates of achievement in a level-based spectacle. (I’d had a few foreign Skype students who were rushing to play for these judges that scared the hell out of them) So why did they bother? Did it go back to unreasonable demands made upon them in early childhood? Unreasonable expectations?

There’s lots to say—

In a recent spoof on all these certificates of merit, I imported an “Honorary Adult Student of the Week” platform to my home studio.

Ironically, the spontaneous, self-created piece of parchment bolstered the confidence of an originally, shaky adult student and sent her beaming out the door.

No doubt my cat, Aiden felt gratified, too, because he snuggled with her at each lesson, blessing the woman with good feelings about herself.

Finally, I wish the same well-being for all adults in their piano-launched journeys no matter where they reside, here or abroad.

Marie, as she earned her sparkling medallion and proudly displayed it after some prodding.

In addition she was added to my Wall of Fame at the entrance way.

Here’s Marie in piano karma. Oops, Aiden interrupted her meditation….

More photos at the Steinway:

The Backdrop:
Marie began piano studies at my former Central Valley studio in approximately 2007 when I had just moved from a knee-crushing cubicle to a civilized space.

She’d taken previous lessons, but had a significant hiatus of unknown length. I remember her first lesson well. She had no specific pieces to play for me but was ready, willing and able to embark upon a musical adventure.

The enthusiasm was there and remains to this day.

A video sample of Marie and I, in a naturally, flowing duo that nurtured the breath in piano playing warm-ups.

Here’s the musical terrain we’d covered over 6 years:

Pentascales or five finger positions in Major/parallel minor relationship–all keys.

Four-octave Major and minor Scales and Arpeggios in parallel/contrary motion around the Circle of Fifths. (We’re currently adding 10ths and 3rds)

Repertoire, following a review romp through the Faber Accelerated Adult Beginner Books–Lesson, Performance and Theory:

James Hook Minuet; Anna Magdalena collection, Minuet in G, attributed to Christian Petzold, and not J.S. Bach as formerly believed; Clementi Sonatina in C, Op. 36 no. 1, (all movements), “First Sorrow” and “Wild Rider” from Schumann’s Album for the Young, Rameau Menuet en Rondeau; Mozart Dance in F Major; J.C. Bach Prelude in A minor and Andante in A minor; Szymanowska Mazurka; Chopin Prelude in A Major; Chopin Waltz No. 19 in A minor, Op. Posthumous; Beethoven “Fur Elise.”

Progress has been steady and satisfying. I enjoy Marie’s devotion to the piano, and laud her for acquiring a lovely, resonant Acrosonic Baldwin after letting go of her skittish Kincaid with its built-in handicaps.

The Acro is kept in tune, and has featured piano status as the centerpiece of her living room. A cage full of cackling parakeets is nearby, and a cat and dog who co-exist harmoniously, join in a chorus of approval while Marie practices.

I had the honor of presenting a concert on this very piano for Marie’s mother’s birthday. She was heading toward her 90th, but had a few years to go.

Incidentally, I keep these as a reminder of Marie’s musical presence in between her lessons.


Are Adult Piano Students Stigmatized?

Adult Piano Students Say and Do the Darndest Things

Performance Anxiety and the Pianist

16 thoughts on “Adult Piano Student Themes and Issues”

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