, Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California, piano addict

CELEBRATING Adult piano students!

I sent a few questions to adult students and this is the first of many responses I will be posting.

A video of a lesson in progress is a point of reference: The pupil is working on J.C. Bach’s Prelude in A minor, second section, which contains a series of modulating chords or secondary dominants. She is exploring supple wrist motions to promote a singing tone. (Mental imagery assisted as well) Since this video was made, her legato pedaling has greatly improved.

Baby-step, layered learning has been the biggest factor in this student’s steady advances.

In the her own words:

“I was drawn to piano because I was looking for a new and big challenge. I had given myself a year-long break from the busy life of a lawyer and director of a non-profit organization where 60 hour weeks were the norm. Beside travel I wanted to do something totally different from anything I’d done before. I loved hearing the piano but have had little exposure to any of the fine arts, such as music, painting. I’ve never taken an art class at school (beyond elementary school projects) or at university. I had studied piano for about a year when I was a six or seven. My teacher, Sister Purificacion, a Filipina nun, had a thin ivory stick about the size of a chop stick and used it liberally slapping the back of my hands whenever I hit the wrong note, which was all too often. Learning piano from her was no fun. She was also my first grade teacher and equally mean in the classroom, so my lessons didn’t last very long. I don’t mean to be hating on nuns, but that was my experience with Sister Poo-dee (as her nickname was pronounced). She didn’t turn me off to piano, I just knew I didn’t want a teacher like that.

“I would like to understand music theory, and above all I’d like to learn to play pieces with some level of competency and appreciation for the flow and beauty of the piece. I’d like someday to look at a piece of sheet music and have the sounds play in my head just the way letters immediately have meaning as words form in my mind when I see them on the printed page, or conversely how words flow easily from my mind on the page when I have a pen in hand or am sitting at my computer keyboard. I feel very challenged as a student, and I think of piano as a difficult language I’d like to speak. I’ve loved the study of languages and value that I am a multilingual person. Sometimes I am surprised that I am still taking lessons because I have progressed very slowly. On occasion I have a great epiphany about something that I’ve learned, which I find absolutely thrilling, and then weeks later I don’t recall the great revelation I about some aspect of music theory, or some glimmer of understanding about how a piece was put together by a composer.

“Studying piano has been one of the most challenging learning experiences, way more difficult than studying law. Of course the major difference was that in law school I studied hours and hours each day, and I devote little time to practicing, although I am being more conscientious of late recognizing that I can’t improve if I don’t put in the time. Like most people I gravitate to that which comes easy or where I can succeed, so sometimes I am surprised that I’ve stuck with piano, because my advances are minimal and I am only too aware of my challenges in executing any pieces. My wrists are too stiff, I can’t judge the sense of proportionality of note values with accuracy when I play, and I stare long and hard before I know what notes I’m supposed to play. Sight reading is challenging. And sometime when my piano teacher explains something I feel like a foreigner listening to a native speaker and wishing I was getting all that she is telling me. I hear the words but I don’t always get the meaning or know the answer.”

MY COMMENT ABOUT WHAT FOLLOWS (The praise of my teaching in the next section, was UNSOLICITED but nonetheless appreciated from this student)

Most adults I’ve taught over decades, regardless of level, are too critical of themselves, and try to compare other fields of endeavor to piano. Meaning that what work they have methodically invested and accomplished in their chosen careers, should transfer to a universe they have not inhabited nearly as long.

No one is born playing the piano, and if one uses the metaphor of birth, followed by stages of development such as the first smile, rolling over, pulling oneself up in the crib, crawling, and then walking, then comparable developmental landmarks apply to piano learning as well. And given that babies don’t weigh and measure each advance, or attach a value judgment but just experience a growth PROCESS as nature takes its course, the same self-acceptance is needed when studying piano.

The student’s responses continue below:

“Although you don’t want us to comment on your teaching here goes: I feel fortunate to have an exceptionally gifted teacher. The time she takes providing extras for her students, such as videotaped portions of our classes, is nothing short of remarkable. I spent at least an hour today watching her explanation of how to play a piece, breaking it down into very understandable steps. I am able to watch how she moves her arms and wrist and the follow through on the notes and I seek to emulate what she does when I sit at the piano. It is inspiring to have these videos to watch.

“Another benefit of studying and playing the piano is that it’s good for my aging brain to work hard at something new. I very much enjoy the conversations with Shirley about piano theory and it is an absolute joy to watch her work as a teacher and to see her perform. I look forward to improving and even at my level it is exciting to start a new piece. Initially, it feels so overwhelming like climbing a mountain, by little by little, I began to see and understand what is going on in that piece guided by Shirley’s explanation and some weeks or months later it’s very exciting to be playing something that sounds a bit like the piece. Eureka. And hopefully someday that piece will actually sound good and I’ll be proud to have learned it to will enjoy playing it.”

My additional comment: This student has come a long way in the 4 years, I believe it is, that we’ve worked together. As I’ve said before, she, like other adults do not give themselves enough credit for their growth and accomplishments. Over time, however, the value of the PROCESS should become the center of all learning, not needing weight, measurement, or comparison to others.


Celebrating Piano Students (part 2)

13 thoughts on “CELEBRATING Adult piano students!”

  1. I could have written this!!! (Except for the bit about having you as a teacher, of course). Please tell this student that she is definitely not alone and wish her all the best from me across the pond!


    1. I will certainly relay your riveting reply. The second segment of this series (just posted) offers a generation or so younger piano student’s responses. The latter is very involved in the meditation universe, and makes trips to India. She lives right by London’s major concert center and often attends events such as Murray Perahia, Rada Lupu recitals, a source of great musical inspiration.


  2. “She lives right by London’s major concert center “: wow, coincidence! I do too!! Going to concerts by great pianists can a mixed blessing sometimes for a learner though. Exciting, moving, etc but also a bit disheartening: the feeling that “I can never get anywhere near a hundredth of the way towards this level of skill”. I know one should not think of it like this but it’s difficult to avoid it.


  3. Hello…Do you teach adults at a regular weekly class, or offer them random classes? .. asking because I’ve taught very few adults, but have had some inquiries recently. My only concern is that their work and travel combined, are likely to make regular practise, and even being there for regular class an issue.


    1. Thanks for your note. Yes I teach my adult students on a weekly basis as that’s the best framework for piano study. As with any group, whether young or older, it’s a good idea to have a preliminary interview with a student to ascertain needs and goals. And it’s important to know if the student has the time set aside to make his/her journey a meaningful one.


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