As I continue this series, “Celebrating Adult Piano Students,” I couldn’t help but snatch a narrative from Lisa, a very dear friend, who is not my pupil, but shares a passion for learning the great masterworks, and channels her deepest emotions into every musical phrase.
Her grandson, Collin, is particularly fortunate, not only to have Lisa’s music-making surrounding him, but to partake of her precious piano lessons.
She is his first and only teacher.
Before featuring Lisa’s thoughtful answers to my set of questions, here are samples of Lisa and Collin’s playing:
LISA’s thoughtful responses:
1) What drew you back to the piano in adulthood? Bundled into that question: What were your early experiences taking piano lessons? (positives, negatives, mixed bag, whatever)
I started lessons when I was 7 (and a piano came with a semi-furnished house we moved into) — while the real estate agent was showing my parents around the house, once I found the piano I was playing around with it, trying to pick out notes to tunes I knew. 🙂
My first teacher was strict Hanon/Method book old school, and she taught me to play notes. I certainly had an aptitude for it, but as the years went by, I became frustrated with endless sonatinas and Hanon scales 1-20 each and every day, and not much that appealed to me. She taught no theory. After five years, I finally persuaded my parents to let me quit. I was elated, but strangely heartbroken at the same time. After a year passed, at 13 I took a babysitting job with a piano teacher in the neighborhood (Oberlin-trained) and I liked what I was hearing. I decided to take lessons from her. She used the Pace method and helped me fill in some of the theory gaps, assigned composition as a regular part of each week’s lesson, and took me to a new level of musicianship. While I don’t recall specifically her teaching “singing tone” or any technique that specifically named, she was all about interpretation, circular wrist movements, etc. I moved away from the Hanon scales and learned the regular scales.
Since she had two pianos in the basement, we did some two-piano/four-hands stuff which I loved. She had a beautiful grand piano upstairs. I was able to give my own recital when I was 16. That was a wonderful experience. I also had a chance to play with a string quartet she brought in for an afternoon. That experience was magical.
I stayed with her for five years, and stopped when I graduated from high school. I loved working with her — she had such a sweet disposition — and I appreciate so much of what she cultivated in me, musically. The only negative was that my hands are VERY small, which limits a lot of what I’m able to manage.
While it took more than 30 years to resume lessons, I always had a piano in the house and played for my own enjoyment. I also continued to compose some music for fun, most of which I never wrote down or did anything with. I never lost any ground, I could continue to play fairly advanced repertoire, but I wasn’t doing anything new, either.
My grandson was the impetus for me to go back to lessons. My husband and I babysit him several days a week, and at the age of 7 (in late 2010) he expressed an interest in taking lessons from me. I realized that if I was going to be an effective teacher (knowing precious little about pedagogy), I needed to get some ideas. I researched pedagogy online and found your blog, Shirley, and believe it or not, seeing you give lessons really motivated me to take action on my own behalf. I had actually toyed with the idea for several years, but always hesitated because I was afraid my busy life and responsibilities might make it difficult to practice at the level I needed to. And, time has a way of slipping by. I finally decided to make the commitment — I realized how much I missed it, I’m not getting any younger, and I truly regret having allowed so many years to go by without working on new repertoire or refining technique. I think I was also discouraged by the small hand problem. I let that make me feel inadequate. But in any event, there is something to be said for taking on these kinds of challenges as the years go by — keeps the gray matter alive!
2) What influence did your earliest piano teacher play in your making the decision to return to piano years, or even decades later?
Probably none. I think if I based my view of piano on her alone, I might not have continued. I was just lucky to happen to connect with my second teacher.
3) What are your goals, aspirations as a piano student?
To work on new repertoire (within my limitations), to refine technique and my ability to play expressively. And that repertoire does not necessarily need to be of a certain level, I’m happy to work on more intermediate material to fill in gaps or refine technique. To correct bad habits that may have developed over my time without an instructor. To fill in some of my knowledge gaps with respect to music history, terminology, theory. To have an occasional opportunity to perform. To continue to be challenged mentally, to keep the fingers and brain agile. And on a purely emotional level, to have some space to pursue an activity that is mine, given my adult responsibilities. To be an effective teacher to my one developing student, and to be able to occasionally ask my teacher for guidance on that point. 😉
4) What relation to life does piano have for you? (whether you are working on a job, or not, what is its relevance?)
Piano is my sanctuary, really. It is how I get centered, as I am not terribly religious and my spiritual outlook tends to be more philosophical and humanistic. It is my talent, something I’ve become good at, and I’m proud of that.
5) What are the challenges in studying piano?
From a physical standpoint, my hand size — which frustrates me no end when it comes to literature I’d love to be able to play.
From a practical standpoint, time to practice is a challenge, especially working at a more advanced level. Some weeks are better than others.
To stay motivated and to find the encouragement to work through difficult material.
To work through my performance anxiety.
Thank you, Lisa for your riveting answers. May you continue to love and cherish the piano and its literature through the months and years ahead.