adult piano students, Mendelssohn, piano, piano blog, piano teaching, teaching adults

Transit among adult piano students and teachers

Many in the piano teaching universe KEEP a special sanctuary for adult pupils who rekindle an interest in music study. These pupils, of diverse ages and levels, often come with an initial spurt of enthusiasm to learn, grow and develop. Yet, like any demographic or body of new learners, their length of stay or commitment to practicing and taking lessons are not always predictable.

To deal with a stash of unknowns associated with a newly launched musical journey, a preliminary set of questions might be invaluable.

These would encompass a pupil’s expressed goals, aspirations, repertoire interests, and how much time he can realistically allot to the piano.

Still, lurking beneath the surface is the more important inquiry about a student’s self-regard, self-acceptance, and patience threshold for spurts of progress and periodic setbacks. Will he/she be willing to bear periodic frustrations that are part of the learning process or will the pupil be a harsh, unforgiving self-critic.

In my experience, most premature drop-out rates relate to self-invalidation. A student believes he/she is just not the perfect player and won’t go further despite the best confidence dispensing infusions of the teacher. A downward spiral of hyper-self-criticism nips a musical partnership in the bud.

Some adult students expect a smooth, and unencumbered journey without a hitch. If pieces require an incremental approach within a layered learning paradigm, they might not choose to form a longterm, deep relationship with a composition. What amounts to touching bases music study, as a top layer sightread with a big turnover of pieces is the pupil’s preference. Boredom otherwise characterizes his/her pursuit of one or two compositions.

A top layer, espresso learning paradigm might be agreeable to some teachers, especially those willing to bend with the breeze and go with the flow. But others will feel the match-up is not one that will harvest the full potential of the student and essentially goes against the grain of his/her teaching philosophy. (It’s therefore incumbent upon the teacher to describe her overall philosophy and approach before lessons get underway. In fact, some students will make this inquiry in a written or telephone communication that precedes the first lesson.)

In my own teaching practice, I’ve come to the realization that if a student at the outset prefers a superficial spin through Bach, Mozart, Chopin and any number of masterworks, I will immediately suggest another teacher.

A complementary issue relates to repertoire choices. While some teachers will only adhere to the mainstream Classical repertoire, others are more flexible and will work with a student in popular music genres including jazz and musical theater, etc.

If a student is intent on studying jazz only, then a Classically oriented teacher is clearly a mismatch, and any attempt to forge a musical partnership under these conditions is doomed from the start.


As lessons take their course

Over time, a mentor can acquire a more detailed picture of a student’s attitude toward learning; assess his strengths, weaknesses, and discover the nature of his commitment to practicing. He can then more effectively address a pupil’s technical/musical needs while getting a feel for the chemistry between learning partners.

(In the long run, piano lessons will have a built-in embryonic development unique to each individual that require sensitive adjustments as needed.)

The most important ingredient, however, to the success of a musical partnership will be a mutual devotion to the music without built-in deadlines of achievement and harsh criticism. The respect accorded a teacher and student must be mutual and ongoing.


Once both partners are fully embarked on a shared musical journey, the question will remain whether lessons are a long-term engagement or a passing through encounter. (This can be one of the questions posed in a general sense before instruction gets underway but it might yield a premature answer if the student is not sure about how the lessons will play out with a particular teacher.)

A student’s musical background shared before the commencement of music study, should include a history of prior lesson experiences.

While I don’t like RED FLAG-driven conclusions or prejudices, there’s some degree of truth embedded in the student’s past associations with previous teachers if there were any. (The same applies to RED FLAG warnings about teacher behaviors and practices as they have impacted students.)

Question: If a pupil is making a mentor change, what was it about the previous instructor that did not work out for him. Here a set of answers I’ve collected over the years.

1) “She didn’t teach me the right hand position.”

2) “He took telephone calls during my lesson.”
(I had more than one transfer student who verified this behavior about a particular instructor)

3) “The teacher canceled my lessons too often.”

4) “I was charged for lessons I had to cancel because of sport events.” (It turns out the student sometimes gave the teacher 30 minutes notice)

5) “I was going nowhere after 3 months of instruction.”

6) “I didn’t like the pieces I was given.”

7) “The teacher’s piano was unplayable.”

8) “Everyone in the studio played better than me.”

9) “I couldn’t afford the lessons.”

10) “I wasn’t able to take weekly instruction, so I wanted to pare down to every other week. My teacher couldn’t accommodate the change.”

11) “We could never agree on the right day or right time for lessons.”

12) “The teacher never played once for me or demonstrated the whole time.”

13) “The teacher gave up all her adult students, providing a list of those taking transfers.”

(Sometimes a student will be at the mercy of consecutive mentors who release a slew of older pupils because they just don’t want to teach adults, sending them scrambling into an intimidating universe of the unknown. These students may have trust issues, so they may start lessons with a new teacher harboring fears of impending abandonment.)

14) “The instructor was overly critical of me on a personal level.”

15)”My last two teachers died.”

Additional situations and reasons why music study is cut short:

1) Family circumstances and changes: the arrival of a new baby that demands increased time and attention to child care needs, impedes practicing. Exhaustion associated with a newborn’s erratic sleep and feeding schedule, stunts mindful, directed practicing if it can occur at all. The flow of life with a new member of the family is drastically altered.

(I had one student who confessed that he lost all motivation to continue lessons given his changed life circumstances. His wife was already off to work, and baby-sitting needs were a challenge. He appeared lethargic and bleary-eyed. Sadly, he would not return to lessons, given his plan to have more children, and yet he had made amazing progress in the two years before his son was born. To some extent it was heartbreaking for both music partners.)

2) Private entrepreneur/Business development as a side bar to lessons that requires road travel and cross country flights, is a deal breaker.

Jet-setting, or on the road students are likely to CANCEL their piano lesson reservations without predictable makeups. Long stints of absence inevitably lead to a point of NO RETURN. (If frequent breaks are not disclosed prior to instruction, they can leave a wave of ill-feeling behind.)

3) Changes in lesson scheduling from weekly to bi-monthly, and sometimes to very much longer intervals between meetings, usually lead to the demise of instruction. It’s a no-win for student and teacher alike particularly if the structure is agreed upon from the outset and is suddenly shifted. While very advanced students might benefit from less frequent lessons, most adult beginners and intermediate level students need weekly lessons to make satisfying gains. A vicious cycle of setbacks associated with absences catapults into lesson dropping due to a crescendo of student frustration.


Already mentioned but needing emphasis:

4) Intolerance associated with specific, wishful gains that are not made in a personal deadline capacity, is sometimes a reflection of a student’s self-deprecation and lack of confidence. Unrealistic goal attainment within a fixed, inflexible schedule, infused with a negative attitude impedes if not sabotages movement forward.

Often, during periods of exasperation, a student plagued by insecurities and unrealistic goal-setting, will look over the fence, thinking there’s a better teacher on the horizon. Yet despite hopes for the divinely inspirational nymph from the forest, like Terpsichore, to arrive on the scene as a saving grace, the student will more than likely never be satisfied with any mentor.

5) Teacher student burnout: an eight to ten year instructional relationship can run its course needing a new infusion of energy from another source–meaning that CHANGE is indicated. Both partners should be willing to embrace a healthy transition without remorse.

6) The right fit is just not there, tested over months, so both teacher and student need to recognize the mismatch and move on. A more suitable learning partnership can result in a positive musical journey without adding in a truckload of baggage.

7) Policy conflicts can send students scurrying, so it’s best to clarify fees and cancellation guidelines before lessons are set in motion. This whole arena can be the source of anger and resentment if learning partners are not on the same page and in agreement from day one.

On a personal note, I’ve whittled down my studio to a small number of adult students whom I consider KEEPERS, in the same way, that I hope they regard me to be committed to their musical development in the longterm.

Today, I was especially moved by a student’s words that resonated with special meaning:

“Thank you for taking seriously those of us who begin piano as an adult but who really want to learn. You could easily dismiss us, as I think some other teachers of adult beginners might do.”

The premise of wanting to work with adult students is of paramount importance in making the teacher/student relationship work. A mutual love for music unencumbered by value judgment, harsh criticism, and fixed learning deadlines all synthesize together to create a harmonious learning environment.

Today I enjoyed a particular lesson with an adult student who’s studying the Mendelssohn Venetian Boat Song, Op. 30 No. 6. It was our shared adulation for this composition and our common understanding of what it takes (in slow practice tempo) to deeply absorb the composition that made the experience mutually gratifying.

Finally, we both realize that the creative process embedded in our lessons, will evolve and develop over time with unswerving patience.


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Adult student Themes and Issues

3 thoughts on “Transit among adult piano students and teachers”

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