piano instruction for adult students, piano learning, piano lessons, piano mentoring

The multi-step process of piano learning: but who’s counting?

One of the prevalent concerns of students, especially adults, surrounds the length of time they’ve invested in learning a particular composition. For some, an internalized goal of technical/musical “mastery” attaches a self-imposed deadline to completion. Boxed into this self-affixed learning time frame, is the end game of neatly shelving a composition as impetus to move on to the next. But it’s not really about a pupil’s premature withdrawal from practicing a work that involves a complex step-wise assimilation coupled with a patient ripening process. It’s the perception that time vs. musical progress is lifted out of the corporate culture playbook where an assignment is scheduled, and must metaphorically meet the company’s time demand within contract bounds. Obviously such a business-centered crossover into the piano learning environment is blatantly incongruous.

Similarly, early parental conditioning that drums into children the value of task- oriented academic achievement in certificated parcels is destined to immunize a student from a timeless here-and-now immersion in music. Add in an early mentor, who by his/her parochial enslavement to a schedule of pieces to be learned by a calendared date, cripples a young pupil at the dawn of learning, and you have trepidation at every step of the journey.


Of two adult students who’d been practicing the same Bach Invention for nearly a year, one proclaimed the anniversary with a bundle of self-doubt while I, as mentor, purposely distanced myself from the punch-in/punch out factory clock that often feeds the Superego of Right and Wrong. Better stated: “shoulds” quash unbound freedom to grow a composition. (A familiar chant–Pupil: “I should” have learned this piece a long time ago.)

Naturally my response, paradoxically on automatic pilot, is always in defiance of the judgmental Superego:

“Who’s counting?” (Such a reply usually neutralizes fear or worry about the length of a pupil’s involvement with a selection–given his/her deep and conscientious immersion.)

If the teacher is not measuring advances in numerical units, why should the pupil?


While one of the two referenced students had a buffet of pieces to practice, rotated from week to week, the other had chosen to singularly nurse her Invention from seedling to full bloom. In both cases, scales and arpeggios accompanied layered learning in back tempo, with separate hand practice, and immersion in two-voice counterpoint, harmonic rhythm, phrasing, and sound fingering exploration.

From these sampled paired journeys through a particular composition, I had gained additional insights into various styles of learning and how development of a composition is ongoing. (Not predicated on a fixed, measured arrival.)

In my own self-driven music-growing process, I tend to view every new musical journey as being un-timed and boundless. I don’t allow myself to predict how long a challenging piece of music will take to ripen into a “whole” that frankly, is ever-changing. With each revisit, albeit following a period of many months or years from the initial exposure, there come “new” awakenings and reconsiderations of phrasing and fingering.

Within a spirit of openness to the flow of new ideas, whether through self-discovery or from interaction with students, I simultaneously enjoy the ever-present learning experience without a finite point of “accomplishment.”


Today, being Easter Sunday and the second day of Passover, I had originally planned to “resurrect” a movement from J.S. Bach’s French Suite No. 5 with an attached tutorial that encompassed my revisit. My three or so year hiatus from the Gigue in G, BWV 816 promised a fresh immersion in a work that I particularly adored.

While the tutorial did not memorialize the baby steps I took at the very inception of my exposure to this selection, it provided a bit of framing about meter, counterpoint, and harmonic rhythm. As it turned out, I moderately revised fingering to better realize phrasing, though I preserved an appreciation of the solid foundation I had laid years ago.

As time marches on, there will always be new epiphanies, and these will make my musical journey and that of my students, eternally satisfying.

5 thoughts on “The multi-step process of piano learning: but who’s counting?”

  1. Thank you Shirley for hearing JS Bach again. Its interesting and enlightening to hear tutors talking/ thinking. My experiences are of countless lessons where I am unsure of the goal being undertaken. There appeared to be a…let’s see where we are this week…and then to practice that. Perhaps i must blame myself for NOT asking questions not sure.
    Its now just over a year and i am ‘flying’ solo without formal tuition at the moment. Reading you thoughts and watchin your videos are a great source of enlightenment, yes there are others but yours are head and shoulders above them.
    This leads me and perhaps others who like me have very little grounding in piano, i am at pre grade 1, to question if i should begin lessons with yourself Shirley. We have spoken. What can i possibly bring to you to as an accomplished tutor and pianist. Is there comfort in lessons from the lady around the courner for a few pounds.
    Just a few rambling from me Shirley but i am sure there’s other students watching you and finding comfort from lessons around the corner and will value your thoughts.
    Keep posting the videos of which i am eager to watch. Happy Easter and blessings at this special time. Alan


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