adult piano teaching, piano, piano blog, piano blogging, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten

A Jet-setting adult student makes time for piano

No need to say Play it Again Sam, to Sam P. who’s been a super dedicated piano student ever since he approached me for lessons in Berkeley, nearly 4 years ago. And if we factor in a significant interruption of instruction due to Sam’s Acrosonic Console having been shipped to London when his company transferred him to Europe in 2014, he’s left with about 3 solid years of study. Along the way, we’ve doubled up on lessons to accommodate his rigorous travel schedule that includes departures to India, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Amsterdam, Dubai, etc, with a Tanzania Safari thrown in.

Sam has a meticulous approach to practicing. He relishes a deliberate and thorough journey through his assigned compositions that includes parceled, layered learning and he has no affixed deadline in his explorations. Most of all, he appreciates the process of musical discovery; how it spills over into other life activities, such as Chess for which he has a passion. He observes “patterns” in his pieces that have a direct tie-in to the game.

I had a chance to interview Sam about his piano studies after he landed back in London from Abu Dhabi. Since he’s working on Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” a crown jewel piece for many students, I decided to separately include excerpts from his most recent lesson that focused on rhythmic unity between sections. Viewers will notice Sam’s earnest and methodical approach to this composition, that also infuses an awareness of the singing tone and how to produce it. He’s been working assiduously on relaxing his arms and wrists, while shaping phrases within a vocal model. For a time, Sam took singing lessons, until his travels made it nearly impossible to focus seriously on voice AND piano. I’m glad he gave the PIANOFORTE top priority!

Edinburgh Scotland, piano, Sydney Australia

A Motivated adult piano student with an International profile

Right now, as I’m posting these words in Berkeley, CA, my student, Claire, (an international lawyer) who avidly practices the piano in two different time zones, is perched high up in her apartment overlooking Sydney Harbor. It’s 19 hours past Pacific Standard Time over there, or the next day in Australia. As a consequence, we have to factor in the time disparity when she leaves Edinburgh, her home base, to avoid its bitter winter. At the Scottish location, we’re distanced by 8 hours.

In Sydney, I greet Claire with a paradoxical ‘top of the mornin'” though I’m in fuzzy culture shock even at 3 p.m. my time, and 9 a.m. hers, the following day. In Edinburgh, it’s a hearty “good afternoon,” as the time zone is reversed, but without an extra day hanging out.


Claire’s Sydney apartment overlooks the Harbor with a breathtaking view:

Sydney Harbor

In Edinburgh, her neighborhood is speckled with historical architectural edifices that she showcased in a post-lesson webcam-guided tour.

Claire’s colorful Scottish brogue, so conspicuously revealed in the narrative, reminded me of percussionist icon, Evelyn Glennie as she delivered a TED TALK. Yet it took several senior moments, bundled in associative strategies, to make the “connection.”

During our Australian cycle, I might be exposed to a distinctly different ambiance:

One week, Claire had taken an interval to visit a friend in a more rural part of the country, so I was treated to a LIVE kookaburra concert as a bunch of colorful “native” parakeets settled onto the porch.

This particular location had introduced a “third” piano into the prior mix of two.


Claire hosts a wonderful Yamaha grand in her Edinburgh apartment while a Clavinova graces her place in Sydney; finally, a loaner piano turns up wherever her extra travels take her.

About two years ago, I received a lesson inquiry from Claire that was very detailed. Her MOTIVATION to learn resonated, and she had a nice prologue of experience at the piano and in a choir, the latter that I sampled on You Tube. It turned out to be a group with an able choral conductor who selected diverse repertoire of many eras. The level of musical expression was at its peak.

Claire had also offered a Wish of List of pieces she wanted to learn in her introductory letter that included the works of Beethoven, Burgmuller, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Schumann and Mendelssohn among others.

From there, a progressive journey ensued that has accrued shared epiphanies about:

Tchaikovsky’s “Sweet Dreams”
Schumann “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples,” “Traumerei,” “A Curious Story”
Beethoven Bagatelle, Op. 119 No. 1
J.S. Bach Little Prelude in F
J.S. Bach Invention 8 in F Major
Burgmuller “Tarentelle,” “Tender Flower”
Mendelssohn Venetian Boat Song in F-sharp minor
Chopin Waltz in B minor, Op. 64

Here’s Claire watching the proceedings during one of our International Skype beamed piano recitals. She’s was settled into her Australian hub readying to play the Beethoven Bagatelle in G minor, Op. 119:


Not to forget that this very devoted student is immersed in Scales and Arpeggios around the Circle of Fifths and has developed an enviable supple wrist, relaxed arm technique.

You can easily discern her fluid approach in this most recent lesson sample beamed from Australia.

Technique snatches: (from Edinburgh)–Yamaha acoustic grand piano

From Sydney Australia Yamaha Clavinova

Back to Edinburgh
on the grand piano.

Claire is a JOY to work with, along with my lovely group of ardent piano lovers!

antique airplanes, antique planes, piano blog, piano blogging, plane restoration, planes, Shirley Kirsten

An Adult Piano Student who builds pianos and restores planes

David dog 1My adult student, David, is a man for all seasons! He not only studies piano, with a penchant for the works of Bach, but he restores antique airplanes, and builds pianos. Add into the mix, his taking a ride in one of his personal airborne creations with a J.S. Bach soundtrack to accompany his soaring adventure! Take a look!

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Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 8.24.50 AM

A recorded conversation with David revealed more about his background in the piano technology field as well as his retirement activities that include planes, pianos and lots more.

Note that in the spirit of cruising through the skies, David takes his piano lessons in cyber, though he formerly drove about 300 miles from Chico to Berkeley, just to stop off at the Roma Cafe for a snack or two.

An Excerpt from a Skype Lesson with David: (He restored the vintage Steinway model ‘A’ he plays)

KEEP FLYIN’ at the piano and in the air!!! You Go, David!

David’s Self-built Grand Piano in Progress

“Shirley, here’s a couple pictures of the McPiano in progress. At the moment, I’m in the process of applying the last mahogany outer veneer to the outer rim. It is done in 2′ sections. The 1st one is a section glued and clamped on the curved section of case. The 2nd, snapped today, is a section glued and clamped on the straight part of the case.

The Piano is 7’4″ long (Steinway C size). I’m also taking videos of construction sessions and will edit them and produce a little video over time. I have 2 more sections to glue on to complete the outer case rim veneer.”

David piano in progress 1

David piano in progress 2


adult piano instruction, adult piano lessons, classissima,, piano, piano instruction, piano lessons, piano teaching, piano technique, scales and arpeggios at the piano, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, word press, word, wordpress,, you tube video, you,

Piano warm-up routines with an adult student

This pupil is working on the Chopin Waltz in C# minor Op. 64 alongside Mozart’s K. 545 Sonata in C. (I’ll have snatches of her spot practicing in another post)

She’s made considerable progress because of her conscientious step-by-step, layered approach to learning. (We spend substantial time playing separate hands, under tempo, and we don’t rush to complete a piece on a predetermined deadline)

For 15 or so minutes of her lesson, she practices scales and arpeggios around the Circle of Fifths. (Major and Relative minors)

In these particular video segments, my student has added a 4-note arpeggio in inversions to imbue a rolling motion into the figure and a curve around from fingers 5 to 1 (RH) and 1 to 5 (LH) We started this particular cycle in C Major progressing to G major, so her companion scales and root position arpeggios are not correlated in key but are deeper into the Circle. (G# minor–Natural and Harmonic forms) Not shown, is our beginning exploration of the G# minor melodic form.

Once the pupil is substantially ingrained in parallel motion, we move on to contrary motion playing, and to playing in 10ths. The advanced student will play scales in 6ths and other combinations between the hands. Legato and staccato renditions in varied dynamics frame all warm-ups.

SCALES (G# minor)

ROOT position G# minor Arpeggio with blocking

G Major 4-note Arpeggios through inversions


adult piano students, Berkeley piano studio, classissima,, El, El Cerrito piano studio, piano, piano addict, piano learning, piano lessons for adults, piano teaching, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten

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