A few years ago at the age of 40 I dusted off an old dream and started
taking piano lessons again. Although I'd been a willing piano dropout at the
age of 12 I'd grown up regretting it. In the intervening years I played just
enough to retain my ability to read music but my technique had suffered. And
since I did not know what I was doing wrong or how to correct it I knew I
needed a teacher.
I already knew what music school I wanted to attend because its brochure
came tucked in among the flyers in my newspaper once a year. With that as my
sole recommendation, I registered. Within a few days I had a teacher.
Now I'd like to say that the rest is history, that my talent was quickly
recognized, and within a few short months I was a celebrated virtuoso. Yes,
I'd really like to say that. But the truth is, starting over again was a lot
harder than I thought it would be. I had retained a lot less from my
childhood lessons than I imagined; I had bad habits that needed to be
overcome; and my overall knowledge of music was embarrassingly slim.
Not one to retreat in the face of a challenge, however, I was determined to
give it everything I had. Three years later I've corrected most of my
technical problems. My playing has improved steadily and I can now play
music I never dreamed I could learn how to play - Bach, Mozart, and Chopin
are all in my repertoire this year and nobody could be more thrilled and,
frankly, more amazed than I am.
I can't take all the credit though. I was extremely lucky that my haphazard
teacher selection method (which, by the way, I would not recommend) yielded
an instructor who is knowledgeable, experienced, and wise. I believe I would
not have been able to make the progress I have without her patient guidance
over the years.
All in all my experiences as an adult student have been positive and
encouraging, more so I believe than those of my childhood. Of course it
doesn't hurt to have the confidence that thirty-some additional years in the
world gives you either. That's one of the ways in which the world of the
adult piano player differs from that of his or her junior counterpart. Here
are a few others I've observed:
An adult piano student doesn't have to prepare for exams, doesn't have to
play classical pieces, and doesn't have to perform in concerts. Freedom! You
can learn modern music or jazz, take as long as you want to learn something,
and perform strictly in the relaxed obscurity of your own home.
You'll be on a first name basis with your teacher. This may affect the
dynamics of the relationship marginally, but don't expect claps on the back
and proffered cigars. You'll still be expected to plunk something out on the
keyboard fairly regularly.
Nobody yells at you to practice. On the one hand, this is very nice indeed.
On the other hand, you have to be able to discipline yourself to do the job.
Presumably, if you've taken up the piano as an adult it's because you like
the instrument and want to play it. However, if necessary, take yourself to
a mirror once in a while and give yourself a severe tongue-lashing.
You pay for your own lessons. (Ah yes - I knew there was something I missed
about being a child.) Footing the bill is one thing adults understand very
well. It's a little easier to get down to work when you know your pocketbook
is taking a regular hit for the privilege.
Adult students can usually grasp intellectually how a piece of music should
sound (e.g. mournful, peaceful, playful) but they don't have the skill on
the piano to express it. According to my teacher, children often have the
opposite problem: they have nimble fingers and good technique but they lack
the worldliness and experience to understand the emotional component. These
limitations, however, are temporary on the part of both age groups, and are
overcome with practice and time.
And speaking of children ... you'll encounter 10-year-olds who with no
apparent effort at all can play you out of the room. This can be humbling
and encouraging at the same time. I've certainly been outplayed by the
junior set more than a few times. However, whenever I am working on a
difficult line or phrase and get discouraged I always think that somewhere a
10- or 12-year-old kid is playing the piece perfectly. And, by george, if
that kid can play it so can I. Those imaginary prodigies have helped me
learn some difficult music over the years!
Kelly L. Henderson is an adult piano student, freelance writer, and
contributing editor at Suite101.com.
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