13 challenges adult pianists face (and how to fix them)

 


One of my favorite parts of my piano teaching career was having the privilege of working with adult learners. These smart and motivated people approached the piano with such commitment that their passion was infectious. But, as any pianist knows, the path to playing the piano is rarely smooth, and the roadblocks adults encounter are different than those experiences by children.  No two pianists are alike, because every individual’s strengths and weaknesses are present in every encounter with the piano. There are, however, a few challenges that seem to afflict many adult learners. Here are thirteen I saw most frequently, as well as ideas for working through them 


Mind learns faster than the hands

Because adults have a lifetime of learning experience to draw from, musical concepts are usually absorbed quickly. This is a gift, and a source of frustration, because the muscles in the hands are slow learners. Learn to think like an athlete and allow your hands the time they need to physically master the complex tasks of playing the piano


Impatience

“How long will it take me to play well?” It’s a question nearly every adult learner asks. The answer? As long as it takes. Some people progress quickly, others need more time. Learning to play well requires two things: regular, consistent, and productive practice, and (you guessed it) patience. 


Perfectionism

For the perfectionist, mistakes aren’t part of the learning process, they’re examples of failure. Many times mistakes are accompanied by a severe inner criticism that does nothing to improve performance. Ask yourself, would you speak to a child pianist the way you speak to yourself? Give yourself permission to be that kid, to make a whole pile of messy mistakes, and to stumble a bit as you learn something new. The only true failure is giving up.


Unrealistic expectations

Adult beginners or returners have lofty ambitions. Some of their goals, with lots of time and diligent work, can be achieved. Others may be unreachable. Satisfaction, and success, lies in accepting our limits and finding the most beautiful musical options available at our level of ability.


Flagging motivation

If there’s one universal truth for everyone who plays the piano it’s this: we all get fed up. What lifelong pianists know is that motivation ebbs and flows, and that we won’t always feel like playing the piano. Go ahead, take a day or two off. You’ll most likely go back to your practice routine refreshed and eager to play. 


Goals

Kids have recitals and exams to keep them going. Adults must create their own goals. One pianist may create piano soirées and play for friends, another may choose to learn a piece to commemorate a big life event, others may choose to play for themselves and make the process of learning the music their goal. No goal is better than another; the important thing is to find the goals that give you the satisfaction of accomplishment


Physical challenges

Whether it be arthritis, back or shoulder problems, illness, or cognitive decline, aging affects the ability to play the piano. These challenges must be acknowledged and accepted before we can find ways to make beautiful music with the bodies and souls we have. When we stay within ourselves and play repertoire that is fitted to us, we can create beauty at the piano, regardless of physical challenges.


Finding practice time

Every adult learner I know juggles multiple obligations. From work to family to the details of everyday life, finding time to spend at the piano is a big challenge for most people. The answer? Don’t wait for inspiration. Schedule your practice at the same time every day and make it part of your routine. Do this 5-6 days a week. Short, consistent practice times are much more effective than trying to cram a 4 hour session every Saturday afternoon. 


Judgmental family members

“Why are you doing this? You were never a musical child,” one adult learner was asked by her mother.  Another pianist received “helpful” practice tips from her husband every time she hit a wrong note. But the worst story I ever heard was of one woman’s standard poodle would whine, moan, and flip the woman’s hands off the keys with his nose every time she tried to practice. The answer? Tell the human critics to keep their thoughts to themselves, and lock all judgmental canines out of the practice room!


Past damage

I once had an 80-year-old returning pianist in my studio who, thanks to abuse from a teacher she’d had 60 years earlier,  shook with fear every time she came in for her lessons. Time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds. Whether from a parent or a teacher, old trauma must be sensitively handled and released before we feel safe on the piano bench. Many pianists have found that things such as journaling, meditation, and talking to a supportive person can be helpful. Another tip? Avoid old repertoire and start with something brand new. The emotions we were feeling when we first learned the piece can be reawakened when we play it again.


Finding a teacher

Many adult learners and returners choose to learn without formal lessons. Those who do seek instruction, however, may find it difficult to find the right teacher for them. Seek a teacher who specializes in teaching adults. No matter how highly recommended an instructor may be, if they can’t relate to you as an equal and treat you as an adult, lessons will be frustrating and unproductive. 


Boring method books

For most adult learners, method books are a necessary part of learning to play the piano. Not all method books are created equal, however, and finding plucking a good one from the sea of mediocrity can feel overwhelming. For traditional method books, check out Which Adult Piano Method? by Andrew Eales of PianoDao. For those seeking a musical walk on the irreverent side, try the You Suck at Piano series of books by Dr. Joel Pierson. 


Finding sophisticated intermediate repertoire

Because much of the intermediate market targets young learners, adults can find much of what’s available musically unsatisfying. For those interested in traditional classical repertoire but are not sure where to begin, one of the many collections of intermediate classical repertoire may be a good choice. Pianists who know what they enjoy playing can seek out the shorter and easier compositions (or movements) by favorite composers. For more contemporary fare, check out some of these pieces. Listen to as much piano music as you can, and eventually you’ll find music you long to play.


The best part of playing the piano is that there’s really no way to conquer it. Even professional pianists know that while we may master the instrument, we can never truly master ourselves. The thrill of playing lies in creating the most beautiful music we can with the abilities, bodies, minds, and souls that we have in the present moment. This is the essence of what it means to be a pianist. 

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