Over the years I’ve taught countless adult piano students, both in-person and through my website, KeyboardImprov.com. It’s a true joy to see how many people integrate music into their lives by means of the piano, and I’ve noticed certain patterns that influence their musical and personal success. Simply put; some adults stick with it, and some don’t. Everyone has their own unique situation, but there are strong underlying reasons why some succeed while others don’t. Here’s what I’ve found:
To have an enriching experience with the piano, adults need to create a healthy frame of mind. By ‘healthy,’ I mean both positive and realistic. These are not opposites. They go hand-in-hand to keep us on the right track, at whatever level we’re at and whatever type of music we like to play.
Here are some common scenarios, and tips to help you succeed in them:
Scenario 1: “I started off great, but now I don’t always have time to practice. I miss days, and sometimes weeks at a time, and feel discouraged because I’m not getting any better.”
Tip: This is very common, and the first step is to acknowledge that you have a busy life and that this isn’t going to change. So you have to re-evaluate your goals. It’s futile to measure success in terms of how much you improve or accomplish. By all means, have your goals and let them inspire you. But don't let them become your whole focus. Instead, make it your goal to simply enjoy being at the piano for a few minutes every day, even for only 5 minutes. On some days that 5 minutes will turn into 15 or 30, and sometimes not.
It’s like eating your favorite meal. You eat because you enjoy it, not in order to “get better.” If you can adopt this attitude at the piano, and simply play because you enjoy playing, you’ll stay with it much longer in the long run. And paradoxically, you’ll improve more!
Scenario 2: “I never seem to get any better.”
Tip: Let’s face it: kids improve more consistently than we do as adults. Their brains and bodies are still developing and learning comes easier for them. As adults, we often still have expectations that we’ll learn as fast as we used to, and this impedes our actual progress. Sometimes I’ll practice a piece for an hour and find that it’s ‘gone’ the next day. I have to take a deep breath and remind myself that this happens, and it’s not a bad thing. I can enjoy the music just as much today as I did yesterday. It just takes longer for new music to ‘sink in’ at my age.
It also helps to remember that there are other, powerful reasons to continue, even if you don’t see the progress you’d like. Here are a few of them:
- Simple music can feed the soul as well as complex music.
- The act of playing piano keeps our brains active, promotes neural activity and connections, and helps our fine-motor coordination.
- The piano fills our home with music. (Our family members can enjoy live music, and it can inspire our children, whether we know it or not).
- To play beautiful music can be very relaxing.
Seen in this light, it becomes vital that we continue (sometimes despite ourselves!).
Scenario 3: “I get frustrated that I can’t play as well as I did in high school.”
Tip: This one is from a friend of mine. She used to practice several hours per day as a teen and loved playing Chopin. Decades later, she inherited her mother’s piano and looked forward to playing again. Well, that was 14 years ago and she hasn’t touched the piano yet!
My friend will only be able to re-experience the joys of piano playing when she lets go of her past virtuosity and accepts her current ability. To help people do this, I like to use the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz as an example. He was unquestionably a ‘titan of technique,’ but when he played Schumann’s simple “Traumerei,” people swooned. As I said before, simple music can feed the soul as well as complex music.
Scenario 4: “I’m moving step-by-step through a piano method, but the pieces are becoming too difficult for me.”
This is common at all ages. When we hit a plateau, there are two things that will help us: 1. After you’ve learned a piece well, keep playing it. A lot! Until it’s effortless. This will help you learn the next, slightly-harder piece. 2. Move laterally: Find other music at the same level, and play those pieces until you’re ready to tackle the more challenging material.
So by all means, enjoy the piano. It’s a richly rewarding instrument and a wonderful musical companion. If you can relax your expectations of continual progress and enjoy your time at the instrument for it’s own sake, you’ll stay with it much longer and , ironically, make the progress you initially dreamed of.
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