Teaching Adults to Play the Piano

Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning

There has been an interesting and persistent debate in recent months about whether adult students can effectively teach themselves to play the piano (tapping into the growing plethora or apps, books, etc), or whether there is an essential ongoing need for a teacher’s involvement. I have addressed this in my recent article Who Needs Piano Lessons Anyway?

But while there’s no shortage of arguments for learning with a “good teacher”, many seem to struggle finding one who is sympathetic to their goals and in tune with the needs of adult learners.

In this post I will therefore share some of the strategies which have worked for me over the last three decades of teaching these enthusiastic learners.

Adult Learning: An Introduction

We first need to briefly cover “the theory bit”, because many teachers are still simply unaware of the research that underpins adult education.

Let’s begin with the educational pioneer Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997), known as “the father of adult education”, who proposed that andragogy (methodology for adults) differs from pedagogy (methodology for children) in several significant ways.

Knowles identified the traits which distinguish adult learners from children, formulating the following six key principles:

  • Adults need to understand why they need to learn something.
  • Adults need to build on and learn through their experience.
  • Adults need to feel responsible for their learning, including planning and evaluation.
  • Adults engage best with lessons that have immediate relevance to their needs and interests.
  • Adults respond best to lessons that are problem-focused rather than content-driven.
  • Adults learn best when motivation comes intrinsically.

Knowles’ principles bear thinking about in the context of piano education, and certainly match my experiences working with mature students. I also find that teenage students often equally match Knowles’s assumptions, and in his later writing Knowles himself recognised student development as a continuum.

It is worth pausing to reflect that we piano teachers often talk and write about pedagogy but less frequently even acknowledge andragogy as a discrete field, despite the decades of adult education practice and research built on the foundation of Knowles’ observations.

The Art of Piano Andragogy

Using Knowles’s research as a starting point, and adding my own reflections and the insights that I have gained over the years, here are my top nine tips to help teachers.

1. Adults are motivated, sociable and collaborative

Adults come for lessons when they are ready for a teacher.

Often they will have already attempted self-directed learning using apps, online videos and method books. Some will have had lessons as children or with a previous teacher. They may have bad habits or gaps in their learning. Others will be established players looking for a mentor, or fresh input.

Many adult learners are established music fans who have read around the subject, honing their interest in their favourite music, researching the best instruments, and investigating learning strategies. They bring their own expertise, which a teacher should respect, welcome, and not feel threatened by.

Adult learners are also likely to be connected to, and gathering information from, other adult players as well. They may choose to attend courses, summer schools, and some time advice from more than one teacher. This is their journey, and no disrespect is intended.

To summarise, the more exclusive relationship between teacher and child is not replicated here: our role is to be the mentor who more collaboratively guides adult players in their development.

2. Adults start out with a longer lifetime of prior listening.

Given the importance of learning musical language “sound before symbol”, adults arrive for lessons at a very significant advantage. Most have developed their musical taste, know what they do and don’t like, and why.

Our work as teachers must celebrate and build on this prior learning. Take an interest in the musical enthusiasms of adult students, and don’t feel threatened by the fact they may know more trivia about their musical heroes than you do.

Rather than learning playground songs and Disney favourites, beginners tend to favour well-known classical melodies, film and show tunes and popular chart songs from previous decades.

Be sure to make yourself familiar with a range of suitable method resources.

3. Adults want to ”learn properly”.

Adult learners often unpack this to mean learning to read music fluently, play at sight, understand music theory, and develop a solid technique. They typically reject trivialisation and gamification.

Adults are usually keen to learn music reading with as little fuss as possible, and will often jump straight in, fully appreciating the independence that music literacy will bring.

Most adults pick up music reading and theory more easily than children. This should not surprise us, given the many years over which they have comfortably read the written word.

4. Developing coordination

Conversely, while children usually pick up new coordination skills with ease, adults often find this more difficult. Again this should hardly surprise us; as we go through life our movements become more established, and harder to adapt.

Breathing, posture and relaxation often need particular attention in order to promote healthy technique and avoid tension. My adult students often find my qigong for pianists exercises especially helpful here.

Unlike young beginners, use of arm weight rarely poses any difficulty, but adults often need extra material to help them develop finger independence and coordination. I have found that finger exercisers and studies are often more useful with adults than with younger learners.

5. Adults want answers and solutions

Adults often arrive for lessons with questions and problems they wish to solve. Our first priority must be to address these, relate our teaching to them, and perhaps adapt or put to one side our own curriculum plan.

It is imperative to help adult learners sense they are progressing towards solutions to their problems and answers to their questions, or they will soon become discouraged.

When suggesting any task or approach, make sure that the adult learner understands why it is useful and worthwhile. Relate activities and repertoire to previous questions, problem-solving and the player’s ongoing goals and aspirations.

Unless they are convinced that a task has value, adults are unlikely to follow our advice, and may even question our competence.

6. Adults take responsibility for their learning

Some adults explicitly want to learn classical music with a more traditional approach, but it’s best to never assume this is the case. Most appreciate a variety of music, method and approach.

Most adult learners readily embrace creativity, and can be keen to compose, improvise, play by ear and using chord symbols in addition to using standard notation. As teachers it pays to have the flexibility and resources to cover a range of musical interests.

Again, avoid sticking to a set curriculum or syllabus unless they are specifically requested. Never try to coerce a student to follow YOUR agenda.

Adults who are enjoying their learning are usually willing to commit as much time as they can to practising, creating and playing music. They own THEIR musical journey.

To that end, ensure they understand how to make the most of their practice time, and be sure to recommend that they read my book How to Practise Music for rich tips that will support their independent learning, and their lessons!

7. Adults learn through experience.

Experiential learning is regarded as a cycle: we try something out, reflect on the outcome, and use this learning to experiment and direct our next attempt at “doing”. In the case of piano playing, this “doing” is primarily about practice, playing and performing. Reflection comes through listening, observation, evaluation, thinking, and discussion.

The relationship between teacher and student is crucial to the success of an experiential approach, enabling shared reflection to become the more helpful alternative to instruction-based teaching.

We must get to know the adult learner properly. Their experience and reflection on their piano playing takes place within the broader context of their experience and reflection on life.

We must be careful that as teachers our evaluation and reflection positively contributes to the learning process, and to this end you may find it helpful to read my article Piano Teaching and the Art of Criticism.

Relationship is at the heart of learning. Remember your favourite teacher from the past? Chances are that their subject became your favourite too, and that the learning outcome was also successful. Adult learning builds on experience and depends on experience. Try to make each lesson a positive and memorable experience!

8. The importance of encouragement.

Many adults attending lessons grapple with anxiety in doing so. This can become debilitating, undermine their performance, and sadly as teachers we don’t get to hear their piano playing at its best.

There are many strategies which can help with this phenomenon, and I have written about the topic in more detail in my article, Piano Lessons: Dealing with Anxiety.

Perhaps topping the list of recommendations here, however: give lots of encouragement. And I mean lots!

Remember in doing so that the strongest encouragement is that which the learner can relate to as accurate and true to their experience. Always be realistic and share truthfully, highlighting achievements, progress and promise of each adult student.

9. A Word about the Teacher

Most adult learners assume their teacher to be expert both in their subject knowledge and playing ability, across a range of musical genres, and up to pro level. I am often approached by adult learners who have previously found themselves disappointed.

None of us has all the answers, so it’s important not to over-sell ourselves. Keep the contact details for colleagues who can offer a different approach or specialism, to whom learners can be referred when appropriate.

The Practicalities of Teaching Adults

Parents of school-age children are often happy to follow a weekly schedule fitting around the school year. And teachers who are themselves parents may need to structure their teaching around school terms, with termly or half-termly block bookings and contractual policies designed accordingly.

But if we hope to cater for a wider range of adults, this is likely to include:

  • young adults looking to take up or resume a musical hobby
  • those who need to fit their learning around their family, career and other responsibilities
  • the self-employed, consultants and those working shifts
  • retired seniors who enjoy the piano as a recreational pursuit

The needs, finances and musical aspirations of this wide population group will vary considerably. Some like weekly lessons, but most in my experience prefer longer fortnightly sessions. Many will take their holidays out of season or travel on business, but want regular lessons all the year round when in town. Fitting our schedule around theirs is not always easy.

Adults also expect an adult-friendly cancellation policy, and generally prefer a monthly payment plan. Try to be accommodating about rescheduling, and sensitive to the need for adults to sometimes cancel or rearrange lessons at shorter notice. I have found that this needs to be structured into my business.

I believe that we teachers must be ready with advice and a range of packages and subscriptions to suit different needs. To illustrate the point, you can find out more about the packages I offer here, which are specifically designed to offer a more flexible range of options for adult learners.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.