Teaching Adults Piano: Ten Tips

A master chef is teaching a private cooking class to James, a 45-year-old aspiring chef.

"What your absolute favorite food?" asks the master chef. 

"Jambalaya!" says James. "I absolutely LOVE Jambalaya! Can you teach me how to make it?"

"Absolutely!" says the chef. "I'll teach you to make Jambalaya. But first you need to learn how to cook my famous Lima Bean and Okra Soufflé.

"Hmm..." James mumbles. "I don't really like lima beans and I hate okra," he confesses.

"That's too bad," says the master.  "Unfortunately, there are some skills you can only learn by perfecting my Lima Bean & Okra Soufflé. I think it's delicious. You'll learn all the skills and techniques you need to make a fabulous Jambalaya in a few months, but today I'll send you home with the soufflé recipe. I expect you to make it at least once this week."

James is visibly disappointed, but tries to be a good sport.

"OK, I'll go home and cook the Lima Bean & Okra Soufflé."

At the next class, the chef asks him how the Lima Bean & Okra Soufflé turned out.

"Oh, you know, it was a really busy week at work and I just didn't get the chance to make that soufflé. I did find a great recipe for Jambalaya, though."

It's our job as piano teachers not to ever assign the musical equivalent of the Lima Bean & Okra Soufflé

These are the tips I wish someone given to me when I was starting out:

1.  Teach them music they love.

There is no better way to quash an adult student's enthusiasm than to teach a piece that doesn't inspire them. Children might tolerate a piece or two they don't care for. Adults won't. Even if they say they will, they won't practice anything you give them unless they like it. 

It takes an adult longer to learn new physical skills than a child. They need sure-fire motivation to get them through the rough patches. Something that fills the emotional need inside them. It is better to teach a harder piece they love than an easier one they don't even like. Nothing motivates like the desire to play a piece they've always cherished.

(I've written some suggestions here of some simpler music my adults have enjoyed playing.)

2.  Let them play the part of the piece they like best. Maybe only that part.

Yes, folks, it's true. No police will come knocking at your door if your student leaves something out. There is no "correctness quotient" that must be met. You and your students can use your own good judgment and edit music to fit their needs. The glorious thing about learning to play the piano as an adult is that one is free to do as one pleases. Adults aren't trying to please a parent, a teacher or an adjudicator. No one is forcing them to take lessons. It's about them and the music.

Here are a few examples of my student's recent edits:

  • Dave, age 84, is omitting several sections from the last movement of the Schubert B flat Sonata. He's playing the rest of it, but thinks the last movement too long. (Who doesn't? C'mon. Really?) He's made cuts that work for him. This meant getting rid of several redundant statements of the main theme, as well as the sections that sound too much like the Schubert Wanderer Fantasy. (Since I hate the Wanderer Fantasy, I thought this was a brilliant idea!) He also played "highlights" from the Goldberg Variations a few years ago. 
     
  • Alice, age 40-something, recently played the Rachmaninoff Corelli Variations. Just the ones she likes. There are a few she doesn't, and she just left them out. Variations are particularly great for adults, as they can skip any they can't or don't want to play. 
     
  • Barbara, age 83, edits everything as she pleases. She changes notes and rearranges uncomfortable passages fearlessly and performs almost every month at various clubs and organizations. No one's ever noticed a single edit. It does help that she tends to play slightly unusual repertoire. She loves the Pepperbox Jazz pieces and has performed them numerous times this season. Currently she's working on the Liadov Prelude in B minor - a gorgeous and sophisticated piece that doesn't require her aging hands to play too quickly.

There's a wonderful book I often use with adults called Quiet Classics that includes the parts of pieces that everyone loves. This lovely book includes the slow, middle sections of the Chopin Fantasy-Impromptu and Grieg Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, as well as entire movements and single pieces like the slow movement of the Pathetique Sonata. I made the recordings that accompany this book. You can download them for free here.

3.  Help beginners learn how to take their own lesson notes. 

I've taught students who began as complete beginners in their 50's and stayed for as many as fifteen years. The most successful one, Judith, took her own notes at every lesson. By the time she "took a break" (fifteen years later!) she had filled up seven entire notebooks. Looking back on her success, I realize taking these notes performed several functions:

  • It gave her time to stop and think about whether she really understood what was going on well enough to describe it to herself in writing.
  • It helped her feel in control of her own learning. There isn't really any good reason for the teacher to write an assignment for an adult. In fact, I start having students write at least some of their own assignments at about age nine or ten.
  • She could look back and see what she'd done in the near and distant past and feel a great sense of accomplishment.
  • She liked doing it.
  • Best of all, she would sit down at a lesson and say, "Here's what you told me last time and this is what worked and what didn't."  The feedback made me a better teacher as I gradually learned to express myself more clearly and stopped doing things that didn't work.

The most important component of taking good lesson notes is writing down practice suggestions. Learning to practice well is most of what I'm teaching. As the years progress, my students are able to do more and more of the initial stages of learning on their own. I'm trying to create independent learners.

Even taking a moment to write down how we approach a new piece can be helpful.

Lesson notes for a beginner might include points like this:

  • Find the melody
  • Circle the 3rds in the melody
  • Play the melody alone
  • Post-it Practice from the end.

4. Encourage advancing adults to audio-record their lessons.

I don't suggest that adults record their lessons from the beginning. There isn't much to listen to, and the words of wisdom aren't very complicated. Taking notes is better. As the students become more skilled though, it can be very helpful to have them record their lessons. Later they can listen to the lesson again and make notes on the music to help them remember anything they may have forgotten in the moment.

My student Bob, a retired engineer, takes public transportation into San Francisco from Berkeley each week for his Friday morning lessons. He records each lesson and listens to it on the ride back home on the train. His progress is incredible, partly because the recording and immediate listening doubles the impact of the lesson.

Most of my students use the "voice memo" on their smart phones to record their lessons. Any recording machine will do, though. It's not about the quality of the recording, it's about re-listening to both sides of a lesson. They re-listen to their own playing as well as my reaction to it. They can hear things differently when they're not busy playing.

5. Be cautious with simplified versions.

Carol Klose wrote wonderful arrangements as well as fine original compositions.

Carol Klose wrote wonderful arrangements as well as fine original compositions.

Take the time to play through any simplified version of a classical piece yourself before you give it to a student. There are simplified arrangements of many pieces your students might want to play. That doesn't mean that they're any good.  Be discerning and careful in your choices. 

Recently one of my students brought in a book of simplified Joplin Rags. When I played through them, I was pleased to discover tuneful, easy-to-play arrangements. I wasn't surprised when I looked and found that it was arranged by Carol Klose. She was a wonderful composer and arranger. Sadly, she passed away in 2013. It was a great loss to the music world.

If you can find high-quality well-arranged simplifications, use them. However, I often find it's better to give my student the "real thing" and simplify them myself by whiting out whatever parts are too difficult or confusing. Just because there are fewer notes on the page doesn't mean your student will have an easy time. If it's a poor arrangement that doesn't sound like the "real" piece, it can backfire and be a complete disaster.

6. Be in charge

It may seem unintuitive, but adult students do not want to tell their teacher what to do. In my studio, the adults are such successful people in their own careers that they do not want to be the expert when they come to me. They want me to know more. They want guidance. They want my expertise. They want me to lead them, not just to go along for the ride.

Because we're usually teaching one-on-one, it can be easy to be too collaborative when teaching someone our age or older. I've found maintaining this boundary becomes easier as I myself grow older.  It's not that I don't give my students choices, but I have found that they prefer a strong, careful, leader who tells them what to do. They come to me because they want an expert, not a friend. Even though I've become quite close to many of my students over the years, during their lessons I'm sure to keep my "teacher hat" on and maintain a professional strength and demeanor.

7. Slow is just fine.

Some adults will never play prestissimo. Some of them barely get past moderato. Many of them don't even want to play fast pieces. As people age, they often cannot move their fingers fast enough to play at extreme tempos. This is fine. There are many pieces that can satisfy them emotionally and still challenge them just the right amount technically.  

Make sure the books they're using are well edited. Good fingerings are essential. I like to use a mix of Keith Snell books and Henle editions. Keith's because they're inexpensive and well-edited for students. Henle because they're often the best, though they're always expensive. Henle has published almost everything in high quality engravings. Some of their editions are better than others, so look at them carefully before assuming they will suit your student's needs.

8. Take the time to explain why.

As I'm suggesting a fingering for an adult, or telling them a piece of information, I always ask myself if there's a principle I can teach them that will apply to other pieces.

Here are some examples:

  • This is a good fingering because you can feel the outline of the chord in this arpeggio.
  • This will work well because your hands have matching fingerings. (Or perhaps contrary fingerings that feel logical.)
  • Using the same fingering in similar passages is a good idea.
  • Learning staccato passages legato first makes the notes are secure. Staying on each note longer helps you feel safe. It also helps you make better fingering choices.

Simple concepts that are portable are important. This is just good teaching in general, of course, but it's especially effective for adults. 

9. Get them together.

I have adult classes at least three or four times a year to play for each other and share experiences. Piano playing can be a lonely pursuit, and there are few obvious opportunities for an adult to perform. Having a performance goal to work toward, no matter how informal, motivates everyone. Some adults will find their own ways to perform, but most won't and will be grateful for a place to come and show their hard-earned achievements. I hold my classes at different student's homes. This helps make it feel less like a lesson with me in charge, and more like a low-key performance. 

10. Start every lesson with something positive and specific.

Adults are placing themselves in a vulnerable position to play for you. They're outside the comfort zone of their area of expertise. To choose to do something at which you're less skilled and to pay for those lessons yourself requires courage and commitment. Validate it. Appreciate it. Acknowledge it at every lesson.

I love teaching adults. I love their minds, their wits and their willingness to practice with dogged persistence. I realize that my experience may not be typical, but I hope that these tips will help make your teaching experience more rewarding.

People are living longer and looking for things they can continue to do as they age. Making music is good for the soul and it's GREAT for the brain.

Teaching adults is one of my great joys. I hope these tips will help it bring you joy as well.

Have you tried my Free Sight Reading Flashcards? They are helpful with all ages and abilities.