Teaching Adults: Maturing Viewpoints

If you’ve taught many adult piano students, you’ve probably made many friends. We don’t teach to make friends and, indeed, the relationship begins as a business transaction. Yet, time and again, personal relationships develop—often with more significance than our client’s developing musical skill!

These friendships surprise both teacher and student. They also benefit both teacher and student. We meet CEO’s, pilots, nuclear physicists, consultants, benefactors, clerks and social workers. The spectrum of acquaintances can be invigorating. And, reciprocally, we hold a certain mystique to our adult students. The relationship is mutually valued especially if we are personally encouraging. We’re not therapists, but sometimes it is appropriate to veer in that direction.

These reflections highlight the role of personal interaction in teaching older beginners. When teaching children, there is a marked differentiation of roles. The teacher is the adult and is clearly in-charge. Even with college students, the relationship is that of mentor and pupil. But in teaching adults, the relationship is peer-to-peer. We may be the experts on music, but our adult students are experts in their own domains.

Natural Dialogue

I find that the mutual respect of peer-to-peer interaction promotes conversation. Lessons that unfold in casual conversation not only generate the affinity for friendship, but also put the student at ease. Natural dialogue effectively quiets the humbling anxiety of being a beginner at late age. It also primes the nervous system for learning. The conversation is between peers and the conversation is about music.

How deep do we take the conversation? This indeed is a practical question because we can stray into deeply personal matters and we can dive into heady musicology. Both personal matters and musical subjects comprise the content of dialogue and each may range from shallow to deep. Let’s consider further.

Personal dialogue evolves naturally. In the context of mutual peer-to-peer respect, the adult student will volunteer personal matters. We take it as it comes and reciprocate as feels appropriate. There is little decision-making here. Mirror the student and follow the path of affinity.

Regarding musical subject content, I’ve made the mistake of going too deep (too esoteric) too early. Perhaps enthused that we’re now dealing with a mature adult mind, we’re apt to fill it to capacity! Well, not that simple. First, the student is new to the subject matter, so we need to scaffold the building blocks. Secondly, it is presumptuous to assume that the adult student even cares about the lexicon of music theory or musicology. Is a pick-up note an anacrusis? Yes, but the student doesn’t need to know this. If our adult student happens to be a connoisseur of minutia, we can find out—through conversation.

Varied Personalities

Your adult students likely fall into one of three categories: the philosopher, the engineer, or the player. The “philosopher” is curious about knowledge and connecting with the musical arts. You can explore the depths provided that you have two-way dialogue. Listen as well as expound.

The “engineer” wants to know the mechanics. He/she enjoys a modicum of music theory while decoding notation. You’ll need to inspire beauty in the playing and, importantly, encourage the student to listen. It’s not uncommon for this category of adult learner to “decode and type” instead of “listen and express.” Provide tools and aural models. Consider teaching through demonstration.

The third category is the “player.” One of my adult students set me straight with these words, “Randy, you don’t understand. When I get home from work and go to the piano, I pour myself a glass of wine and I just want to play songs. I could care less about all this theory you’re talking about.” Perhaps that says it all.

Joy of Music

Though not all adult students fall into the “player” category above, all adult students want to be making music. Consider what makes an adult begin piano lessons. What is the motivation? What is the pay-off that overrides the potential embarrassment of adult music study? Perhaps you’ve seen an elderly person light up with glee at the prospect of learning to play. I think that spark is at the heart of the matter. For decades of life this individual has been listening to music. Now, finally, there is a vision of making music. This is the key driver. Our student has begun the transition from music consumer to music maker.

Clearly then, our first and foremost objective is to support that vision by making music early on. The youth have a decade of music study ahead, but the adult is on a different time frame. Don’t focus on endless preparation; get to the songs and pieces.

But what about the late start and technical prowess? True, the adult beginner won’t become a virtuoso, but students of any age can learn to play expressively. Our goal isn’t quantity of notes, but quality. We can bring beauty to the playing. It’s about playing songs that have meaning and playing them with meaning. Note how process and product converge. For adults, learning the piano is playing the piano. The process is at the same time the outcome. Emphasis is on the playing—not years later but in the here and now.

Joy is in the music making. And joy is in the lesson dialogue. For adults, the reward is being on the piano adventure!