Saturday, March 31, 2012

Adult Lessons

Most of my students are adults. It is very gratifying to work with adults. Adult students are playing the piano because they want to, and are often more motivated than kids (though I certainly have some youth students who are very motivated as well). They have more life experience to bring to their playing. They want to know the reasons for things, why I have them work in a particular way, how music "works," and so on. I enjoy the interaction and conversations I have with my adult students, many of whom have become my friends as well. Therefore I am just thrilled that, in the area I live, at least, adults are the fastest growing group of people seeking piano lessons.

My adult students range from total beginners to quite advanced, from people in their twenties to their seventies. I'm always so impressed with adults who start out as beginners, because it's not easy to be a "beginner" at something when you are already expert in other areas of life. It can be quite humbling. I'm also impressed with my advanced students. Many could just rest on their laurels and figure they play well enough, but instead they want to continue to refine and deepen their playing, which is very satisfying for me as a teacher.

Because adults have different goals and needs, they need a special kind of teacher. Quite a few of my adult students came from other teachers who really only taught kids and didn't have any idea of how to teach adults, but, I suppose, didn't want to turn the adult student away out of either kindness or monetary reasons. They did them a disservice however. Several of my adult students were given little kids' books to work from by their previous teachers, the ones with cute little pictures.... This is ridiculous, as there are many adult-oriented books available now. They often only gave 30-minute lessons, which is far too short to accomplish much, because that is what they did for kids. These previous teachers didn't address the adult students' interests in learning to play by ear, learning the basics of jazz or pop styles, or improvising. The teachers themselves just didn't have those skills so there was no way they could teach them. And, incredibly, a few of my advanced adults have told me their previous teachers had them play in the same recitals as little kids, even if they were playing Chopin and Rachmaninoff and the kids were playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. This is just embarrassing.

I'd like to tell you how I start adult beginners.
First, the lesson must be at least an hour. I have some who take a 90-minute lesson, because they want to move forward as quickly as possible, which is more satisfying for them.
I always start by having them play by ear. You learn to speak a language before you learn to read it. For the piano, playing simple songs by ear and harmonizing them with simple chords starts you on the path of ear-training, in a fun and meaningful way. Without the ear running the show, so to speak, you will struggle at the piano or any instrument. You also get some basic keyboard skills, just moving around the keyboard a bit and playing hands together. If you start the first lesson by reading music, you are playing things so simple it barely sounds like music. For a young child, that can be bad too, but for an adult it can be death to their enthusiasm for playing the piano. At the first lesson they are playing several songs by ear, with chords.
I also introduce improvisation at the first or second lesson. Even if they feel they know almost nothing, we "noodle around," with them playing at the top of the piano and with me at the bass. We start just on black keys, so there are less "choices" and everything sounds pretty good (they are using a pentatonic scale, which will have less possibilities for dissonance). I make sure to harmonize it in an interesting way so the whole thing sounds great. It can be sort of a new-age sound. My students, whether adults or kids, are amazed and thrilled at how good it sounds, how fun it is, and how they are able to do this with so little instruction. Improvising is the best way, at least at this stage, for them to experience "playing" the piano, as opposed to "working" the piano.
Before I introduce reading of notes, I introduce rhythm, just through clapping and listening (see my earlier blog post on rhythm), and then I show the notation for basic rhythms. Every piano teacher knows that reading and playing rhythm correctly is perhaps the biggest stumbling block for new and even intermediate players, so that is why I do this first.
Within the first month or so I introduce more chords and get them playing in keys other than C. The books keep them on the white keys for far too long, in my opinion, and create almost a phobia about playing in other keys. I get them used to it early on.
After a while I introduce note reading, using an adult book. I  have never found an adult book which does everything the way I would like but we make it work by my supplementing with additional information. (I'll have to write my own adult beginner book one day, I suppose.)
When their chord knowledge is sufficient and reading is progressing well, I introduce reading from fake books, where they play a song reading the melody from notation and chords from chord symbols. I have never had an adult student who hasn't been thrilled to be able to do this. It gives them immediate satisfaction to play songs they know and like, and to learn it much more quickly than they would reading it in 100% notation. As they progress further with this, they make their own arrangements of the chords so they have their own version of the song. Even people who want to focus on classical music enjoy doing this and it benefits them greatly to learn so much about chords and harmony.
I never give adult students books of "finger exercises," which I don't believe in for kids either. We work on technique in our pieces, in ways where the student can see the immediate application of the technique. This is more efficient use of their time.
Speaking of which, adult students, who often work, have families and other responsibilities, need a method which maximizes their precious and limited practice time. My methods do exactly that.
Lastly, when they want to get some experience playing in front of people, they have a wonderful opportunity at my adult "soirees" (we don't call them recitals). My adult students all get together, along with their spouses or guests, at the home of one of my students (also a friend) who has a large space with a concert grand. We all play for each other, even if it is a "work in progress" (an advanced student working on a large piece may play just a portion of it, for example). Then we have dinner, drinks, and socializing, and a great time is had by all. It's very supportive and gives them a chance to overcome nervousness about playing for others. Several of my students have become friends with each other through these events, and I'm so thrilled that I have helped create a community of music-lovers.

In a future post I'll describe the benefits of lessons for advanced players, and how I approach that.

If you are someone with a desire to play the piano but have dreaded the idea of lessons because of ideas you may hold about what lessons would be like, I encourage you to try to find a teacher who really knows how to teach adults.