Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Working With Adult Piano Students

One of my most satisfying musical activities these days is teaching adult pianists. I enjoy watching their pianistic triumphs, big and small, at a time in life where, paradoxically, they can take their time progressing and enjoy the ride much more than younger learners. The Toronto Star's Susan Pigg recently wrote an article about Toronto-based piano teacher Clare Pengelly and her experiences working with the "big kids":
Commercial photographer Sid Tabak, 59, started taking lessons with Pengelly 16 years ago and was so nervous performing in front of others, he took beta blockers to ease his anxiety.

Eventually he figured out a few survival techniques, like don’t talk to yourself when you make a mistake — just keep playing because the real victory is having the guts to sit on the bench.

“It takes awhile to realize that your self-worth as a human being has nothing to do with how well or how poorly you play the piano.”
I had to chuckle when I read the passage about how adult pianists swear when they make mistakes in lessons - I often see the same thing.


  1. “It takes awhile to realize that your self-worth as a human being has nothing to do with how well or how poorly you play the piano.”

    I think this is the best bit right here. It took me 4 months off playing with a 'musicians injury' to realize that one (and a bit of help from a Buddhist uncle). :)

  2. Thanks, hroche. My students often need to be given permission to fail when they're trying new things. And when they figure out their mistakes, they can then develop the tools to improve.

  3. I chuckled at your comment about adult students swearing (or talking) when they mistakes during lessons. One of my very first adult students was a wonderful man in his 70's (his wife also took lessons) who, without fail, muttered 'Woooooooops' in a deep voice after every mistake -- and there were many, many mistakes in each piece, every time he played it. After several months of this, when all the usual suggestions 'don't talk while you play' 'don't stop for mistakes' 'just keep going and let yourself stay involved in the music' had had no tangible effect on the 'woopsing', I finally asked him if he was aware that he was saying 'woops' ----- and he was astonished to hear it. He had never heard himself.

    Interestingly, despite that information, he was never able to stop saying 'wooooops' -- I guess it was just so deeply unconscious a reaction that he couldn't access it on the surface.

    This occurred more than 30 years ago, when I was a very new teacher. I might be able to come up with some better things to try for a case such as this now, but this has never happened with a student since, so I'll never know if George could have been 'cured.'

    The thing is, of course, since he didn't hear himself, and was never in his life going to play for anyone but himself, it probably didn't matter anyway. :)

  4. And it is the only way to get back my confidence when it happens. The others won't notice it either.