Monday, February 21, 2011

Question of the Week: Feb. 21, 2011

I realize that I skipped last week...but as I posted about teaching twins and got some feedback on that, I think I'll count that as my 'question of the week' for last week! ;)

This weeks' question focuses on adult students. I've had my fair share of these, and they usually don't last more than a few months as the demands of weekly lessons or the failure to meet their own expectations makes them drop out. Can anyone identify here?!

One of the most common phrases I'll hear from my adult students in a lesson is:
"I played it so much better at home."

I can identify with this frustration as I have experienced the same phenomenon myself- a piece that I have practiced flawlessly completely bombs during the lesson. So, what can we as teachers do to foster a non-threatening teaching environment? I personally don't think of myself as a very threatening personality, but there's something about playing for another body (especially if it's the teacher!) that can be really unnerving for the most prepared student.

I'd love to hear your ideas or tips on how to deal with this issue!


  1. I had an airline pilot taking lessons from me. He likened playing the piano for me as stressful as being in a flight simulator. He explained there were so many things to think about and one false move would cause an accident. He just needed to relax and not over control his body. As he allowed the music to come through him his playing became less self-concious and more musical. I can't hold on to an adult student more than 6 months so I offer semester terms where they can come and go. Adults are very satisfying to teach.

  2. I inevitably hear that comment as well from my adults and teens (and remember making it myself as a student.)

    I tell my students that they have accomplished the first step--learning the notes and rhythms. Now they need to practice to make the piece "reliable." (Another way to say this is to tell them to practice not just until they can get it right but until they can't get it wrong.) We play "pressure games" with the tricky sections. One of our favorites is the pencil or M & M game, where you put 3 pencils or candies on one side of the piano. Play a section of the piece. If you played it 100% perfect, you move a pencil to the other side of the piano. Then play the section again. If it is again correct, move another pencil. If you made a mistake, move all pencils on the goal side back to start. Your goal is to get all three pencils on the other side. (Of course, this is more fun with candy, because you eat it when you're done!) To win, you must play 3 times in a row perfectly--helping you make the piece reliable.

  3. So far the adult students that I've had tend to be quite critical of themselves. I think it helps to point out how much progress they are making from week to week because they are generally pretty good at picking up on their errors. My husband is my newest adult "piano student" so I get to hear him practice throughout the week and see firsthand that he can usually play it better when he doesn't know I'm sitting there listening to him. But it has been fun to do a lot of duets together and I readily acknowledge that even as the teacher I stumble at times.

  4. I remember saying this as a student as well! Certainly not limited to adult students, any student struggles with this. I find myself telling my students, "take your time, there's no rush" or "start whenever you are ready" to help ease some of those jitters. They seem to think they need to hurry and play...I want them to take their time and do it RIGHT.

    With my older teens and adult students, I find that most of them want to learn to play songs and to play now. Most like a good repertoire of songs, and aren't so concerned with the other things. Being able to play their favorite songs is always the best. They don't have the long-term goals of "when I grow up I want to..." because they are already grown up! So there is the desire for instant gratification.

    Overall I love teaching adults! They are so much fun to work with. I am glad you prompted this discussion, Sarah, as there is not much out there about teaching adults. If anyone knows of anything, I would love to hear about it.

  5. Thank you all so much for your thoughts on this issue. I agree that adults look for instant gratification when they sign up for lessons. I think that's part of the reason they don't last long- their expectations and what they can feasibly accomplish as adults are generally incompatible. While adults can comprehend the concepts better, many times their coordination and ability to perform is what trips them up.

    While younger children are interested in exploring and learning and don't suffer from intense self-criticism, adults tend to see a mistake as failure- something that shouldn't happen- and making a mistake can really cause discouragement.

    It's important to help them see the bigger picture and develop realistic goals. Heidi, I definitely agree that weekly progress reminders are important. As teachers, we also have to be sensitive in the music we pick- finding arrangements that are tasteful and make the adult feel like they're not playing "baby music" while not assigning something too difficult that will only cause more frustration.

    I have to confess that I still see adult students as one of my greatest challenges- and an area where I experience a pretty high level of nervousness and discomfort. I feel my forte is really with the younger beginners. Hopefully over time this will change!