Adults' Fears of Playing in Public

Adult students may look confident on the outside, but inside they're a seething mass of panic when it comes to performing in public, whether on your studio recital or for their own friends at home.

A basic need is for the teacher to assure the adult that a mistake is not total failure. Or a failure at all. I take the view that mistakes don't matter at all. They're gone instantly. What -does- matter is that the adult is sharing something beautiful with other students and audience members. Obviously, the student will wish he played better (who doesn't?!), so try to help them manage their expectations. I had a teacher once who said, more elegantly, of course, "You're going to drop at least 5% of the notes. Get over it." That helped a lot.

Of course, adults don't accept this view easily! Intellectually, yes. Emotionally, it's a tough row to hoe! It boils down to the teacher saying it's ok to make some goofs and then for the student to internalize it and put the performance in perspective. (It's not brain surgery.)

To prepare adults for public performance, I recommend these things:

I urge you never to program adults and children on the same recital, particularly when some children are more advanced that some adults. This is devastating! The adult knows (again, intellectually) that somewhere in the world there are youngsters who play better than he does, but he surely doesn't want to be confronted with that evidence in public when he is scheduled to play! Even programming a duet (you and the adult) isn't the ticket here.

If you don't have enough students to make an adult recital, put off the recital until you have more participants. I'd say 3 performers is the absolute minimum: 2 students plus you. If possible, flesh out the program with colleagues or musical friends. Duets are also fun for everyone.

Occasionally you will come up against an adult who absolutely refuses to play. If this happens, and no amount of reassurance or cajoling causes him to change his mind, give in gracefully. Remember that you cannot -force- an adult student to participate in a studio event. (I always urge the student to attend the recital anyway with date/spouse and just listen; this is non-threatening. Often, the next year the student will play, seeing that it wasn't as bad as he thought it might be.)

Which brings me to another problem: some adults do not wish to play in a recital until the reach what they consider a reasonable level of accomplishment. Some beginners are willing to play and don't care if others play "better" or "harder" pieces. Some adults would rather clean the garage than play a "beginner piece" in front of people they don't know (another reason to have periodic get-togethers for your adults).

Playing from memory might be another objection your adult students have. If so, I urge you to let them play with music.

Be careful about the recital piece, too. It's better to play something which has been in the repertoire a long time or a short piece rather than something recently-learned or lengthy, especially when it's the student's first or second recital performance. Let the student build his confidence by succeeding at reasonable goals. Short and familiar pieces are in order.

Adults have very fragile egos. Make sure they have the skills necessary, guide them in an appropriate choice for a recital piece, allow lots of preparation and trial-runs, and assure them over and over that the important thing here is sharing their vision of how this piece strikes them with listeners who are so very proud of them they're bursting their buttons!

copyright 1966, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
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