Special Needs of Adult Students

An adult is usually an ideal student. There's no need to prod an adult: he's studying because he wants to. He views piano study as something special he's doing for himself, so he'll maximize his progress by following your instructions precisely and practicing diligently.

There are several special considerations in teaching adult students, and attention to their particular needs will make your teaching even more successful.

Attitudes

Any student responds positively to a non-punitive studio ambiance. If a student knows he won't be penalized or ridiculed for mistakes, questions, or unsuccessful outcomes, he won't be afraid to try.

Help your adult student see music as a stress-reliever rather than a stress-inducer. The goals are pleasure and creating beauty. Mistakes are gone instantaneously.

I find that most adult students bring a fierce intensity to their lessons and home practice sessions. Music is very important, yet time is limited, so often adults press themselves toward unrealistic goals and/or are too hard on themselves for errors. As children, we are positive that grown-ups know everything and do everything right on the very first try. Now that we're adults, we know how woefully short of this ideal we fall, yet we still think we ought to be able to attain it. This unrealistic and unreasonable burden is a common source of frustration, disappointment, and, sometimes, anger for an adult student.

Therefore, it's important that you help your adult student keep a sense of proportion about mistakes in particular and study in general. This is not brain surgery! Tell you student directly - - and often - - that mistakes are no big deal and that he is welcome to try again as often as he likes. In essence, you are giving him "permission to fail" without guilt.

Humor is a useful teaching tool for students of all ages. Not only does it remind the student not to take himself (or his error) too seriously, but it can create a momentary respite from stress when the student is bedeviled by a trouble spot. For example, instead of immediately enumerating faults or suggesting solutions when a breakdown occurs, if you sense your student is feeling especially aggravated by his poor playing, interject a light touch: "That was truly amazing fingering! I'm not exactly sure how you managed that, and I was watching you!" This brief interlude - - which perhaps will draw a smile - - will help dissipate tension and allow the student to regain his self-control before the two of you investigate what went wrong and how it might be fixed. (And remember to ask him to start more slowly when he plays the passage again.)

Praise your adult student. No matter what our age is, we all want the approbation of our teachers.

As adults, we know how rare perfection is, so if something is faultless - - no matter how small that something is - - use the word "perfect" to let your student know.

If your student could use a general boost in self-esteem, remind him how exceptional he is to be taking lessons. Most adults don't use their free time in such an enriching manner. Particularly an adult beginner should be commended on his initiative to begin study and his willingness to put himself in the vulnerable position of being a novice.

For most adults, the lesson is more than music instruction. It's psychologically rejuvenating and often a personal high-point of the student's week. Think about it: what other time do most adults have when another adult's undivided attention is focused solely on his needs and interests?

Standards and Strategies

You are not training your adult student to be a concert artist, so you should not employ the same strategies you would use on a competition-bound high school student.

Examine each of your standard procedures (especially in theory and ear-training) and ask yourself whether these planks of your program are appropriate for helping your adult reach his goals. (Does every scale have to go up to two notes at 208 on the metronome? Must you transpose every exercise to all major and minor keys?)

This is not to say that that short-cuts are acceptable or that your standards should be lowered. Not at all! Adults need - - and want - - rigorous study. Make sure what you teach is germane to each adult's goals in study.

Revise your methods and time-frame, too. Adult students rarely have deadlines, especially with technique and theory.

Learning Styles

An adult knows how he prefers to learn, and the teacher should make every effort to teach him that way. Does he like to hear about the new topic first or see it in notation form?

Likewise, after just a few lessons, adults will know how they like to approach a new piece. One adult might want to examine the score carefully before playing a note; another might prefer to find the problems as he stumbles on them; still another would like to hear how the new piece fits stylistically with others he has studied so he can draw on that knowledge as he begins to read through it. Some adults like to learn the most difficult section first, while others like to study the piece working from beginning to end. Many students like to start hands apart, while others prefer to dive in hands together.

Lesson Plans

As to how lesson time is spent, some students like to have you practice with them on trouble spots. Others like to hear your "warnings" about trouble spots in a new piece and then go home and woodshed on their own. Still others prefer to prepare the piece as best they can before bringing it to you for comments and suggestions.

Of course, you will want to allocate some time for technique, theory, sight-reading, and so on.

Repertoire

Students vary in their preference for study load. Some students like several pieces concurrently, while others prefer to focus on only one piece of literature at a time. If your adult does not seem to know what he wants, it's probably because he can't articulate it. Make suggestions, such as, "Would you like a new piece this week or would you like to continue with what you have?"

An adult usually knows what kind of repertoire he wants to learn. If, perchance, he says, "You choose," you then have an opportunity to select something that will reinforce a previously-weak skill, fill a vacancy in his repertoire list, or introduce a new type of music. Usually, a student will say something general, such as, "Something slow" or "Something really flashy" or "Some more Bach."

When interviewing an adult, ask what he wants to do with his music. What kind of music would he like to be able to play for friends and family? Then be sure to supply him with the kind of social music in which he indicates interest: light classics, pop, Broadway tunes, hymns, blues, ethnic material, etc. As his studies progress, you will bring other types of music to his attention so that eventually he will have a well-rounded repertoire, but initially you are certainly safe to assign only the type of material he prefers.

Scheduling

Be prepared to do more lesson rescheduling with an adult than with a child. A sick child or a business trip means the music appointment must move to the back seat because music is not the adult's only commitment.

If no time that week will work out, consider taking a double-length lesson the following week. I caution against every-other-week appointments as a matter of course; adult students need to touch base with the teacher every week, just as children do.

Practicing

Time is a huge problem for adults. They never has as much time as they'd like to spend at the instrument. The other responsibilities in adults' lives means that in some weeks, progress will not be what they had hoped for (or what you had hoped for). Don't castigate them. They already feel terrible about it, so set them at ease. ("Those kinds of weeks happen to everyone. Don't worry about it. Let's skip technique today and work on [name the most difficult piece or the one where you know there was a problem last week] together today.")

Adults can use your advice on how to practice, as efficiency is of great interest to them. Even an advanced player can profit from your suggestions, so don't hesitate to make them. Here are the two most important ideas I introduce to my adults:

As I mentioned earlier in regard to dealing with a poor week of practice, it would not go amiss to spend an occasional lesson practicing with your student, no matter whether the quantity of practice the past week at home was as much as hoped for or not. Doing this helps the student not only to become familiar with the practice techniques you are suggesting but also to learn that they work! (A by-product is that a trouble spot is no longer there.) One of my favorite practice techniques is rhythms.

Occasionally you will have an adult who is making exceptionally slow progress for no apparent reason. Probe a bit. Although he may be neglecting his assigned pieces in favor of playing other music or sight- reading ahead in his books, I suspect you will find the problem is that he does not go to the instrument six (or at least five) days a week. Explain why daily practice is so essential to progress: retention is highest - - about 90% - - when reinforcement (practice) happens at the 24-hour mark or sooner. By the 48- hour point, retention has plummeted geometrically, and if the student goes three days between practice sessions, retention is nearly zero. If the student cannot commit to a more regular practice regimen, both of you are wasting your time. Advise him to postpone study until his schedule permits practice on a more regular basis. The fact that you told him this (that is, you would risk losing the income) should be adequate motivation to straighten up and fly right.

General strategies for teaching the student how to practice at home are applicable to the adult as well as the child.

Using Skills

An adult wants to use his skills, so make a special effort to devise such opportunities. Arrange for all your adults to give a Christmas concert at a nursing home. Set up a special presentation for a school class and tailor a part for your student to assist you. (If it's your student's child's class, so much the better!) Invite a clarinetist or a singer to your studio for an evening of accompanying experience. Have several adult students over to play duets or other ensembles. Encourage your students to get together without you to play for each other. (My adults do this once a month and say that it has made a vast difference in reducing their fear of playing in public.)

Using musical skills also includes listening with more comprehension. Organize dinner out and a concert at the arts center for students and spouses/dates. You may be able to arrange for discounted student tickets. Or, buy two extra tickets to the symphony series and invite a different student/spouse to accompany you each time. (Ask your accountant if these tickets are deductible as a business expense.)

Also remind your students to set aside time daily for playing for fun without guilt, such as reviving old songs and playing them in a new way, sight-reading from non-assigned material, improvising on a hymn or pop tune, playing sing-along pieces for their children, and general puttering around at the piano.

Recitals

Recitals for adults can be very problematic, much more so than recitals for children.

Adult recitals will be more effective if you treat them as musical soirées rather than public performances. Have students bring spouses/dates/parents (but no children!). Invite musical friends who are not students, not only as part of the audience but as interesting people with tastes in common. Serve adult refreshments afterwards. Make it festive.

Take part in the program yourself. It will keep you learning new music, too. Demonstrate how specific skills can be put to new uses: invite a violinist and a cellist to play a string trio with you, ask a colleague to play an unaccompanied solo, or the two of you present something together.

Be flexible in selecting recital pieces. Choose a piece the student enjoys, perhaps one he has been playing already for friends. A strategically foreshortened piece - - such as the A section of "Für Elise" - - or a duet is often a good choice for an adult with an extreme case of the jitters.

If you schedule a student ensemble, be sure at least one member (you?) is a strong player who can keep the music going should any of the others get lost.

Speaking of the jitters, many adult students will indicate reluctance to play on recitals. If you stop to think about it, playing in public is not one of the reasons adults study piano, so recitals can be a delicate subject.

You can urge, encourage, and cajole, but you can't require an adult to play on a recital. Know when to give in gracefully. Ask your student to attend, even if he isn't playing. He'll probably see that it's not so frightening after all and decide to play next year (or the year after - - some students need a while to come to grips with playing in public because this is most assuredly not the reason they started lessons!).

And, of course, do not require memory playing. Adults who can do this with ease - - or discover they can, if they are beginners or have never attempted to play from memory before - - will do it readily. Those who feel more comfortable with the music before them should certainly be allowed to have it. Letting adults use their scores is the single most helpful thing you can do to make adults more receptive to performing on recitals. (It will not surprise you to learn that I think allstudents should be allowed to use music in performances. Yes, those bound for a college major in music must hew the traditional conservatory line, but all others should not be forced to play from memory.)

Business and Pleasure

In a nutshell: Don't mix business and pleasure. Don't include your students in your social life, although it is tempting since the bond between you and the student usually grows quite strong. It is very difficult to keep the lesson "all business" when you and the student interact in non-musical ways.

Repetitive Stress Injuries and Arthritis

Adult students - - especially those "approaching middle age" may have physical ailments which impact piano study. Arthritis might mean that octave runs (such as in Mozart's "Rondo alla turca") are impossible to do without pain. Others may find a succession of large/loud chords (such as in Rachmaninov's "C-sharp Minor Prelude") are agonizing. You have two options: steer the student to another piece which is similar; or thin down the original texture until it can be played without discomfort. To continue the above examples: Take some of the notes out of the middles of those Rachmaninov chords or remove the upper note in the left hand or lower note in the right, as the harmony allows (for example, don't chop away the only root!). For the Mozart, eliminate the lower note of the blocked octaves; the broken octaves probably will not be as much of a problem.

Some technical exercises may aggravate RSI and will need to be stopped for a while (or permanently). Tell your student to suspend any exercises which prove uncomfortable. No exercise is so important that it's worth risking not being able to play the piano at all!

Adults who use computers a good portion of the day are at risk for repetitive stress injuries, ranging from tendinitis to carpal tunnel syndrome. I'd like to suggest the following in this regard:

I have more information on dealing with RSI--including some stretches given to me by my physical therapist--elsewhere on my home page, and there is an excellent website at the University of Nebraska on this topic. This site includes general information on RSI, as well as RSI-and-music information.

Adults are wonderful students. Adjusting your expectations and helping them adjust theirs will result in a gratifying experience for both of you.

copyright 1996-2002, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
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