Dr Piano Tells All 



Learning to Play the Piano as an Adult

Now that you have a piano, let's look at playing it. Many adults who do not play themselves regard the piano purchase and piano lessons as something they are doing for their children, so that said children will have the advantage of learning to play when their minds are more flexible and able to absorb knowledge.

These folks have the belief that they themselves are incapable of learning to play (either they had lessons as children, which did not "take", or they never had lessons.) They believe they just don't have what it takes to play the piano.

Let's look at some of the reasons you may have had a bad experience, and some possible workarounds.

  • Teacher wasn't good
  • Piano wasn't good
  • Performance anxiety
  • Lack of practice
  • Negative feedback from authority figures (teacher, parent(s)) or friends
  • The "I'm too old to learn how to play" syndrome
  • Managing Expectations

Some of these reasons may be interconnected; you'll be able to figure out what applies to you.

The Bad Teacher

If you had a bad experience with a piano teacher, you need to accept and deal with several issues. First, whoever hired that person did the best they could. Forgive them and let it go. When you choose another teacher, you will do better. If the teacher made you feel incompetent, you will need some strong psychological help to overcome what may now be a deeply ingrained self-perception.

A tool which I have found extremely useful for overcoming negative self-talk is EFT or Emotional Freedom Technique. A free manual which describes the technique is available at www.emofree.com .

Take some time to interview potential teachers and ask if you may talk to some of their students. You need to find the right one who can teach you what you want to know in such a way that you can learn easily, and hopefully without personality conflicts. That may mean someone other than the person who is teaching your child.

The Bad Piano

Most folks wouldn't recognize a bad piano if it bit them. Here's where getting some feedback from a piano technician, as well as a piano teacher, would be a good investment. You want a piano with a good tone (this is subjective - your opinion does matter so try to find examples of the kind of sound you like on a recording). Your technician may not agree on what constitutes a good tone, but your opinion should prevail here. Where the tech can help you is with the action.

The action needs to have good downweight (around 48-60 grams) and good upweight (something over 20 grams). This will allow the keys to repeat quickly in a fast passage, or where you are playing a trill. The downweight will vary with the piano maker (for instance, Steinways have a lot of downweight, Yamahas not so much). A piano with a lot of downweight will feel stiff and hard to play. Generally speaking, if you can play a Steinway, you can play anything. But that may not be such a good choice for a young child or a person with less strength in their hands. This is supposed to be a pleasurable activity, not hard work!

One of the things that can complicate the downweight and upweight of a piano is friction in the action centers. Again, here you need a piano technician. Older pianos will frequently have a condition called verdigris which is a green tarnish caused by the interaction of the wool bushing with the nickel silver of the centerpins. This will really slow down the action and give an unacceptable amount of friction in the parts. You will feel like you are pushing a truck with your fingers!

The fix for this is either to repin the parts after reaming out the wool centers or to replace the parts with new ones. Either of these options will be expensive, because they are labor intensive. If the piano you are considering or already own has this condition, and it is otherwise solid, get the work done. This is one place where it doesn't pay to be cheap. If the piano doesn't work like a normal piano, neither your child nor you will be able to learn how to play well.

Performance Anxiety

I like to play. A lot. But I will admit that there are some situations where I am uncomfortable playing in front of other people. Sometimes, it's when I'm playing solo. And sometimes it's when I'm playing chamber music with someone else.

How does it manifest itself? Sometimes, it's extreme shakes in my hands, other times, it's stomach upset. I have to admit, since I've found EFT or Emotional Freedom Technique, these have mostly been non-issues. I do suggest that you give it a try. Again, the free manual is at www.emofree.com.

Another technique which I have found to help is to do a guided meditation before a performance. I had great success listening to an audio of Thich Nhat Hanh on "Being in the Moment" which allowed me to play in my first recital in 45 years with a relatively low level of stress. Of course my teacher, when I let him know at the beginning of the event, had misgivings(which he fortunately didn't share with me until afterwards) because meditation had a very bad effect on him during a performance. I suppose the best plan would be to arrange a dummy recital and try using a meditation technique beforehand in front of a less critical audience - give yourself a dress rehearsal, to see if this will help your performance anxiety or not. 

Lack of Practice

It is possible to make a good deal of progress in your piano playing with only a few minutes of concentrated practice at a time. Let's say 10 minutes, 3 or 4 times a day. If you are serious about improving, you should be able to manage this. Sometimes a bigger block of time is just not possible, but the smaller amounts can be accomodated. This is the case for me, and I have found a huge improvement has occurred just sitting down 3 times a day for a few minutes to work on a piece or a difficult passage.

Negative Feedback

You are the architect of your reality. What I mean is that if you believe that you can learn to play the piano, you will learn to play the piano. If you believe that you cannot, you will not. Anything that other people say to you that reinforces these beliefs will either be a help or a hindrance in your efforts.

Remember this when you are trying to help your child in his or her efforts to play; positive reinforcement and encouragement will go a lot further than negative comments.

I have an uncle who has always been a negative voice whenever I have played music in his presence. Over the years, I have had to eradicate his presence in my consciousness. He just isn't there for me. But it's still a niggling irritation that I have to go to that kind of effort in family gatherings when I am playing chamber music with other family members.

I'm too Old to Learn

No one is too old to learn to play the piano

I remember going to a concert at the Longy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where my sister was performing in a chamber music piece, and one of the other performers on the program was an extremely elderly (eighty-something, I believe) woman who had been taking piano lessons for three years. She blew my socks off, playing a Chopin Etude that I would never have attempted myself.

While it may be true that children learn more easily, adults generally have a better work ethic and can more easily apply critical thinking and problem solving skills to the challenges of learning to play. I know that I play much better as an adult than I ever did as a child, because of the last two attributes.

Managing Expectations

I recently received a lovely email from a reader of this website, a piano teacher who likes to teach adults.  He mentioned that one of the biggest roadblocks to the adult learner is the expectation that six months of practise will give a person the chops of a professional pianist.  I would hazard a guess that this is a universal expecation, and not confined to the adult learner. 

So let's agree ahead of time to some groundrules.  Please expect that this will be difficult.  If Mozart had to practise 4-6 hours a day to achieve his extremely high level of proficiency, don't you think you might have to do the same?  He was a pupil of his father, an exacting taskmaster by all reports, and he was a child, presumably eager to please said father. 

It seems obvious that the more time you can devote to regular practising, the faster you will improve.  Although, practising should never be a drag.  If it is, or if it hurts, just stop and do something else.  I will only practise 40 minutes at a time before I take a break.  After 10-20 minutes of some other activity I may or may not go back to practising.  But again, just for 40 minutes.  And just so you know, I have had two rotator cuff repairs to my right shoulder, which initially made practising a bit of an agony.  I have to sit higher on a bench than is normal, but then again, what is normal?  Fortunately, my teacher understands that my mechanical abilities are compromised, and he will not let me do things which cause me pain.

If you are willing to accept that improvements will be incremental, and some things will be hard to learn, while others may be easier for you, you will do well.  You will improve (perhaps imperceptably), but you will improve.  Give yourself 3 years at least.  Think of this learning process as akin to learning how to do an athletic activity; there is a period of intense repetition of certain motions, just to get your muscles to learn new ways to behave.  Eventually, these motions will become automatic.  But the key is regular practise and many repetitions.   

Stop making excuses.

No one is too old to learn to play the piano.