Nov 232004

I spoke at the World Pedagogy Conference, 2000, in Las Vegas. I knew there would be plenty of really accomplished young people playing there. I also realized that if I brought one of my 50 year old adult students to play at this conference, one who started taking lessons at age 40, and in ten years learned to play as well as the kids playing there, nobody would care. Nobody would be impressed to see or hear her performance. Nobody would line up to “ooh” and “ah.”

Why is it that the young person’s accomplishment seems so impressive but a similar accomplishment by an adult does not? Why it is perceived so differently? It certainly doesn’t have to do with the magnitude of the learning accomplishment. If anything, the adult’s accomplishment would be even more spectacular.

Clearly, the world of the adult piano student is different from the child’s. There are few similarities save that it’s the same subject and that all the students are different.

That we have adult students is fairly new and there are more all the time. For this to happen, we need a society affluent enough to have the disposable income above the basic needs of the family. We have to be affluent enough to be able to spare the time to take lessons and practice. We need a somewhat narcissistic adult community that focuses on its own needs and not just the needs of the next generation. Perhaps we also need a society that has a certain “empty” feeling for whatever psychological or spiritual reason.

Our society is certainly characterized as such.

Why do adults take lessons? As teachers, we normally tend to focus on performance and “doing it right;” that is, getting the right notes and rhythms, effective pedaling, playing stylistically. Many teachers, disparaging of adult efforts, say adults just take lessons for therapy because they’ll never be able to do it right and they never practice. (See No, Lessons Are Not Just Therapy) While the adult students I know are very involved with the concerns of doing it right, they also find other joys, perhaps more important ones, in their work at the piano.

A former student of mine, Kate Kimball, heading toward the intermediate level of development and intensely interested in music, asked in “Naked Notes”: “So what keeps me coming back (to these lessons)?” After rejecting reasons of insanity and the need to constantly fail she goes on:
“The explanation I like best is that I play for those moments when the music plays me. It doesn’t happen very often. It doesn’t last more than a second or two. My playing may not even sound any better. But that moment when I am inside the music is about the sweetest feeling I have ever known and I will do anything to get back there. Even practice.”

Not a student of mine, but another adult amateur, Melanie Rehack, wrote an article for the Op-Ed Page (4/11/99) of the New York Times. A beginning student, she wrote of the frustrations of lessons, but concludes: “When I did finally manage to produce something resembling music, it was uneven; it rode upon a dubious tempo and was entirely unburdened by the imperatives of dynamics and proper rhythm. Nevertheless, I was beside myself with glee.”

I think these women are telling us that music is a passion for them because of the process of learning to play the piano, not just because of the brilliance of their accomplishment. Both of these women, one a lawyer and the other a writer and poet, are obsessed with perfection in their own fields, but clearly not solely focused on the brilliant product in their music. One of them dismisses the question as irrelevant (she doesn’t even know if it’s better or not) and the other is keenly aware of her limitations. Yet both are having a wonderful time.

What these students relish is the use of their minds, bodies, emotions and spirit. They are relishing the present moment. They are not devaluing that moment by the demand for greater mastery or skill expected in a future time.

Perhaps they are experiencing something of what we teachers experienced as youngsters before we became obsessed with “doing it right” and becoming overwhelmed by our musical and technical inadequacies; in other words, before we became professional.

In our professional sense of performance, we may have lost some of our own capacity to experience the great joys and passions the amateurs find. In exchange for that loss, I hope we have found other joys. We must, however, honor and respect the feelings of the amateur and be very careful not to steal their pleasure away by insisting the professional experience is the only valid way. After all, one can still pray without becoming a celibate priest; one can enjoy playing tennis without competing in major tournaments. So, too, with music. We must be very cautious in our sense of superiority.

A friend and I have done an amateur adult program in the Czech Republic 10 days one summer. Franca Leeson wrote our brochure and in there reminds us to remember that “a large portion of our music literature was written for amateur performers” that great musicians have tended “to come from amateur music making families” that the money that supports our musical lifestyle comes from these amateurs, and that amateur musicians “continue to guide and manage the musical world as educators, decision makers, fundraisers, audiences, and consumers.”

These people deserve the best teachers have to offer them and it is our responsibility to offer that. I hope this website will help.

  3 Responses to “An Appreciation of Adult Amateurs”

  1. “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly” someone once told me. After returning to piano lessons after a 50-year hiatus, ten years later I can now play badly many more piano pieces than I could before. Why do it? Because it’s fun and I like learning new things. At ten to 45 minutes a day at the piano, two to six days a week most weeks, I will never play well. At my piano lessons, my teacher and I try different things and we laugh a lot. I won’t perform but I will let friends visit my lessons. I had the good fortune to find two teachers (the first sent me on to the second) who “honor and respect the feelings of the amateur” and do not “insist… the professional experience is the only valid way.” Badgered by acquaintances to play something, I decided to learn one “performance” piece — a very simple version of “Happy Birthday.” I play it long distance on friends’ and relatives’ birthdays, often on their voice mail. Occasionally I hit all the right notes but recipients get a kick out of it anyway. Old age is very freeing.

  2. […] Adult students need to be reminded of this. They have not given their lives to music and to compare themselves with those who have is unfair. The amateur experience is different from the professional experience and comparisons to the professional performances are not helpful if adult students use them to evaluate their own musical worth. This may be a good time to look at the chapter called An Appreciation of Adult Amateurs. […]

  3. ive played the piano for the long time, but i have no encreiexpe, i only know my immortal, the river flows in you, bellas lullaby, and fur Elise. I have to be taught very precisely, because i am really suckish at learning certain songs, i need vocal and shown help,, because i have never learned how to read sheet music, am really hard to teach how to play the music, but when i ot it down i get it. Thank you! This is so much going to help me!

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