Adults bring a great deal of baggage with them to their lessons because of their history with music and education. They come insecure about their musical knowledge and afraid of the power they feel in music. Their memories of teachers are mixed. They are justifiably cautious about starting a relationship with a new one. Further, adults misunderstand the learning process as it relates to piano. They show a lot of courage just making the call to schedule lessons. It’s important for teachers to be aware and sensitive to all their concerns.
Adults come to lessons fearful of their lack of knowledge about music. If they are beginners, it’s as if we know a secret language. Edward Rothstein (Emblems of the Mind: The Inner Life of Music and Mathematics, Time Books, 1995) compares the secret notation of both mathematics and music; how it makes the uninitiated feel left out and ignorant.
These students come to their lessons as if visiting a magician, for music seems like magic. Not that music doesn’t have its magical moments for all of us, but their sense of this magic can be quite unsophisticated. They have experienced the tremendous emotional power of music from their listening and they come awestruck. They think teachers must commune with the gods; for where else could the secrets of such unearthly power and beauty come.
In school we unconsciously sensed the magic of music from the beginning because music was different from the other arts. We learned to draw pictures; we wrote stories; we even wrote poems; we never wrote music. Nobody ever taught us to write music. That seemed to be beyond the bounds of even our music teachers. Learning music was always learning somebody else’s music. Oddly enough, that we made up songs in our cribs is never built upon or mentioned.
It’s not surprising that adults coming for lessons feel presumptuous in attempting to make music for themselves and they fear their ambitions seem foolish to teachers. Even as they fear the emotional expressiveness of music and at the same time they crave being part of its power. They are scared and are trying to hide it from their teachers as much as themselves.
When adult students walk into teaching studios for the first time, they don’t know what kind of teacher awaits them. The truth is, piano teachers have something of a bad reputation. Generalizations include being overly demanding, never satisfied and even hitting students with rulers. They don’t know that there are a lot of really nice teachers out there.
All adults have had scores of teachers in their life times. The better educated they are, the more they’ve had. Many of these teachers were adequate. Hopefully, some were been wonderful. Unfortunately, some were bad teachers. At least a few of these were just incredibly boring; a few were mean, condescending and embarrassing; and perhaps some were even sadistic. Adult students can’t be blamed for their caution.
A few students coming for lessons have had a wide range of bad experiences with previous piano teachers. As adult students, they frequently found teachers uninvolved in their learning endeavors. These teachers gave gratuitous praise and assigned new pieces. These adults knew they weren’t learning anything. Did these teachers think adults couldn’t learn or weren’t important because they weren’t going to be great players of the next generation?
Other students coming to me for lessons had physically abusive relationships with piano teachers when they were children. Some teachers were abusive because the students weren’t very good and their teachers hit them to scare them into playing better. Sometimes the abusive relationship resulted because the students were very good and their teachers wanted to push them to greater effort. (See What I Learned about Teaching Children from Teaching Adults)
Oddly enough, the opposite happens. The child is terrific and the teacher lets them do whatever they want just so the students don’t quit and the teachers can continue to claim them as students. This is abusive in quite another way. These students never learn the importance of the discipline of practicing and this is vital in developing the skills necessary to play really well. I remember one of my adult students with this background talking to a friend about her lessons with me, “He actually expects me to learn a Bach fugue?!” She did learn the Bach and she was mad nobody cared enough to make her learn Bach as a child. Instead, she worked on Rhapsody in Blue because that’s what she wanted to do.
It takes time for adults to realize they are safe in the studio. What happens to these students while they are finding out just how safe, is that they are guarded and afraid. When they’re afraid they quit breathing normally, they leave their bodies and go into their heads; and to control their feelings, they start thinking frantically. They try too hard.
When I get like this, I start making stupid mistakes that only make things worse. Instructions become incomprehensible. I don’t know my left hand from my right. I don’t like myself and I want to run away. It’s no different with other students.
Prior academic experience is utterly confusing for adults learning to play the piano. Academic education focuses on concepts and the words to explain these concepts. School is all about words. However, in music, words don’t count for much, they just get in the way.
Let me use rhythm as an example of this issue. It’s fairly easy for most adults to understand that rhythmic notation is based on the power of two. They can understand that a whole note equals two half notes, that a half note equals two quarter notes, and so on down the line. They can understand the system of ratios as few young children can. This understanding comes quickly and most could pass a written test after an hour of good instruction.
To actually get their bodies to perform the complexity of the rhythms that their minds so quickly understand can take months or years. Physical comprehension takes much more time to incorporate then mental comprehension.
Teachers and students don’t understand this difference very well. It’s not usually a major issue for children because of their lack of sophistication with verbal concepts. For adults, it’s a major stumbling block. I will discuss this at length in future chapters.