How Adult Piano Students Differ From Kids When Taking Lessons

The majority of piano instruction is based on child students. Many teachers don't even take adult students. Taking a look at it from the teachers' perspective, you start to understand why some teachers would take that approach...and learn how to be a more productive student. Here are the benefits and drawbacks of teaching adults:

Con: Adults require more reassurance

As we've discussed in the Brain of the Adult Student lessons, adults are generally less secure than kids.  Or perhaps, more accurately, kids generally don't care.  If they're not good at this thing, they'll move on and be good at something else.  That's the definition of being a kid: repeated failure at hundreds of endeavors to find what skills might be prove usable in the future.

In general, adults are worried: worried that they are learning slower than "normal", worried that they're not talented enough for this, worried that they're too old; that they started too late; that they're not doing it right, that it's not worth the investment - of time or of money.  Adults are embarassed to play in front of friends and usually in front of the teacher too.

All of that means that the teacher is constantly having to reassure the student that, awkward as it seems, they should continue to take lessons.  It also means that time is taken from the lessons to play cheerleader as much as instructor.  Not every teacher wants to play that role.

By the way, I know you played it better when you were at home by yourself.  That's fine too.  Just do you best.  Relax.  Play as well as you can play it here, in front of another person in a different room on a different piano.  It's weird.  I know. I'll add 20-30% to your performance to make up for it.  Just play.  "But I don't know what's wrong.  I swear it sounded better at home."  Yes.  I know.  I believe you.  Play.

Pro: Adults are smarter, learn faster, and ask better questions.

Yes, even you.  There are so many benefits that go with this.  You make better connections between the concepts.  You understand the concepts sooner.  You're listening when I talk.  You're taking notes and trying again on your own.  When you don't understand, you're asking.  You're restating things to be sure you understand.  You're double-checking to be sure you understand the assignment.  You're trying the assignment before you go home to be sure you're on the right track. You're trying these skills on your other songs.

All these things are much more foreign to kids.  They are there for the same reason you find yourself at the DMV: someone more powerful than you said you have to be there and you have to accomplish something in order to get out again...for now.  For a teacher who loves to see students catch on to new concepts and care, there's no comparison: adults are much more rewarding on this count.

Con: Adults hesitate

During most of the lesson, the kids is just trying to filter through the teacher's "blah blah blah" to catch the single instruction buried in there.  "What am I supposed to do? Line 1? Line 2? Start from the beginning?  Please don't say start from the beginning."  Once they have their orders, they understand their job because years and years of schooling and parenting have taught them: get the instruction, carry out the task. If the mission is executed correctly, freedom may follow.  If not, the mission must be re-attempted or replaced with one even more basic, more tedious, more frustrating.

Therefore, any words that a teacher gives after the instruction are lost.  "Play line 2, but play it legato."  Sorry, teacher, that line isn't going to be legato until you rephrase your sentence: "Make sure you're playing legato when you play line 2.  Ready, go."

While it might be frustrating to worry so much about syntax, trial and error can be more effecient progress than adults, who stall for every last second wherever they're afraid they'll fail:

"What does legato mean?"

"Can you show me an example first?"

"I don't know if I can do that yet." 

"How about I try it just normal first." 

"Can I play line 1 first to get into it?" 

"Great - I'll practice that at home and play that for you next week." 

Pro: Adults clarify directions

For the adult who is not just protecting their ego with overly-wrought stalling techniques, making sure directions are clear is a really helpful skill, and one that very few kids have.

"I don't remember what legato means," actually saves a lot of time.  The kid might not ask the question, and repeat the passage several times before the teacher forces the explanation of legato again.  Even when asked, the student might say he remembers what legato means even when he obviously doesn't.  There's 5 minutes (1/6) of the lesson we won't get back, just for lack of clarity of direction.

Con: Adults quit

Adult students are short-term students.  Teachers like to fill their schedule with long-term clients.  Adults leave for many reasons, but in general, they are going to give up or switch teachers within a few months.  Reasons range from change of employment, medical issues, loss of faith in themselves or their teacher, or frustration at the pace of progress.  But kids are going to keep taking lessons until they move away for college or mom and dad say they can stop.

Not that all or most kids hate their lessons.  Tons really have fun, but they are not considering each week whether or not they should come back the following week.  7 days will pass and they will be back.   For adults, every week (and for some, every day) is a re-evaluation of whether to continue this journey or cut losses.

And don't let yourself off easy by thinking that kids just don't care that they mess up.  Kids DO care, especially the older they get.  But even in Kindergarten, you can see the timidity of many who are afraid of being laughed at. In fact, a good portion of late childhood and early adulthood is dedicated just to finding ways to avoid embarrassment precisely because we DO CARE so much!  And all that practice is exactly how we get so good at avoiding things we might fail at as adults. 

But kids don't have a choice, and that's the key ingredient for their success.  They HAVE to go to school and HAVE to choose an instrument and HAVE to play a sport.  As adults, we try this piano thing and if it feels like it might not work out, we abandon ship, often way too early!  But dedicate yourself in the face of screwing up and there's potential for real success.  Oh...and never stop thinking this learning piano thing is stupid :)  Taking anything too seriously is a key ingredient for embarrassment.  If it doesn't work out, it was the piano that was dumb, not you!

Pro: Adults are better practicers

I don't just mean that they practice MORE - that's not necessarily true. But any adult that is shelling out their own money for lessons has an idea of what they want to get out of it. They have their own intrinsic goals. They know "good" sounds like and they're motivated to make those sounds.

Every time an adult student sits down to practice, they are looking for improvement. While this can sometimes backfire when the student can detect the progress, it also makes for really focused practice. While kids often just sit at the piano, running out the clock until mom allows more video game time, adults have purposely carved out time to sit down and grind away at something they expect to have to work at. It's a beautiful thing!

As an adult you have a lot more practice locking in a focus and purpose for the repetition in any task/skill/job.  I think that is the primary skill which we call "talent" in kids (in any area): the ability to see a goal just beyond the hard work and be determined to achieve it.  They sprint toward the finish line, whereas the other kids just jog along unaware they're even participating in an event.  Or for another analogy, one is out hunting and the other is just on a nature hike. They might both have the same weapons in the same terrain, but one has a much better chance of capturing something.  But I would hesitate to call one a more "talented" hunter than the other by most definitions of talent. 

It's still going to boil down to who puts in the work and what's going to motivate you to put in that work: character, parents, sibling rivalry, money, intrinsic passion, curiosity, boredom, fame. I've seen students get very good for each of those reasons, so that's probably the most useful piece of information for a teacher to have so they know which buttons to push.?

Con: Adults have more finely-tuned BS detectors

That's intimidating. Especially for a long-time teacher who is used to being right; unquestioned in their god-like knowledge of music, all day, every day.

It's no picnic for new teachers, either, as you can imagine. Or for young teachers. I'm no spring chick, but even at 40, I get students in their 50's or 60's and I know I have something to prove to win their trust, which is a key ingredient since adults also seem to be more insecure about the process. I imagine the threshold is so much higher for teachers in their 20's and 30's. It wouldn't take too long before a 20-something teacher would decide older students just aren't worth the hassle: let them find an older teacher they're likely to trust sooner.

Pro: Adults are more consistent

Some students progress more quickly than others, but whether fast or slow, adults come back with similar amounts of progress each week.  They are rarely affected by soccer schedules, school finals, orthodontics appointments, and sibling schedule conflicts.  You people drive yourselves, and know how to plan ahead for scheduling problems.

You don't have multiple weeks of zero progress followed by a week of great progress, coming in and saying, "I didn't have enough to practice this week!"  Slow and steady goes the adult.  Which is great because a teacher can give appropriate-sized assignments when the student has a predictable capacity.   For many young students with various levels of week-to-week practice, the teacher can give smaller assignments that would fit the majority of the student's practice weeks, in which case the parents are likely to complain, "This teacher never gives a big enough assignment!  What are we paying for anyway?  Every time Joey practices for a couple minutes, he runs out of material.  There's no real point in making him practice!"  Or the teacher can overload the student week after week in case this is the one week Joey practices, in which case the parents might feel like, "This teacher has no idea how much work he's giving out!  Joey's been on the same song for 3 months and he's not even close to completing it.  What are we paying for anyway, if there's no progress?"

More real-life parent stories here.

Con: Adults have no concept of their limits

Adults think anything that happens quickly in the brain should also be executed by the muscles just as quickly.  It doesn't work like that.  Your muscles only learn by instructions being send over and over and over and over, cutting paths or ruts in the brain pathways to create a given action.  When adults try something physical and fail, they feel silly, embarrassed, unqualified, untalented.  It's hard to keep going when you ego is triggering a full-on I-should-have-gotten-this-already fit!

Kids have an embedded framework of being able to do things "When I grow up".  Adults have the embedded concept of "I'm too old for this."  Because kids don't expect to be proficient at major life skills until a perceived infinity into the future, they can, ironically, have more realistic long-term expectations.  A watched pot never boils, and a watched student never progresses.

Conclusion: Try

 Dig in.  Do it.  Be brave.  Be ready to fail and try again! Do it slow and steady.  Carve out the time and carve out the money.  In six months, you will have shelled out 6 months worth of lessons, but you'll only be 6 months better.  Decide now whether or not that's a good idea.  Because when you get there I can already tell you which way you'll be leaning.  And if you're going to quit in 6 months, you might as well put that money toward a cruise or donate it to a good charity.

This journey is long.  And enjoyable all along the way! If you decide to head down this path, you have so many advantages to start now! Welcome!  Good luck.  Have fun!