Tackling (and tickling) the ivories after 40
by Kelly L. Henderson
A few years ago at the age of 40 I dusted off an old dream and started taking piano lessons again. Although I’d been a willing piano dropout at the age of 12 I’d grown up regretting it. In the intervening years I played just enough to retain my ability to read music but my technique had suffered. And since I did not know what I was doing wrong or how to correct it I knew I needed a teacher.
I already knew what music school I wanted to attend because its brochure came tucked in among the flyers in my newspaper once a year. With that as my sole recommendation, I registered. Within a few days I had a teacher.
Now I’d like to say that the rest is history, that my talent was quickly recognized, and within a few short months I was a celebrated virtuoso. Yes, I’d really like to say that. But the truth is, starting over again was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I had retained a lot less from my childhood lessons than I imagined; I had bad habits that needed to be overcome; and my overall knowledge of music was embarrassingly slim.
Not one to retreat in the face of a challenge, however, I was determined to give it everything I had. Three years later I’ve corrected most of my technical problems. My playing has improved steadily and I can now play music I never dreamed I could learn how to play – Bach, Mozart, and Chopin are all in my repertoire this year and nobody could be more thrilled and, frankly, more amazed than I am.
I can’t take all the credit though. I was extremely lucky that my haphazard teacher selection method (which, by the way, I would not recommend) yielded an instructor who is knowledgeable, experienced, and wise. I believe I would not have been able to make the progress I have without her patient guidance over the years.
All in all my experiences as an adult student have been positive and encouraging, more so I believe than those of my childhood. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have the confidence that thirty-some additional years in the world gives you either. That’s one of the ways in which the world of the adult piano player differs from that of his or her junior counterpart. Here are a few others I’ve observed:
An adult piano student doesn’t have to prepare for exams, doesn’t have to play classical pieces, and doesn’t have to perform in concerts. Freedom! You can learn modern music or jazz, take as long as you want to learn something, and perform strictly in the relaxed obscurity of your own home.
You’ll be on a first name basis with your teacher. This may affect the dynamics of the relationship marginally, but don’t expect claps on the back and proffered cigars. You’ll still be expected to plunk something out on the keyboard fairly regularly.
Nobody yells at you to practice. On the one hand, this is very nice indeed. On the other hand, you have to be able to discipline yourself to do the job. Presumably, if you’ve taken up the piano as an adult it’s because you like the instrument and want to play it. However, if necessary, take yourself to a mirror once in a while and give yourself a severe tongue-lashing.
You pay for your own lessons. (Ah yes – I knew there was something I missed about being a child.) Footing the bill is one thing adults understand very well. It’s a little easier to get down to work when you know your pocketbook is taking a regular hit for the privilege.
Adult students can usually grasp intellectually how a piece of music should sound (e.g. mournful, peaceful, playful) but they don’t have the skill on the piano to express it. According to my teacher, children often have the opposite problem: they have nimble fingers and good technique but they lack the worldliness and experience to understand the emotional component. These limitations, however, are temporary on the part of both age groups, and are overcome with practice and time.
And speaking of children … you’ll encounter 10-year-olds who with no apparent effort at all can play you out of the room. This can be humbling and encouraging at the same time. I’ve certainly been outplayed by the junior set more than a few times. However, whenever I am working on a difficult line or phrase and get discouraged I always think that somewhere a 10- or 12-year-old kid is playing the piece perfectly. And, by george, if that kid can play it so can I. Those imaginary prodigies have helped me learn some difficult music over the years!
Kelly L. Henderson is an adult piano student, freelance writer, and contributing editor at Suite101.com.
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