Recently, Pete Jutras, Professor of Piano at the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at the University of Georgia, spoke with me about the benefits and challenges of learning piano as an adult. Pete is well-known in the piano teaching community for his research on adult piano pedagogy.
Pete, the topic of your doctoral dissertation was The Benefits of Adult Piano Study as Self-Reported by Selected Adult Piano Students. How did you first get interested in andragogy (adult pedagogy)?
To be perfectly honest, I first got interested in teaching adults because they paid the bills! But I ended up with a fairly decent-sized studio of adult students and at Southern Methodist University, started teaching group classes for adults through their community division. Because this was a successful, wealthy area of Dallas, I met the most fascinating people – successful doctors, attorneys, venture capitalists – who were interested in doing a very humbling thing, and that is taking beginning piano lessons and not sounding very good at first. Their intrinsic motivation was really inspiring to me. I started to ask: why are they doing this? what are they getting out of this?
Along those lines, what did you learn about how studying music as an adult is beneficial and nourishing?
What I found both anecdotally and through my research, looking at about 700 adult piano students around the nation, was that studying music had deep and meaningful personal benefits. Everyone said, yes, I’m studying piano to get better at playing. That’s a well – duh! – but it was important to ask that question and establish those statistics. Everyone agreed about the skill benefits. But they actually rated the personal benefits as more important in cases, particularly a benefit called “dream fulfilled.” This means it was something they’d wanted to do their whole life.
Another interesting thing, though I didn’t ask about it explicitly, is adults say they want to be able to play music. And again, you may think, well, of course they do, but we often screw that up as teachers and put things in front of them that doesn’t make them feel they’re actually playing music. They really value the ability to just play a tune. The other stuff in traditional piano curricula may be less important to them.
Two other common benefits were a sense of accomplishment, and escape from their usual work/life routine.
What are the most important personal qualities or aptitudes for success as an adult piano student?
I’d say motivation, though most of the time I don’t think that’s an issue for adults. I think it’s somewhat courageous for any adult to take lessons. One of the toughest things is getting them to unlearn misconceptions. So I might say something like open-mindedness, the willingness to learn differently. And a healthy dose of realism is incredibly important. Many adults have expectations that are way too high. They’re often highly intelligent people, they consume a lot of music at a high level, they listen to good recordings, they go to professional concerts, and they don’t understand why they don’t sound that way. I’ll never forget giving one of my students his first Two-Part Invention, and he came back and was furious. He said, “Pete, you know, I worked on this for 30 minutes, and it still didn’t sound right.” And I said, “we need to have a conversation…”
Ha ha! I’ve got several questions that adults often ask about learning piano. First, can you learn piano as an adult?
Absolutely. Everybody can. Everybody has musical instincts. I think it’s unfortunate that western civilization draws a line between musicians and non-musicians. Many cultures don’t even have a word for musician in their language because everybody sings, everybody dances. Yes, everyone can learn, and everyone should try, if they want to.
How long does it take to learn the piano?
A lifetime. You never stop learning; I never stop learning. Yet you can enjoy playing the piano at any level. I don’t beat myself up because I can’t play golf like Tiger Woods.
Can I teach myself how to play piano?
Probably not very well. Now, the research on adult learning suggests that adults want to teach themselves. That’s why we all go to YouTube to figure stuff out: “I can learn this; I’ve got this.” There are definitely things you can teach yourself: aspects of theory, exercises, getting around the keyboard. But there’s no substitute for a teacher with wisdom and experience.
How is learning piano easier for adults than for kids?
Adults can intellectually process the concepts much more quickly. They can communicate with their teacher in a way that a five-year-old can’t. They can use effective learning strategies acquired from past experience.
How is learning piano harder for adults than kids?
Depending on age, it may be harder to do some physical things. I’ve had older adults that can’t move their thumb under their hand, and we just have to deal with those limitations.
I’ve noticed that many adults have a degree of rigidity or tension in the body. It often seems that the older the student is, the harder it is to get them to relax and learn good technique. Have you experienced this?
I would agree. Tension is one of the biggest challenges for adult students. There may be physical reasons, but a lot of it is psychological. Many adults are unnecessarily hard on themselves for making mistakes.
What are your top tips for learning piano as an adult?
Be patient. Enjoy the process. Find repertoire you want to play that’s achievable. It’s much more satisfying to play something artistically than to try to play something difficult not so well: “No, I want to play Clair de Lune because that’s on my list!” Playing something beautiful is really satisfying, even if it’s simpler technically, and of course we know it’s not so simple either.
Right. How can I, as an adult piano student, make the most out of my limited practice time?
Create a plan. Work on what needs the most work. I think it’s all about figuring out how to do something successfully. What do I have to do to do it successfully? Go slower? Practice one hand at a time? Find something you can do successfully, do it successfully multiple times in a row, and then build on that in small increments, rather than flailing away with lots of mistakes.
What are the most common reasons that adults stop studying piano? And related to that, what are strategies adult learners can use to continue their studies when they experience roadblocks or time constraints?
Time constraints is one of the biggest reasons, along with unrealistic expectations. The answer is, again, finding repertoire that’s reasonable and enjoyable. If you go back to why are you here, and a lot of my research says you’re here because you enjoy this on a personal level, then do things that you enjoy on a personal level. If that’s playing the same old review song for three months while you’re exceptionally busy at work, that’s okay.
I may sound arrogant and I don’t mean to, but I’ve had plenty of adult students who stopped studying with other teachers because they were treated like children. There was no consideration of the differences in an adult’s life and learning style. It really helps if the teacher can get to the heart of what the student wants to do and find repertoire that meets those goals and matches their skills.
Any thoughts about being creative with piano?
Improvising and being creative at the piano can be very rewarding, and I suspect a lot of adults want to be able to do it. Unfortunately, following a traditional piano curriculum as most teachers are used to teaching it is not going to get them there.
Where is piano teaching going these days?
I feel very encouraged about where it’s headed. Finally, as a profession, we’re acknowledging the value of doing more improvisation and creating at the piano. I’ve always found it ironic that the composers we idolize and whose music we say should be played perfectly, were master improvisers. I’m also really encouraged by the efforts to diversify the repertoire and shed light on underrepresented composers. We’re blessed to have so many different composers, styles and pieces in our repertoire. And perhaps we’re moving away from the idea that to learn piano you have to learn a specific canon of repertoire and the end goal is playing the Chopin Etudes by memory on a concert stage. Golf teachers don’t expect all their students to be professional golfers. They totally get that there’s hobbyists and people that are just going to hack away and they’re fine with teaching them. They don’t insist, no, if you’re going to do golf, you’ve got to practice four hours a day. I think our profession is coming around to that. RMM (recreational music making) is a big part of that, I think.
Are virtual lessons here to stay in such a way that’s different than before the pandemic? And how can teachers and students optimize the experience of learning online?
Like it or not, virtual lessons are here to stay. I’m not crazy about them though; I’d much rather see a student in person. At the same time, we’ve started a whole program here of giving remote lessons to students in Kenya who don’t have access to piano teachers. So there are benefits. If there’s a snow day, you can still see your students rather than skip the whole lesson. To me, the biggest challenge is the sound, and so in an ideal world, there would be a Disklavier at both ends and a real piano would play. I’d like to see more effort made on capturing and transmitting the sound.
Well, Pete, that’s it for my questions. Thank you so much for your time today.
Those were good questions; they made me think.