If you’re over fifty, you’ll know that many of the things that kids take for granted today just weren’t available when we were kids. I’m not blaming anyone, it’s just a different world now. When I was a child, music lessons were a real luxury. As a result, I never learned to play the piano when I was young and the same applies to most of my peers too. So, for those of us who want to learn as an adult, it’s worth thinking about the implications of trying to learn piano as we get older and how suitable the different methods are.
The term adult piano lessons is probably a bit meaningless. A lesson is a lesson after all. But as we age, we are bound to respond differently to approaches that might be more suitable for younger people.
Firstly though, let’s look at the effects of the physiological changes that come with age and how they affect our ability to learn the piano.
Memory. It’s commonly assumed that our memory gets worse as we get older. This is thought to apply mostly to short-term rather than long-term memory. Many old people can tell you everything about their childhood but can’t remember what they had for lunch yesterday. If you keep your brain active then there’s no reason why your memory should fail you.
If, however, you do happen to have a poor memory then fortunately it shouldn’t impede you too much. This is because the procedure of learning the piano is designed to reinforce the link between what you see on a page of music and the movements of your fingers. This reinforcement is the result of lots of repetition. Memory doesn’t come into play here, we’re talking about the laying down of new neural pathways.
Neurological plasticity. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You’ll have heard that old adage, I’m sure. It’s based on fact. As we get older we find it harder to learn new things. This is because our brains find it more difficult to lay down new neural pathways than when we were young. That’s not to say it’s impossible, it’s just more difficult. It’s reflected in the way that young children can pick up on new ideas and concepts almost effortlessly while older people need a lot more exposure before it sinks in. Children’s brains are still in a developmental phase when new neural connections form very easily. This is why many piano lessons for beginners incorporate lots of repetitive exercises. It’s to help you get those neural connections formed.
I think the key here is exposure. If you can find the time to immerse yourself fully into the world of music for whatever time you have available, it will create a music-related neural environment within your brain and enhance your ability to absorb the musical ideas and techniques that you are going to learn.
Manual dexterity. There’s no getting away from it. Our bodies start to let us down as we get older. Although you may not have realised it, this applies to our fingers too. You may well find that your fingers do not respond as quickly or as accurately as you would like when you start your beginner piano lessons. The dexterity required is considerably more than that required to type on a computer keyboard.
Exercise is the answer here. You’ll need to stretch all the joints and muscles of your hands regularly. Fortunately you can do much of this while you’re away from the piano. Once you’re in front of it there are many fingering exercises that you can do that will help to alleviate this problem. It may take some time, but be positive and more flexible fingers will eventually come as a result.
Backache. Sit on a piano stool for a couple of hours and you might find that you can’t get up again. It’s all about posture, of course. Most of the beginner piano courses give a guide to correct posture, and correct foot and arm placement. If you suffer with a bad back, and lots of adults do, it’s probably best to start off with short sessions at the piano and attempt to work up from there.
Obviously your doctor or physician is best placed to give you advice on this. What I would say though is: don’t be tempted to use a chair with a back at the piano. The type of posture that this promotes will do nothing for your playing. A piano stool is the only thing to use. Make sure that it’s at the right height.
Practise. As you’ll have gathered if you’ve read any of the other pages on this website. The key to learning the piano is practise, and lots of it. Now, the big difference between adults learning the piano and children doing the same thing is the amount of time they have on their hands for practise. If you are a retired person then this may not apply but if you are a working adult then time is usually a commodity that is in very short supply. Particularly for an indulgence such as taking piano lessons for beginners.
Obviously you need to fit in your practise where you can. Fortunately, most modern thinking on this subject suggests that several short periods of learning or practise, rather than one long one, is more effective at reinforcing the neural pathways discussed above. Beginners piano lessons are often tailored to fit this regime and it should be easy to plan your piano lessons in this way. If you can do ten minutes before work, ten minutes before supper and another ten before bed then this will probably be very effective. Even short bursts of one or two minutes are useful, so fit them in whenever you can.