The Rewards of Teaching Adults

by Peter Kristian Mose

Keynotes, June 1999

For years I have been known as an independent, take-all-comers piano teacher who specializes in the teaching of adults. Does it mean that I do not teach children? No, far from it. Does it mean that I prefer teaching adults to teaching children? Again, no. What it does mean, at least in part, is that I have become a specialist in the adult music learner by default. Default simply in the sense that I say an enthusiastic "yes" to an area of teaching that many piano teachers say "no" to, or "well, maybe" to. Plenty of my colleagues, it seems, are uncomfortable teaching people who are their contemporaries, or their seniors, or else they may try to employ the same do-as-I-say, authoritarian style with adults that allegedly works in their teaching of children, only to find that most adults have no use for such teaching. In any case, sooner or later my phone rings, and a typically tentative adult voice on the other end of the line wonders if I might consider him or her to be even remotely teachable and proceeds to tell me a musical life story.

Sometimes it is a story about returning to music, occasionally it is a story only now beginning. That is, there may have been zero musical education or exposure in this person's life until now, but somehow he or she has worked up the nerve to pursue a dream. These people usually tell me that they have no talent, or else they tell me that someone else in their family, often an aunt or uncle, was the lucky one born with the elusive gene for musicality. I repeat to them my music teaching mantra, which I firmly believe: "Forget this word 'talent.' We are all musical. What it takes to play the piano is not talent, but thirty minutes a day of diligent practice, and weekly lessons with a teacher you like." (I say thirty minutes because this sounds easy, and doable. If they end up practicing more each day, obviously that's even better, but I don't want piano to feel like a pressure already: the primary goal is enjoyment.)

I go on to tell people that in essence what they are choosing, or purchasing, with a teacher is a relationship, and the fit must be right for both parties, but especially for the student. A teacher must honor a student's goals, whether those goals are pointed toward "Home on the Range," Billy Joel, George Gershwin, Fr Elise, or the blues. I tell a potential adult beginner that we will be playing real music right away, from the very first lesson. And we do, exploring the entire keyboard and the magical damper pedal in the process, perhaps playing by rote some pattern piece based on open fifths or broken chords. Perhaps I will invent a piece for them, or we might create one together.

I do not reveal that they might be embarking on a journey lasting five or ten years or more, because for most of us such a prospect would seem too daunting even to consider. Besides, no one needs to know this. If every lesson is an occasion of joy and discovery, and home practice is approached in similar spirit, a student does not need the itinerary for a lengthy, grand tour of his or her forthcoming musical progress. Musical travel plans, for that matter, like all itineraries, can change en route.

"Cheerleading" - that is a word I used to cringe at, with its memories of high school pompom squads and relentless jingoism. But you know what? Cheerleading may be easily half of my role as an independent teacher of adult piano students. Most of them, when it comes to music, are scared of their own shadows. They have long since left the world of school behind, with its frightening grading system, its built-in sense of competition and incompetence, of winners and losers. Likely they now have a job or career, an ordered life, possibly a family--in short, a basic sense of adult competence. Life has its stresses, but we adults usually have learned how to minimize them in our lives, by avoiding things we are not good at and sticking to things that make us comfortable.

To move, however, from competence and comfort, to utter incompetence and discomfort--which is what it is like to undertake musical study as an adult - and to do this one-on-one with a mentor, is suddenly to feel enormously vulnerable. Physically vulnerable: "My fingers just won't seem to do what I ask them!" Or, "I can't do this!" And emotionally vulnerable: "I have no right at my age to be doing this." Or, "You want me to tell you how this piece makes me feel? But what if I tell you the wrong answer? Or what if I don't know how it makes me feel?" Or the scariest thought of all: "What if I don't really feel anything? What if only you people in the arts understand all this stuff, about feelings and emotions and expression, while I am left behind as someone who is insensitive, someone fundamentally as dull as dishwater? Someone who could not dance as a kid, or sing, or draw, or write. Someone who surely has no business playing the piano, and no business dealing with things like creativity and expression, at this stage of life. How dare I have thought otherwise?"

To begin piano lessons at age six or eight requires not courage but willing parents and a compliant child, but the act of commencing the piano as an adult, or of returning to the piano as an adult, is one of great courage. Good teaching of adults understands and respects this courage, and understands and respects the fear that represents its flip side.

The one-on-one relationship between teacher and student that ensues will likely be intense, and special. No one knows how long it may last, but music happens in the process, and that is a wonderful thing. Work happens, and that is a wonderful thing. Psychological integration may happen, also a wonderful thing. Two sensitive souls will glimpse each other through the arts-surely a wonderful thing. And if one perceives that this world of private music instruction between two adults is very akin to the world of adult psychotherapy, or indeed to the intimacy of real friendship, I would be the last person to disagree.

Copyright 1999 Peter Kristian Mose


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