Never Too Late to Learn: The Adult Piano Student's Surprise Advantage
We were at a poolside gathering, talking about our summers. And with new acquaintances, the inevitable "What do you do? What's your occupation?" comes up.
I brace myself for the wide range of reactions to "piano coach." Some people hear "piano" and get excited. Others start recounting horror stories of their own childhood lessons involving agony around reading sheet music, "the left hand," and frustration practicing.
Inevitably, a few people get sad. One guy talks about how his kids are in lessons and doing well. He is on the verge of tears about how he had always wanted to play piano. He'd never gotten the chance. When he asked me when I started, and I said, "Age 5," it confirmed the mental picture that it takes years of lessons at a young age. Piano lessons are for super-talented & driven kids. It's just "too late."
My theory is people have seen too many social media videos. You know - where child prodigies come out in their cute outfits. Sparkly and freshly pressed. Hoisted up to the bench by a beaming parent. Perfectly polished performances, some complete with a bow at the end. Indeed, the world has produced a fair share of these extraordinary talents, from Mozart to Lang Lang. But that's not the rule. It's the exception.
While it seems counterintuitive, adults are often more effective piano students than children. Their progress is not just noteworthy—it shakes the foundations of our understanding of learning. We need a more nuanced exploration of the unique strengths adults bring to the piano. What I've seen isn't a trend—it's a revolution. Adults, many with little to no musical experience, are flocking to the piano in unprecedented numbers. And they are not just playing well; they're excelling, often surpassing their younger counterparts in many ways.
So why are adults making such successful piano students, often outperforming children in the same endeavor? The answer lies in a confluence of motivation, life experience, and a fresh perspective on learning.
Come to the Piano with Built-in Motivation
One of my best clients is an adult. Let's call her Cathy for anonymity. She'd always wanted to play piano as a child. She found a "learn piano" app for her mobile tablet, and away she went for a while. Cathy got stuck on beginner songs. She came to me because she wanted to play whatever she wanted with freedom and ease. She wanted to learn both pop and classical. We started playing by ear and taught her a better way to read sheet music. She's now wowing her friends and family and has a list of songs she can play for them that no longer sound like nursery rhymes.
Cathy was motivated. To seek out a solution on her own, and when one way didn't work for her, she sought to find another way. One of the most prominent reasons adults excel as piano students is motivation. Children often embark on their piano journey because of parental encouragement or to fulfill an extracurricular requirement. While this is good, it can sometimes lead to lackluster enthusiasm.
Adult learners, however, are a different breed. They choose to learn the piano out of genuine interest. It might be a long-held dream, a newly discovered passion, or even a therapeutic endeavor. This self-propelled motivation often translates into a more focused and committed approach to learning.
Unlike children, adults have the autonomy to direct their own learning. They set their goals, decide on their practice schedule, and choose the pieces they want to learn. This freedom can foster a deeper engagement with their studies and allow for a more personalized and enjoyable learning experience. Self-direction in learning is a powerful tool—and it's one that adults wield with precision. Adults can set learning objectives, choose learning materials, and establish practice routines. This control over their learning process can lead to a more engaging, meaningful, and fulfilling educational experience. Moreover, adults have the capacity and the confidence to communicate their needs and preferences effectively with their tutors. This open dialogue fosters a more collaborative and efficient learning relationship, which can significantly enhance their progress.
Adults like Cathy ask better questions. They often ask me questions while I'm midway through the explanation. I often asked my teenage piano students if they understood a concept, and they would say yes automatically, not stopping to gauge if that was true. Adults, funnily enough, insist they don't know the new concept because it feels foreign to them. Often I'll test them on this, and they do understand; they don't have the coordination to feel fluid yet on the keys.
They also understand what Seth Godin calls "the Dip ." Adults tend to view every challenge as a puzzle to be solved rather than an obstacle blocking their path. This attitude fuels their consistent progress and can lead to significant skill development. Many kids take each setback personally.
When I taught teens, a student entered a classical music competition. My city has world-class piano competitions and well-trained classical piano teachers. The competition is fierce. When he didn't place in the top 3, he quit piano for good. Yikes! There was no talking him out of it. His identity was "best pianist," and he was in my studio. He couldn't get past his shock and embarrassment. Adults tend to be less bowled over by setbacks as they tend not to let the loss become their identity.
Learning Piano as an Adult = Cognitive Advantage
Another adult student, Robert*, had never had formal lessons beyond tinkering with youtube tutorials. He was worried about how slow he was going to go. Robert and the other adult students aren't slow at the piano but are slow to understand how fast he will learn. It goes against what our culture believes.
Contrary to popular belief, adult brains are more than capable of learning new skills; they do so differently. (This even accounts for known cognitive decline as we age. As we understand the issues with dementia.) While children are often praised for their quick, sponge-like ability to absorb new information, adults' learning strengths lie in their cognitive sophistication.
Adults can grasp complex concepts faster, understand the theory behind the practice, and apply analytical thinking to their learning process—all skills that take years to develop. They also have cognitive flexibility, enabling them to learn strategies more effectively. They can grasp abstract items more easily by forming a picture or framework in their heads. Small children do not have object permanence and often need more physical representations and games to cement learning. Adults can also unlearn incorrect information easier.
Robert understood the "growth mindset" (reference)—the understanding that abilities and intelligence can be developed through practice and hard work. He knew he would have to prioritize and schedule practice, or he wouldn't improve. My kid students came with the belief that they were either talented or not. I often had trouble convincing some younger students that they would even get better with practice. They thought it wouldn't help.
Adults Bring a Rich Life Experience
There's no substitute for life experience—adults have it in spades. Adults carry many experiences, emotions, and ideas that significantly influence their musical journey. This life wisdom often resonates through their playing, adding depth and nuance.
When a 40-year-old plays Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," their understanding and interpretation of the music are likely informed by years of personal experience. This capacity to imbue their playing with emotion and personal narrative gives adult learners an edge over younger students who might not yet have the same emotional repertoire. Their range of feelings, experiences, and perceptions paints their music in unique shades of complexity and nuance.
When adults interpret pieces of music, they aren't merely reproducing notes—they're infusing the melodies with the essence of their lived experiences. The mournful tones of Chopin's "Nocturnes" might resonate with their personal experience of loss, while the joyous chords of Debussy's "Clair de Lune" could echo their moments of delight. This emotional depth provides adult learners with a unique ability to touch their audience's heartstrings, often resulting in a more profound musical experience.
For many adults, learning the piano is more than a hobby—it's therapeutic*. Playing the piano can be an excellent stress reliever, a respite from the demands of daily life. It can also serve as an outlet for emotional expression. Some adults may, however, be more frozen and disassociated from feeling their feelings than, say, a teen who is all about their feelings. The piano lets them unlock their feelings without words, as the music helps them integrate long-repressed emotions.
Every piano lesson doubles as a wellness session, offering the dual benefits of learning a new skill and boosting mental health. This therapeutic angle contributes to the sustainability of adults' piano studies, turning every practice session into a source of pleasure rather than a chore. However, I am not a medical practitioner and make no medical practice claims. I have read enough scientific journals to be aware of the brain-body benefit of piano playing.
Learn Piano as an Adult when you're not "Schooled-out"
Natalie*, one of my most naturally talented teens, eventually dropped out of piano to what I called "schooled-out." She was super bright and involved in AP classes. She had basketball practice before and after school. Where I live, sports don't stop during holidays either. No matter how well we adjusted Natalie's practice schedule. The reality was Natalie needed a nap. Some downtime. Time with friends or with family watching a movie. She didn't have any energy to learn one more thing. Her brain was mentally tapped out. Kids are great at the piano until they are over-scheduled and tapped out.
Conversely, adults no longer in graduate studies can benefit from the mental sharpness of the piano. This is often their singular class or very few they are in. They can find time to practice and are mentally awake and open to learning new things.
Redefining Adult Piano Lessons
This growing community of adult piano students is challenging the stereotypical image of piano learners. They represent a powerful testament to the human capacity for learning and growth, proving there is always time to follow one's passion.
While we're not aiming to undermine the talents and capabilities of child learners, it's essential to acknowledge and celebrate the unique strengths and advantages that adult learners bring to the table. After all, the essence of music is not bound by age—it is a universal language that speaks to and emanates from all, children and adults. It's about time we reimagined the face of piano students—not just as cherubic children hammering out "Für Elise" but also as adults finding joy, solace, and personal expression at the keyboard.
The future of piano education calls for an inclusive and flexible approach that caters to not only the precocious prodigies but also the late bloomers. As we take this journey, we ought to remind ourselves that the beauty of music lies not just in performance but in the joy of learning and the transformation it brings about—regardless of when it starts. At the heart of this lies a compelling argument for inclusive and flexible music education—capable of nurturing not only the nimble fingers of an 8-year-old but also the weathered hands of an 80-year-old, imbued with stories, wisdom, and an undying zeal for learning.