But I Can’ Play it at MM=120:  Teaching Adult Beginners

by Tara Wohlberg

My student is frustrated.  Three weeks into our first classical Sonatina, he shakes his head, “I’ll never be able to play it up to speed.”  And so Clementi’s Opus 36 has won- for the moment.

Adults are perhaps the most challenging, yet rewarding, students.  Whether it is the eighty-eight year old grand dame who had studied voice in 1930’s Vienna, or a beginner supreme court judge, they have all taught me much more about ‘art with a capitol A’ than I feel I have taught them about irregular scale fingering or tone production.

As full-fledged adults, they have cavernous, inquiring minds.  These are not the kind of students who have trouble finding where middle C lives.  I must confess, they routinely stump me, sending me deeper in to my music library.  A keen early music fan wondered about the history of the staff, and when and why it evolved from four lines to five.  A linguistics professor wondered why expressive terms were for the most part given in Italian, and why composers chose which particular language for their musical directions.  It is truly refreshing after twenty years in the musical trenches of c# minor melodic to reconsider so many aspects of music making, and the piano in particular.  Have you ever tried explaining the hammer mechanism to an engineering professor?

The musical goals of adult students vary enormously.  One may want to learn a simplified concerto theme, the other a Cole Porter tune.  Whether it is an architect wanting to do some basic analysis of their Bach Little Prelude or a closet romantic who yearns to play Brahms or bombastic Bartok, each musical journey is unique.  Although most admit they understand, intellectually, that acquiring a basic technique is important, many ‘skip over’ it in their time-crunched practice time. With modest musical goals and personalized repertoire choices, I find myself mixing up an adult method book with a simplified opera favorites album, a scale, triads and round it out with some Hanon.  Although all of my students own sight reading books, once they have stolen their private moment at the piano between the demands of families and top rung careers, they really just want to sit down and ‘play’.

My hard-sell on the benefits of sight reading, that it alone is the magic bullet that will enable them to sit down and make art at sight, elicits a guilty smile.  Then they recommit to do more sight reading next week.  It inevitably gets lost in their musical shuffle.  What has been a very convenient tool for students who frequently travel for business is a rudiments CD-ROM like Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory.  They can drill letter names, ledger lines and also so some elementary ear training.  Of course I point those interested in hardcore aural training towards more comprehensive ear training cd’s with interval and clap-back examples that are easy to use both at home and in transit.

These über-students are loath to perform in my regular, ‘kiddie’ recitals or masterclasses.  Instead, I have an annual Adult Soiree.  Although I never mention anything about dress or the inclusion of spouses, they arrive smartly and promptly, solo, with a little adolescent wonder about who has the longest, most difficult piece.  I promise a security sweep of the venue to prevent any blackmail-able, YouTube moments.  We take turns playing for each other, in no particular order, and the applause is always raucous.  You’d think Horowitz had just given an encore, when we’re actually cheering a rather earnest performance of a Minuet from Anna Magdalena.  A libation is always at hand to celebrate our ‘win’.  Should nerves get the better of anyone, one true diva student is always armed with waterproof mascara and tissues as a goodie bag of sorts.

Adult students are a mixed bag, and really seek an internal, rather than an external goal.  Learning something they remember their mother playing, or mastering ‘Embraceable You’ in time for a wedding anniversary is such honest music making.  I remember tales of the latter student having to hide his music and only practice when his wife was out, to be certain she would be surprised with her anniversary ‘gift’.

Taking lessons on their own time, on their own terms, often results in a tender vulnerability.  Music making becomes an escape from cubicles and sealed glass towers.  Adults cherish their lesson time in a much different way than eleven-year-old Sally, who is clock-watching her way through another obligatory lesson.

So what if we don’t get Clementi up to MM=120?