That is the question many adults are asking themselves when considering taking up piano lessons… The short answer is: ’cause you can! There is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t start learning to play the piano at any stage of your life since there are only upsides to this journey and, literally, no downsides at all. In fact, learning piano as an adult has many benefits to your overall wellness, brain and joint health and one can argue it should be part of the prescribed longevity and lifestyle recommendations.
Consider: you are a smart, educated adult with various skill sets and abilities. You have proven to be functioning well in multiple areas of your adult life. Isn’t that so? You have every cognitive advantage to learn how to play the piano more efficiently than a high school student and, probably, faster now than when you were a child. The ability to play depends on your brain’s capacity to create new neural pathways that imprint the information of the physical action, in this instance the action of playing the piano. Since your brain never loses the capacity to do so while alive (at times it is somewhat lessened due to age) the brain can continue to learn new things. Add to it the overall life experience, transference of skills, motivation, and pleasure from acquiring and mastering a new skill – and you have a winning cocktail of positive parameters that almost guarantee success at learning to play the piano now, in your adult life. Furthermore, there is a wealth of scientific and medical studies that show how brain function ameliorates due to piano playing, particularly concerning prevention and treatment of Altzimers’ disease and dementia. If you are comprehending this article up to this point – your mind should be made up already.
Take on the piano, give it your best shot, and know that in doing so you are not only bringing yourself joy but also medicinally benefiting your brain and hands (especially finger joint health).
Adult learning versus childhood learning
Just like with languages there is something to be said about early age exposure to the piano – the learning process is more experiential and a lot of it happens by rote. Children have much more flexibility in their ligaments and joints hence some technical ability is built from the ground up, it over time becomes second nature. That being said, a lot of kids practice mindlessly – so many hours of effort do not yield proportionate results. Conversely, an adult can gauge their technical ability with active intellectual participation and problem-solving skill thus delivering a higher yield of return on the hours spent at the piano. Of course, I’m generalizing now. There are always exceptions on each end of this equation. But, this does hold for most people who are learning the piano from scratch across the age spectrum.
Will I ever get to Carnegie Hall?
It would be unfair to promise you that with hard work over time you will become such caliber of a pianist that Carnegie Hall will come calling. To become a concert pianist, one has to begin early, be very disciplined, have extraordinary natural talent and technique, and great teachers to develop it properly along the way. Ah…and then there is luck! There are tens of thousands of professional pianists graduating from conservatories each year who never end up at Carnegie Hall. That is just the fact. Don’t let that discourage you! If you want to play the piano well you can learn to play it well enough and along that journey, you will discover that even Carnegie Hall is, in fact, a possibility. There are many amateur piano clubs and competitions that result in group concerts at prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall and if that is a motivator – there you have it. You can always rent a smaller recital hall – so, when there is a will, there is a way.
How to consistently get better a playing the piano
This is a million-dollar question. Ultimately, a lot will depend on your particular body, your brain, willpower, and natural gift with a very substantial emphasis on a good piano teacher. Understanding the physicality of playing the piano and the ability to impart that knowledge to the student is what the piano teacher’s job is all about. Provided this is taken care of, now let’s strategize.
Small ones and big ones. For adult beginners with zero experience, it is a good idea to start with a tutorial. There are plenty on Youtube. Whether it is a pop song or a classical piece, choose something you really like, that is easy and will jump-start your learning by mastering it fast. The gratification of the fast-learned music will motivate you to work a little harder and challenge yourself further. If you have a piano teacher – discuss with them what kind of music you love to listen to and would like to learn how to play.
Having a goal of learning your favorite music will activate your brain better and will be beneficial to the overall learning of the piano technique. The very first piece you choose is a key to an ‘internal’ reward that beginner receives by simply learning how to play it. Don’t aim for the stars and challenge yourself with Rachmaninoff concerto! Rather, pick from your favorite pop songs. Once you have mastered it as a beginner you will feel empowered to take on something harder. That is how you transition up the difficulty ladder fast, provided your teacher gives you expert guidance. While you have to concentrate on the joy of music-making and the pleasure it gives you, just like any other physical discipline the progress will be laden with mistakes and setbacks.
Don’t be too hard on yourself!
Don’t punish yourself for making arbitrary mistakes (which will happen, for sure) and, rather, try to identify and isolate issues that cause mistakes. Once you are aware of ‘why’ a mistake happens – fix it. The key to learning to play the piano well is in addressing every issue right there as it happens and solving it one by one. Don’t look at the big picture – it will be daunting. Just isolate the smallest, little mistake and derive intellectual pleasure from fixing it. This compartmentalization is a great tool for learning to play the piano most efficiently and this is where an adult beginner has a real advantage over a kid. Understanding how your brain learns and reverse-engineering the learning process enables adult learners to make huge leaps forward from the get-go. People often ascribe the ability to play the piano well to a special musical gift, and while that is partially true, a lot of purely cognitive and motorized elements constitute proficient piano playing.
What if I don't read music?
You can learn how to read music just like you can learn how to order in French. There are tutorials, apps, and a plethora of recourses online where you can get yourself up-to-speed on music-reading basics. You will need to familiarize yourself with treble and bass clefs, and seven-note scale, which is the basis of all western music. It is helpful to also take a peek at music theory, as understanding a little bit about how music functions will improve your performance, memorization, and ability to recover from accidental mistakes.
Online lessons are also a great way to keep the beginner from learning the wrong things and having to undo them later. Pandemic remote-learning revolutionized music education making at king piano lessons via zoom now a global commonplace. While it does not replace in-person instruction completely it is a great supplement, especially if you are learning piano as an adult and don’t have piano competition/conservatory auditions to be preparing for (and even then, many a professional musician improved and learned new repertory via zoom coachings this year). So I would venture to say that, if in-person lessons are impossible at present due to pandemic/economic reasons but you have a little amount to spare – opt for online one-on-one lessons. It will make all the difference and will help you get settled into learning your music much faster and much more efficiently than figuring it out on your own. This point cannot be overstated, especially if you don’t read music fluently yet – having a professional musician’s eye on what you are doing, evaluating, and guiding your progress is an essential component of learning piano. Of course, if going to an evening music school is a possibility for you it will be the most effective and helpful type of learning style. Being surrounded by like-minded adults who want to play the piano as best they can is a great motivator and observing other piano students provides additional immersion into the music learning process.
Many prestigious conservatories offer continued education in a form of a music school where non-professional musicians can improve their skills and learn everything from theory and composition to choral conducting. These courses are often overlapping with college and graduate school divisions and are taught by top specialists in the field. (see: The Juilliard Evening Division, Mannes at New School to name a couple)
While most music instruments are beautiful and make terrific sounds, the gran piano remains The King – for its versatility, universality, and ease of use. Consider: the piano is the only instrument that is played both horizontality (melody) and verticality (harmony). This is because both hands are playing on the same keyboard that spans 88 keys at the same time. Violin, flute, oboe, cello – all truly play a single musical line, requiring a piano accompaniment for any semblance of pleasurable recreational music playing. Conversely, if you can play the piano, all you need is to have one available nearby. You sit down and music flows! You can accompany yourself and sing (quite a show-stopping ability) or others’ singing; your violin/cello/flute/oboe friends will be lining up for your help, which contributes a great deal to your social life and your social cache. As we all know, the piano player always gets the attention and becomes the center of every party. I think you get the gist….as far as music instruments are concerned piano is the main source of pleasure, entertainment, and social panache. After all, it has been so for over 400 years.
- get the piano/keyboard Aim for the best you can afford (read all about best digital keyboards here, all about the best acoustic pianos here)
- get a reputable piano teacher who can work well with adults and verbalize cognitive processes as it pertains to learning the piano. This can be in-person or online, preferably a hybrid, so you can afford more frequent and shorter ‘check-in’ coachings to track the progress and make sure you are staying the course.
- Pick an easy song you want to play to learn fast and a more challenging piece of music to work on long-term.
- Play piano every day. It’s better to do 20 min every day than 2 hours once a week. Consistency and mental acuity are key to the success of learning piano as an adult. Practice makes perfect, so practice as often as you can, but practice wisely. If you are too tired to pay attention – take a break or practice the following day.
- Set short-term small goals. Something very achievable on a daily/weekly basis. Consult with your teacher as to what that should be for you and make a note each time you successfully achieve it. It creates positive affirmation and gives you a sense of work well done. It also motivates you to work more and a little harder, which should be reflected in elevated goals further on.
- Understand what you are doing – and don’t be afraid to ask questions. There are no wrong questions. Email or text your teacher, join a Facebook piano technique/composer/style group, and actively engage with the community by asking questions. For example: “I’m learning Fur Elise and have a problem with measure 5. Which fingering do you, guys, recommend to play it without an accent?” or “how do you practice trills?” Most members are happy to share tips on how to address very specific practice issues: it is very likely the answer you are looking for will be among those tips. Knowledge is power, and the more you know and understand the faster and more efficient your practicing will deliver good results.
- Don’t get mad at yourself when you make mistakes. Wrong notes are part of the learning curve and no one, not even the famous concert pianists play without mistakes. When a mistake happens – take note of what was it that went wrong, how it did do so, and try to fix it. If you can’t – ask your teacher for help. There are NO UNSOLVABLE ISSUES with playing the piano.
- Congratulate yourself and reward yourself when you are doing well and accomplishing your goals. It is a thing of beauty to learn the piano in adulthood and to be able to play your favorite pop tunes and classical pieces. Part of the joy of music-making is a chance to communicate your passion through music. You’ll notice that your children (if you have them) will be amazed by your new passion, your friends and loved ones will be in awe of your newly discovered talent and therefore the ratio of fun and joy in your life will be permanently elevated.
- Treat your music lessons with your teacher as private training sessions at the gym. This is where you are guided to acquire new concepts and exercises. In between your music lessons practice what you have learned so you can build on it next time. Strategizing your practice is what adults are much better at than children.
- Mark up your scores. Don’t think you can remember everything, even if it makes total sense at the moment. Write all the details into the score. Practice dynamics, not only technique. Use the entire spectrum between PIANO and FORTE. Repeat technical elements you practice at least 3 times – best if 5. This activates motor memory of your body and trains your inner ear.
- Don’t rush! It seems to be a universal affliction of all pianists – speeding, especially when the music is not learned well yet. It only brings on wrong notes and leads to overall collapse. Take your time. It’s much better to play slower but accurately and with a steady pulse than to rush and make a mess of things. Use a metronome to train your body to feel the steady meter and time. When we play the piano, time flows differently and this illusion frequently causes haste and rushing and leads to unnecessary errors.
We hope this article was helpful and encouraging. Playing the piano is one of the most satisfying, calming, serene, and beneficial things you can do for yourself in your adult life. Enjoy it, have fun and consider the time you spend at the piano your ‘me’ time, your sanctuary. You’ll thank yourself for it later. Leave comments and share your experience of learning the piano as an adult with us – we are very keen to learn about your process and if this article has been of help.