Adult Beginners at the Piano: 12 Problems (and Solutions), Part 1

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In today’s video, we’re going to discuss some common problems I see with adult beginners at the piano. Everyone is highly individual, and not all of these will apply to you if you’re an adult, but I’ve seen them occur again and again in the decade or so I’ve been teaching.

I wanted to show you these common problems I see, and also offer some ideas for solutions if they’re something you struggle with.

This began as one video, but it kept expanding and expanding, so I decided to break it up into two videos. I didn’t want to skim over the content – I wanted to really dwell on each problem. So in the first video, we’ll talk about the first six problems of adult beginners, and in the next video we’ll look at six more problems.

Problem #1: Wanting to be better than you are

Problem #1: Wanting to be better than you are.
So you listen to all this awesome piano music and think, “I can totally do that”. Except, as a beginner…you can’t totally do that. Frustrated, you work through the method books and despair at learning pieces like “Row Your Boat” that feel like an insult to your intelligence.

So what’s the solution for adult beginners? Burn the method books?

The best solution here, I think, is patience. You won’t be doing these “easy-sounding” pieces forever, and they’re really important. Yes, Row Your Boat is a kid’s song, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to play.

As a beginner, things that sound super easy just won’t be. You’re learning how to read music, you’re learning how to move your hands independently of each other, you’re learning how to play multiple notes at once. All these things take time, and can’t be rushed.

So have some patience. You won’t be playing Row Your Boat forever.

Problem #2: Uninspiring beginner pieces

Problem #2: You’re bored of uninspiring beginner pieces (like Row Your Boat)

Okay, I get it. It’s important to get through all of those so-called “easy” pieces to build your skills from the ground up. But isn’t there something you can play in the meantime that sounds a little less easy and kiddish?

Solution – learn something (not too hard) by ear or rote. Learning by rote means to learn by watching. There are tons of tutorials online that show you what keys to press when, for a variety of famous songs.

You won’t learn how to read doing this, and you probably won’t learn much theory, either, but it’s not against the rules – by all means, intersperse your Row Your Boats with some more interesting-sounding pop songs.

These pieces will take you longer to learn than your weekly lesson pieces, but they’ll provide some interest and variety as an adult beginner.

I really like the Final Fantasy theme – I think it’s from FF7, but I remember it from my childhood in FFII (or, the Japanese FFIV) on the Super Nintendo. It’s not too hard, since it’s all pattern-based, and it sounds much more challenging than it is.

Problem #3: The pieces feel overwhelming and challenging

Problem #3: Your pieces feel way too tough, and are always a huge struggle

On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes the pieces you’re learning might feel way too tough. You open your piano books, attempt to play, get through a line or two, and then feel like your head is going to fall off.

This is almost always because the pieces are too tough.

As adult beginners, you’re intellectually ready for tough pieces right away, but you’re not physically ready for them. So sometimes you over-reach. You think, “Okay, this music makes sense to me,” put it on the piano, try to play it, and fall hard.

The solution is two-fold: Get easier music, and learn some finger exercises.

Books like the adult Piano Adventures, Kabalevsky’s “For Children”, and so on might seem like they’re way too easy, but there are often hidden challenges you’ll discover once you start playing through them. Scale back a bit. It’s better to play a simpler piece perfectly than a more difficult piece riddled with errors.

Finger exercises and short studies like stuff by Czerny, and scales and triads, are great to learn because they can give you an immediate sense of accomplishment. Learning a new piece can take a lot of mental effort, but learning a scale comes together more quickly. Sometimes we need those little confidence boosts.

When I teach kids, I get them started in three books simultaneously – a lesson book (with all the pieces), a theory book (homework), and a technique book, for the reasons mentioned. Those technique books are filled with short and simple exercises that help the kids learn their pieces, and since they’re often pattern-based, they can learn them quickly. This is motivating for kids and adults alike!

Problem #4: Not making the connection between lesson pieces and music you listen to

Problem #4: Not making the connection between lesson pieces and music you listen to
Lesson music can seem abstract and separate from music you listen to on the radio. Radio music is catchy, fun, and you can sing along. Piano lesson music is full of note reading – A’s and B’s and half notes and whole notes.

It’s all the same music, but I feel like sometimes we can compartmentalize our lessons as separate from the music we enjoy and listen to.

The solution is to play along to music right from the get-go. My fiancé Michael likes to talk about how he was an abysmal drummer with no sense of rhythm when he first started, but he constantly played along to CDs (in addition to working on rudiments). That’s the main reason he developed a sense of rhythm.

Playing along to music will develop your music intuition. You’ll understand progressions and rhythms better. Time signatures will make more sense. To do this, all you really need is a basic understanding of chords.

Go on the internet and type in “Karma Police chords”, hit play on your Radiohead album, and follow along. Even if you can only play single bass notes and not full chords, it’s helpful. Eventually you’ll be able to follow with full chords, and you’ll get more and more rhythmic. Maybe you’ll even start hearing melodies.

Problem #5: Laziness

Problem #5: Laziness
Most people don’t admit to this, but it’s a thing. We all face it. Adults are lazier than kids – partly because our parents are no longer harping on us to do our homework, and partly because we use busyness as an excuse.

Sometimes the solution is to just do it – just practice. Stop procrastinating.

Fears of the adult beginner

Other times, it goes deeper than laziness – the real root of the problem is fear. Fear of making mistakes, fear of not being any good, fear of being a crappy piano player. So then we avoid practice – if we never practice, after all, we never have to be bad at it, and being bad at something can feel really shameful.

I think it helps to think like a child in this case. Most kids don’t have the same fear of failure that we adults develop. I mean, think of how hindering if a child was afraid to mess up, when they’re constantly in situations of learning new things. Kids constantly have to learn new things all the time. It’s just part of being a kid, and learning how to be a human.

But as adults, we can get this illusion of “completion”. The feeling of, “Okay, I’m done learning now. I know how to do life, and I know how to be a human, because I’m an adult.” And then we kick back, prop up our feet, and rest on our laurels.

This is an illusion. Because if we don’t keep learning new things, we stagnate and become bored and boring. All life is learning. And part of the learning process, especially as a beginner, is making mistakes.

So in piano, so in life. You will mess up. You will not be instantly perfect or amazing. But that doesn’t mean you’re bad. It just means that you’re a normal human going through a normal learning process, in which there are always growing pains.

Problem #6: Hands don’t work together

Problem #6: Hands don’t work well together
This ties into a point we’ve already discussed – for adult beginners, you’re going to intellectually grasp concepts long before your fingers are physically capable of those concepts. For example, we might talk about patterns in the Goldberg Variations, and that makes sense to you, and you can read the notes and dissect the parts, but that doesn’t mean your hands are capable of executing it.

Our intellectual pace is different from our physical pace. This is always most apparent in how the right hand and left hand (don’t) work together initially. When we first start learning, even for the first couple years, one hand is going to want to copy the other, and it takes a lot of work to split them up and have them move on their own tracks.

The solution is to start with simple hands-together pieces. Even doing held chords underneath a moving right hand part can cause problems at first, let alone pieces where the right and left hand have moving parts.

Learning from some Classical manuals can be helpful, since they’re geared toward hand independence right away. Czerny’s 100 recreations or Kunz’s canons are great places to start, but again, if you’ve skipped the adult method books, it’s probably a good idea to go back to basics. You’ve gotta walk before you can run.

Adult beginners at the piano: Conclusion

Stay tuned for part 2 of this video, where we continue to delve into problems of adult beginners at the piano. I hope you enjoyed this video, and catch you guys next time!

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.