Adult Beginners at the Piano: 12 Problems (and Solutions) Part 2

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In the previous video, we discussed the first six problems I see with adult beginners at the piano time and time again. We’ll be looking at the next six problems in today’s video.

Instead of dwelling on the problems, I wanted to offer some solutions for each as well. Today’s batch of six problems gets a little deeper into some of the psychological aspects that mess with our ability to practice piano.

Adult Beginners at the Piano: The drill sergeant approach

The problem: self-condescension. The problem is that inner voice that says, “That wasn’t good enough. You suck. Try harder! Keep going! You’re not done yet! Power through the pain, weakling!”

A lot of us are so hard on ourselves. It’s like our inner voice is a drill sergeant. We’re never good enough for that inner voice; we never achieve a pat on the head for a job well done.

The solution

The solution is to think about what would happen if you treated someone you care about this way. How would you treat your child? Your significant other? Would you yell at them or constantly berate them? I hope not!

When we love another person, we’re prone to showing kindness and patience. Why is it so much easier to show that kindness to another person, but not ourselves? We’re always our own worst critics, but criticism can be so damaging to our delicate inner artists.

It’s not that we shouldn’t push ourselves; without the constant drive to improve, piano practice would get really dull. It’s just that we need to be kinder to ourselves.

I hereby give you permission to fire your inner drill sergeant.

Adult beginners at the piano: Sensitive to criticism

Speaking of criticism, problem #8 is being sensitive to criticism. It’s one thing to constantly berate yourself; clearly that’s a bad idea. It’s another thing entirely to reject all criticism as a personal attack.

I suck at criticism, as do most adults. If you tell most children that they drew their “B” backwards, they’ll fix it and life goes on. If you tell an adult they drew their “B” backwards, they’ll apologize. They’ll justify why they did it (“Oh, I wasn’t thinking”, or “Oh, I’m really tired today”). They’ll make a joke about their failure to properly draw a B. They’ll make excuses. They’ll get uncomfortable.

The thing is, any criticism makes us feel vulnerable, which is a state fully-grown humans struggle with. We like being in control; we like knowing things. Not knowing things makes us really uncomfortable.

So when you’re a beginner at the piano, you’re thrust into this situation where you know very little, and it can feel very uncomfortable for a while.

As a teacher, it can be a very delicate situation. If I say, “That was a great performance. Now we need to work on the counting in bar 18”, oftentimes it triggers defensiveness. It’s like the student sees my critique as a personal attack. They stiffen up and explain why they drew their “B” backwards.

The solution

The solution in this case is to become aware of this sensitivity. I don’t know that it’s possible to abolish it completely; I know that when I play a piece for Michael, and if his response is less than passionately enthusiastic, I begin to feel insecure. Did I play it effectively? Did he notice all of the parts I messed up in?

So I think this happens to all of us at all stages of the learning cycle, from beginners and beyond. Any time we work hard on something, a little of ourselves gets wrapped in it too, so that even positive and helpful criticism stings a little. We have to learn how to listen to that criticism without our feelings getting all tangled up in it.

I’m just going to assume that your piano teacher is a nice person and has your best interests at heart. They’re not trying to hurt your feelings when they point out a counting error. They just want you to improve.

Adult beginners at the piano: Stinginess

Problem #9: Being too stingy with your own education.

What I mean by this is we can be very precious with our hard-earned money. Maybe we don’t have a lot of it. So we cut corners in any way we can.

In the piano world, this translates to not buying books – instead, everything is from the internet. There’s nothing wrong with getting music from the internet, but oftentimes it’s not as convenient (especially when you have to wade through mountains of papers), and it’s usually not as nice.

An anecdote on books

Maybe I just love books more than the average person, but I want to share an anecdote with you. I’ve always loved reading, but I spent most of my twenties pretty broke, and thus didn’t really spend much on books. I went to the library, and that was all well and good.

But this past year, I made a pact to myself. I said, “Self, you have a Kindle and you love to read. Therefore, if you come across a really interesting book, buy it.” I decided I would allow myself the extra expense, since it was for a good purpose.

It’s not that I have anything against the library, but I go through phases and bursts of inspiration. Maybe one month I get super into nutrition, but the library has to order this book from another library and it’s on hold, so I have to wait two months before I can even read it. And by then, my interests have moved on to something else, and I’m no longer as passionate to read it.

But if I buy it on my Kindle, I can ride the wave of inspiration, which means I’m going to enjoy reading it more, and I’m going to get more out of it.

With this new philosophy, I read a little over a book a week last year, and I’m really proud of that. It was a great mindframe shift, and it allowed me to reconnect with my love of reading.

So now taking this back into the music world, I think the same thing applies to music books. If you’re learning piano in any serious manner, whatever books you buy will be with you for a lifetime (or until you use the book so much it completely falls apart).

The solution

The solution is to invest in yourself, and invest in a few well-chosen music books.

We spend so much time with these books, they almost become like sentimental friends. There are certain books on my shelf that give me a great sense of nostalgia when I open them. They have a certain feeling – I have a connection to them. So when I crack my Beethoven Sonata book, I recall the exact time I got the book and when I listened through all the sonatas, following along in the sheet music. It brings me back to that tiny Toronto apartment and my summertime walks to Remenyi on Bloor street.

You just don’t get the same effect with pages printed from the internet. I’m not saying you have to spend a fortune on books, but it’s amazing how powerful they can be. Even having a few great music books can be the difference between being inspired to practice piano, or not. Don’t forget to invest in yourself!

Adult beginners at the piano: Close-mindedness

Problem #10 is being close-minded on what you want to learn.

You wouldn’t let a five year old say, “I don’t like vegetables” and reply, “Okay cool, no more veggies then.” A child has such a limited palette of experiences to draw from. They say you have to taste something up to a dozen times before you can judge it objectively. You have to try something up to 12 times for the “weirdness” factor to wear off.

A story about figs

I’ll circle this back around to music – I promise. But I have a story to share that you might find helpful. I’m very open-minded with fruits and vegetables – there’s not a vegetable I won’t eat (except, perhaps, broccoli rabe), and I love fruit with passion – except cantaloupe and honeydew.

When I was in my early twenties, I spent a bit of time in Northern California and Oregon. It was there that I saw my first fig. See, in Saskatchewan, figs are something you just don’t see. I found fresh figs here once. They probably don’t travel well.

But anyway, there I was, at Trader Joe’s in Portland, and there was an expensive little container of figs. I was so excited, since figs are like a legendary food. People who love them really love them. So I was prepared to love them…except that I didn’t. They weren’t very sweet, and the texture was seedy and stringy and mushy. It was not love.

Since I was on the West coast, figs were everywhere. I was determined to keep trying them – I knew at that point that you can’t judge a food by trying it once. I knew I had to get over the “weird” factor. So I kept buying figs. And you know what? They grew on me. I never grew to love them, but I learned to appreciate and even enjoy them. Figs have a certain delicacy, and to eat one almost inspires a certain reverence. If I saw one in the store here, you’d better believe I’d snatch them up.
So how does this relate to music? Well, Classical music is an acquired taste in the same way. If you’ve never had a fig, or kale, or whatever it is, it’s going to be weird and unfamiliar and maybe you won’t like it. But, like the five year old with vegetables, it is really good for you as a musician to get a taste for Classical music.

Maybe you’ll never love Classical music, but be careful about ruling it out before you’ve given it a fair shot. Let it become familiar, because then you’ll be able to judge it fairly.

I have had so many students over the years – mainly teens and adults – who proclaim that they don’t like Classical music and have no interest in learning it. It always sounds like the anti-vegetable kid to me. “But it’s so good for you,” I think. “If you consume this music, you’ll be a happier and healthier musician.”

The solution

So the solution here is to be open-minded. Not just with learning Classical music, but any genre. Who knows what you might end up loving? Nowadays I can’t imagine a meal without something green on the plate, but ten years ago I would have scoffed while eating my ramen noodles. If you don’t love the first jazz piece you try, don’t write off jazz right away. Try again. And again. And again.

Maybe you’ll never love it. But maybe, once the “weird” factor is removed, it’s a favorite-in-waiting.

Adult beginners at the piano: Nerves

Problem #11 is nervousness playing in front of anyone – a teacher, a significant other, a friend or family member, and so on.

As older beginners and adults, we get the fear. I don’t think I have any young students who come to class and get nervous to play their pieces for me. None of those children are apologizing for their mistakes. They’re just so nonplussed.

But as adults, even being around a teacher can cause a case of the shaky hands – let alone a real, live performance or exam. So what do we do about this?

The solution

The solution is not an easy answer. The root of this problem is psychological. I hope that your piano teacher is not a scary person who hits your hand with a stick whenever you make a mistake. So why the nervousness?

I think this is a blend of a few things – an eagerness to please, a sense of being judged.

With regards to being judged, us adults can feel like it’s more than our playing ability that’s being judged. We get emotionally wrapped up in our music, such that it feels like we’re being judged as a person. So of course, when you sit down to play a piece for your teacher, and your self-worth is wrapped up in that performance, it’s going to be more stressful.

If you play poorly, it’s not just that you played poorly. It feels like a reflection of you as a person. “If I play well, then I am a good person. If I play bad, then I am a bad person.”

It sounds ridiculous, but consider it. Many of us are guilty of this without being cognisant of it.

The solution is to separate yourself from the music.

On one hand, we’re expected to pour out our hearts when we play music. On the other hand, pouring out our hearts is a very vulnerable experience, and it’s very challenging for adults to be vulnerable.

I think if you suffer from performance stress, a certain amount of detachment is necessary. You are not the music. If you make a mistake in a performance, it doesn’t reflect on you as a person.

This is a subject that we could talk about for a long time, but at the risk of speculating without facts, I’ll stop the thought here. One of my goals this year is to research performance anxiety, since this is an area I don’t know much about, but plenty of you ask me questions related to nerves. So rest assured we’ll explore this more in the future – these are simply my preliminary thoughts.

Adult beginners at the piano: How you treat the piano is a mirror

Problem #12: For better or for worse, how you treat your practice is a mirror.

How you treat your piano practice, when you’re at home by yourself, is a mirror. Your self-talk is a mirror. If you’re getting frustrated, take a good hard look at yourself. What are you not seeing properly?

Maybe you’d like to see yourself as better than you are, so you constantly give yourself music that is too challenging for your level. Then you get frustrated, and conclude that you’re not a good piano player. You conclude that practice has to be a painful struggle.

Maybe you see yourself as a bad piano player, so you constantly underestimate yourself. You give yourself pieces that are way too easy, and then you get bored. You conclude that piano practice is inherently boring.

Maybe your self-talk is a drill sergeant. What happens, then, when you look into the mirror of your practice? You’ll probably see an insecure person who will always be a laughing stock of a musician.

Maybe your self-talk goes in the opposite direction – it’s filled with, “meh, who cares about that mistake, it was good enough.” When you look into that mirror, maybe you see a skilled piano player whom everyone admires. You see a person resting on the laurels of their skill, instead of seeing that there is always learning to be done, there is always improvements to be made.

The solution is to be aware of your thoughts while you’re practicing. Really reflect on your self-talk. You want to aim for neutral. If your self-talk is too forgiving, complacency can occur. If your self-talk is too harmful, your confidence will erode away.

Conclusion

And there concludes our long and ambling trip through 12 common problems of adult beginners at the piano. Again, go check out the first part of this video if you missed it.

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.