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So You've Always Wanted to Play the Piano
Have you ever thought how much fun it would be to play the piano? Have you wished that your parents had made you stick to your music lessons? Or that they had offered you the chance to get started? Well, you're not alone!
I am a piano teacher. Over the past twenty years literally hundreds of adults have shared with me-at parties and meetings, in school, and on planes, trains, and buses-the most intimate revelations of their secret desires to play the piano. At first I was embarrassed by so many "true confessions." I suspected that all these confidences were just means of making conversation or passing time. But gradually I became convinced, as common patterns of thinking developed, of the sincerity of the statements. I realized that an amazing number of adults harbor a sincere and unfulfilled desire to play the piano! Some want to learn in order to play a particular favorite piece, anything from a hit song to a Beethoven Sonata. Others entertain elaborate fantasies of sitting down at the piano in a crowded room and astonishing the assembled group with a sophisticated jazz improvisation. But the majority of would-be pianists look realistically on piano study as a key to unlocking the secrets of music. They want to understand what they already appreciate, to savor what they already enjoy. They wish to experience music first-hand, to make music as well as listen to it.
Why then, I wondered, were all these aspiring adult pianists not enrolled in lessons? What prevented them from pursuing their dreams? I discovered that most of the adults had serious misconceptions about piano study and grave doubts that they could succeed. Their doubts and misconceptions had no foundation in the research or experience of musicians, educators, and psychologists. Yet, like so many myths, they were allowed to persist, unfounded but unchallenged.
It's Never Too Late to Start
If you, too, have doubted that adult beginners could attain success at the piano, examine the evidence. It should give you the courage and confidence to discover for yourself the enormous pleasure of playing the piano! Just consider the following:
1. Adults who study piano do so because they are self motivated. They sincerely wish to make music. This gives them an immediate advantage over most children who are often "scheduled" into lessons by their parents.
2. Adults have developed greater intellectual powers than children. An adult's concentration and capacity for analytic thinking improves his capacity to learn.
3. Adults, who have listened to significant amounts of music during their lifetime, have greater musical sophistication and are more readily aware of differences in style, tone quality, pitch.
4. There is no reason that learning should be restricted to childhood. In fact, psychologists have discovered that the learning capacity of adults declines far more slowly than most people believe. An eighty-year-old, for example, can learn at about the same rate as a twelve¬ year-old. Individual differences in intelligence and experience account for greater discrepancies than age. Constant practice in learning can offset any presumed decline in capacity.
5. The piano was really designed for adults. Its large dimensions and the weight of its keys are most suited to a grown person. While other stringed instruments come in small sizes to accommodate small persons, one must "grow into" the piano.
6. Adults are more conscious of spending and therefore more likely to make the most of music lessons!
7. The many adults who are now taking up piano in their mature years are living proof that it is never too late to learn something new and that the very wish to accomplish something is a powerful aid to success.
In many ways learning to play the piano can be compared to taking up a sport, such as tennis or golf. Many adults avidly pursue these sports in a quest for new experiences and activities. They are attracted by the challenge of acquiring new skills and the satisfaction which comes from improved performance, coordination, and concentration. While few adults who take up tennis or golf expect to attain professional status, they feel confident that they can succeed in mastering the basic principles and techniques of the game. Without hesitation they enroll for a few lessons and then faithfully and enthusiastically devote their leisure time to putting into practice the guidelines they have learned. Some derive so much pleasure from the lessons that they continue to pick up pointers from as many pros as possible, ever intent on improving their skill. No one suggests that they should have started lessons at age seven. It is enough that they are interested in the game, are motivated to continue playing, and are deriving pleasure and satisfaction from the experience.
Exactly these same qualities - interest, motivation, pleasure, and satisfaction - characterize the adult piano student and explain the rapid progress adults so often make. Although adult beginners in piano, as in tennis, rarely become professionals, they quickly acquire the proficiency needed to play for their own pleasure and that of others.
Amateur pianists, like amateur athletes, face precisely the same challenges as do the professionals - development of technique, facility, endurance, strength, agility, concentration, rapid reflexes, and individual style. In both sports and music there is a marriage of physical and intellectual skills, with mind of necessity controlling the muscle? The good pianist, like the good athlete, intelligently analyzes his movements to perfect his technique. At the highest levels of attainment athletes, like musicians, become real artists.
Just as spectators are drawn to sports arenas, audiences are attracted to concert halls by the excitement and admiration which such mastery of skills creates. Amateurs, those who know firsthand the difficulties and joys of playing are the most loyal and best informed fans-of either music or sports. Personal involvement intensifies the meaning of their experience and changes them from observers into participants.
Discovering Musical Meaning
Here the analogy between piano and sports fades. One can appreciate the consummate skill of a great athlete but one need not look for deeper meaning in his performance. In music, on the other hand, the performer who interprets a composition is communicating the meanings of the composer to the listener. The more active and informed the listener, the richer will be his understanding of the musical performance. He becomes aware, not only of the skill and "teamwork" of the performers, but of the musical procedures which contribute excitement and expressiveness, movement and shape, to the work. Studying piano can make one a more intelligent and sensitive listener, a more active "participant" in musical events.
Playing the piano, then, affords valuable insight into music. It offers a welcome physical and emotional outlet and an enjoyable form of recreation. It introduces the pianist to the most significant musical thought and personalities of the past three centuries and to the masterworks of keyboard literature.
Today's Piano Lessons
Because there are fewer problems in producing correct pitch on the piano than on other instruments, pianists can play actual pieces from the very first lesson. Many teachers now recognize that piano technique can be acquired as readily through the study of carefully chosen pieces as through the repetition of exercises. They realize that learning music should be a musical, not a mechanical, experience. Tedious, repetitious practicing is out; sensitive, intelligent music-making is in!
Teachers today also recognize the valuable role of creativity a1 the piano. Adults learn chords in all keys, so that they can harmonize melodies and improvise their own accompaniments. They learn to transpose and to read in all keys so that they can function comfortably at the keyboard. A good teacher will help the student to analyze the pieces he plays as an aid to finding his own inter¬pretation.
Understanding the structure of the - phrases and the sections in which the piece is organized, the pianist can project the musical ideas to his listeners. He has a basis for working out future interpretations independently and for knowing what to listen for in the performances of others. By playing a wide range of pieces - of many styles, composers, and musical periods- he becomes familiar with the variety and range of piano literature.
Adults today have a wide choice of settings in which to study piano: piano classes in private studios or in community institutions, private lessons with independent teachers, or combinations of private and group or small and large group lessons. Many individuals still prefer the personal, one-to-one relationship with a private teacher. Others find the group setting both stimulating and efficient. Here, in the company of other adults, they learn the fundamentals of music and of keyboard skills and have opportunities for ensemble work as well as solo performance. The dynamics of the group encourage sympathetic listening as well as performing. Playing for others becomes a natural experience to be enjoyed and not feared.
What About Practicing?
Many adults worry that they will not have sufficient time to practice or that practicing will be a dreary and lonely task. Usually these worries are unfounded. Studies show that the best piano practice occurs in short periods of concentrated attention. Adults, who have learned the art of mental concentration, can make the most of even brief practice periods. By setting aside two half-hour practice sessions each day (or four fifteen minute periods) they (and YOU) can make astonishing progress and gain enormous satis¬faction. Much can be accomplished with even shorter periods of practice. Charles Cooke, in Playing the Piano for Pleasure (Simon and Schuster 1941, 1960), documents this fact and gives many valuable suggestions for aspiring adult pianists.
The fun of exploring new music, the challenge of over-coming seeming difficulties, the thrill of mastering each new work provide obvious incentives for progress.
Good practice involves mental as well as physical energy. It involves insight into the music, analysis of musical and technical difficulties, and positive efforts to correct mistakes. Success in piano stems from strong motivation and good habits. A "piano mind" is far more important than "piano hands."
In fact, there is no general agreement about the best physical attributes for playing the piano! Persons with long or short, slender or fat, fingers and great or small spans have all enjoyed success at the piano.
Setting Realistic Goals
Adults who begin to study piano should be careful to establish sensible, realistic expectations. Pieces which seem enormously difficult one year may be readily learned later IF there is step-by-step progress in building a solid foundation of technique and musicianship. It is better to acquire a repertoire of short, less-demanding pieces (of which there are many by great composers of all periods), than to grapple, note by note, with a work which is far beyond one's present skills. Piano repertoire is so vast and so varied that there is always a wealth of interesting material at every level. And now there are many piano courses designed especially for adults, courses which include attractive selections of musical literature.
If you are looking for an ACTIVE form of continued education and recreation, a channel for your physical and emotional energies, a new insight into musical form and style, an avenue for artistic expression, a new basis for friendship and personal fulfillment, or a way to help your children row in music, CONSIDER LEARNING TO PLAY THE PIANO' You will never again wonder what to do with your spare time!
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