Taking Up Piano as an Adult
What I love the most about teaching new adult pianists is that they have a reason why they’re learning the piano. They’re not doing it because their parents are making them. The desire is completely internal, and more than that, it’s based in deep feelings that are strong enough to internally motivate them through the tough parts of taking up something new.
When you’re an adult, the world isn’t new. You have a lot of experience, and you can do a lot of things without really thinking about it: cooking, driving, whatever your job is, reading, and many other things you do as hobbies you carried on from your childhood. Thus, when you take up some new skill, the newness of it feels foreign and can potentially make you feel inferior in some way.
It’s a beautiful thing to make yourself vulnerable enough to explore a new field of study, but sometimes the problems of having to use children’s method books, feeling the frustration of a very steep learning curve, and feeling vulnerable all the time with nothing to fall back on cause people to quit before they’ve gotten very far.
This post seeks to help combat some of the problems of learning piano as an adult by giving you resources to help you get through the first real push of learning something new. These resources will also grow with you as you advance, which is why some of them are things you do have to pay for; they’re an investment. But you’ll definitely use them the rest of your life if you choose to continue playing.
Strategies to maximize growth and enjoyment
Set your mind on discovery
One of the most difficult parts of learning something new as an adult, especially things like language and music, is that you are aware of how much of a novice you are. You are aware that people sound much more eloquent than you, and it’s tough to keep from comparing yourself to others.
The beauty and wonder of learning anything as a kid is that you get to do things you never knew existed, so the first strategy is to push your ego aside, try to summon your childhood state of mind, and treat being a beginner as something like discovering a world you never knew existed.
I come back to this quote by James Russell Lowell all the time (I have it over my piano at home), but in the times where I’ve been frustrated at learning new instruments after I started college, it’s reminded me of the beauty of finding new things in the universe.
Follow a guide
Find a teacher. Yes, it’s rarer to find teachers who are willing to teach adults, and you’ll probably be taught by someone much younger than you, but if you’re willing to push aside your ego, you’ll learn much quicker with some sort of guide.
It is possible to teach yourself, but frequently, you can get stuck trying to figure out how to do something, or you’ll have questions that you don’t quite know how to phrase in an online search, and a teacher can give you guidance. There’s a reason teachers usually have a degree in piano; they had to do a lot of research, so they know where to look if they don’t just have the answer for you.
Finding a teacher can be tough, depending on your area of residence. Here are some suggestions for finding a teacher:
Visit your local music store. Many stores offer lessons in the store offered by faculty at the nearby colleges who want to pick up extra students, so this is a great opportunity to find a university-level teacher without having to go through a university. If they don’t offer lessons at the store, they most likely have a bulletin board where teachers advertise, and even better ask the people who work there, as they can give great recommendations.
Check with music schools in the area (both university and primary level). University teachers may not take outside students, but they can give great recommendations regarding the best teachers in the area. I taught at a dance/theatre studio for a while, so even if it doesn’t look advertised, it definitely helps to check with any of those types of studios as well.
Consult the classifieds if your area still gets a newspaper. Alternatively, find an online ads section for your area, as you’ll probably find teachers advertising there.
There are also sites like TakeLessons, Thumbtack, and occasionally Wyzant where teachers advertise lessons. These platforms are cool because if, after all of this, you can’t find a teacher in your area, teachers can choose to offer lessons remotely, like me!
There are also many teachers who offer remote lessons via Skype outside of any platform; you just have to find them. Josh Wright has a video on how to find piano teachers, which basically echoes the points I’ve made here, but it definitely won’t hurt to watch in addition to this:
Figure out your goals
This strategy is one that ebbs and flows as you learn more about the music field, what music you like, and what direction your life is heading in. But it’s always good to have goals.
Note that there is an art to making achievable goals. It’s too easy to set unachievable goals that are still specific and have steps to them, but these massive goals are what burn us out and make us quit. I talk a little bit about goal setting as it relates to what is known as the planning fallacy in the post 5 Ways to Find Joy While Practicing an Instrument.
For now, as just a beginner, start with broad goals such as just the style of music you want to learn: classical, jazz, pop, r&b, soundtrack. Or if that sounds too narrow, just make a list of songs you want to learn at some point in your career. This is a good list to bring when you first meet a teacher, as the teacher will be able to tell you if they’re able to work on your specific styles with you. If they say otherwise, it’s perfectly okay to try a different teacher. Teachers want you to succeed; sure it’s a job, and we like to make money, but we also want to see you have fun in your studies.
The following are resources that are especially helpful for those starting piano without the funds to work with a piano teacher, but anyone, regardless of background and level, can find benefit from these.
If you can’t find/afford a teacher, online courses are a great way to dip your toes into piano. These are helpful as well, if you’re unsure of if you want to dedicate the time to practicing piano.
Josh Wright’s Youtube channel and ProPractice and VIP Masterclass Series
Dr. Josh Wright has probably the most helpful Youtube channel of any classical piano teacher on the internet, and that’s probably because he’s worked at it for so many years. The most fascinating part of his channel, for me at least, is that it’s not catered to one specific level of study. He has videos for beginners, intermediate, and advanced players.
One of his videos actually helped me get rid of tendonitis that I got as a result of poor technique that I picked up in undergrad.
Here are suggestions regarding where to start on his Youtube channel:
- BEGINNER TECHNIQUE – Schmitt Exercises 1-93
- BEGINNER TECHNIQUE – Czerny Op. 599 Exercises 1-20
- Once you begin scale/arpeggio work: ProPractice Technique Series (previews of the full videos you get from purchasing access to the series)
- Lessons For Beginners – Playlist
If you find these videos helpful and want to continue study with him, he also has paid courses. I suggest you start with the ProPractice Series, as this includes both technique and repertoire, as well as tips for each level regarding how to get to the next level. You can read my review of this course here.
I purchased the lifetime access course during a sale, and it comes with a free month of the VIP Masterclass and entrance into a Facebook group of all other ProPractice lifetime members, which is a huge perk. It’s such a supportive group, and many folks post videos asking for feedback, which everyone is willing to give in such constructive ways.
After you’ve gone through that course, the VIP Masterclass is helpful with learning specific repertoire. The scope of this course is that members in it ask for tutorials on specific pieces they’re working on and even specific passages in those pieces, and Josh creates videos to help them solve these problems. The coolest part is that if you’re in the VIP Masterclass, you have access to all the videos, so there are a ton of resources that continue to grow as you grow as a musician.
I’ve linked to two of the larger courses, but he also has individual tutorials and levels separated into their own courses, if you’re only interesting in specific pieces or levels. You can view all his courses here.
Allysia, the host of the PianoTV Youtube channel, is a bubbly pianist and teacher who is especially great at introducing the piano in a fun way that makes it not too serious. She’s been at it for a long time as well, like Josh Wright, so she has a ton of videos that can answer most questions you’d ask as a new pianist.
Here are some good places to start on her channel:
- Preparatory/Beginner Level Instruction – this is absolutely where to start, as she breaks down each aspect of coming to piano into its own videos. She also follows the order of what would happen in your first few lessons and gets you started learning actually pieces pretty quickly.
- Q&As and General Information – in this playlist, she covers everything for beginners like method books, how to practice, what to practice, and everything in between. I still refer to this playlist frequently.
- Piano Tutorials – this playlist ranges from Beginner to Early Intermediate. It’s a great resource for if you want to learn a specific song.
In addition to her plethora of playlists, she recently added three courses to her website: 30 Days of Piano, 6 Week Mini Course, and Song Shop. The first two are geared toward absolute beginners, so they’re perfect for getting your feet wet. The Song Shop course covers music theory and songwriting, so if you’re more interested in writing your own music, this is an excellent course for you! You can find all three of these courses on her website here.
In addition to online courses, it’s exceptionally helpful to have a method book to make sure that you cover all the basics of technique and theory that are required to move to higher levels of learning. Without that foundation, it gets harder to grow in piano.
Adult Piano Adventures
My personal favorite is the Faber Adult Piano Adventures All in One books. I teach almost exclusively out of the Piano Adventures series, as they cover everything in the same order that I would and encourage more sight-reading and overall musicality than some of the older book series.
The All in One books are really great because instead of having four separate books to keep track of (lesson, technique, theory, and performance), they put all of that into one spiral-bound book. Do not underestimate the power of spiral-bound books for piano; regular books don’t like to stay open on their own.
Alfred’s Adult All-In-One Course
Even though I exclusively teach out of the Piano Adventure series, I was raised on Alfred’s, so I still have a soft spot in my heart for them. They do an excellent job on covering the required technique and theory skills for beginners, so you will get that foundation.
I personally have not looked through or taught out of this specific book, but I have heard many good things about it. The main competitors of method books for adults is between Piano Adventures and Alfred’s Adult, so you definitely will be getting a good education from this book as well.
This book is also all-in-one, so you don’t have to keep track of a ton of books, and it also comes spiral-bound, so if that was your deciding factor between these two books, then you’ll have to find different criteria.
Perhaps the toughest part of self-learning piano is figuring out what repertoire to learn. You have the urge to play the pieces that inspired you to play in the first place, but many times those pieces are performed by professionals who have their DMA in Piano Performance, so they’re a little difficult to start off with.
Finding Sophisticated Music
Beginning as an adult can also be demoralizing because the beginner repertoire tends to sound childish and in fact are usually children’s folk songs, like “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” or “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” One of the best resources I found during undergrad (actually when I was studying composition) was that most classical composers have books written for children, but the music in these volumes does not sound childish at all. They just sound like elegant classical music. Some popular favorites are Robert Schumann’s Album for the Young, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album, and Sergey Prokofiev’s Children’s Album.
Repertoire Level Guides
Further than this, I recommend checking out already established repertoire guides.
The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) advertises their yearly exam syllabus, which includes a list of repertoire sorted by grades (1–8) as well as technique expectations. View the syllabus here.
The Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) also has a syllabus that’s very similar to the ABRSM, but there are ten levels instead of eight, and the syllabus also includes repertoire out of specific method books. These tend to be the children’s books, but it’s helpful to correlate it with a level out of a method book. View the syllabus here.
Sheet Music Plus is an online seller of sheet music in both digital and physical formats. They also have a publishing program where individuals can upload and sell their arrangements for others to purchase, so you’ll find much more than just classical repertoire here. The most helpful part of their platform is that you can search by level. They have a handy guide of 11 levels with examples of each, and if you don’t know where to start, you can simply click a level, and it will pull up the most popular pieces from that level. View the guide here.
International Music Score Library Project’s (IMSLP) List of Intermediate Piano Repertoire. You probably already know that IMSLP boasts the largest, free, public domain sheet music library, but they also have this handy list of intermediate piano repertoire. They’re organized by time period, which is especially helpful if you want to discover new music in styles you love. I’m not sure why they only have an intermediate list, but I’ll definitely make a raucous if they make any other lists! View the intermediate list here.
Henle’s Levels of Difficulty. If you’re trying to decide if a piece is above your level, search for it on Henle’s website. They use a number system to rank pieces by difficulty. Many times they also note what ABRSM and RCM grades they are as well, so this is an excellent resource to help you pick repertoire.
Learning piano as an adult can be overwhelming, but with so many resources at our disposal nowadays, there’s no reason to shy away from the challenge. The key is to hang onto whatever motivated you to start learning piano: was it because a piece you heard made you feel understood? You love the idea of being able to jam with a group of people? Maybe you want to create your own music that makes others feel things deeply.
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