The goal of this article is to assess the most important factors for long-term success as an adult piano student, and to help students and teachers improve the odds that students will achieve their goals.
What does it take to succeed as an adult piano student? I believe that the many factors that are involved can be succinctly stated as:
adult piano student success = long-term goal orientation x quantity of practice x quality of practice
Long-Term Goal Orientation
Long-term goal orientation includes setting appropriate goals as well as having present-moment focus, patience, and appreciation of one’s current skills.
Setting Appropriate Goals
It’s important to set, and preferably write down, appropriate goals. Avoid setting goals that are too low. Doing so can reduce your motivation and interest. An appropriate goal is challenging but achievable.
Like any high-level skill, learning to play the piano takes years. When you play a piece of music, it’s about the journey, not the destination. (If it were about the destination, then whomever played fastest and reached the end first would be the best!) Likewise, learning to play is a journey. While your goals may provide a temporary destination to aim for – which is certainly useful – there is no ultimate destination, since you can always get better or learn something new.
Patience includes the willingness to “not make music” with a new piece right away, but to break it down into its components to learn it effectively. For example, it’s standard practice to learn a new piece one hand at a time before playing hands together.
Patience also includes the willingness to practice the same piece or scale again and again for as long as it takes, as well as the ability to weather the inevitable plateaus in your progress. Improvement at any skill is not an always-upward linear trend. Yet even plateaus are part of one’s progress. You may not appear to be making progress during a so-called plateau, yet because you’re continuing to assimilate and consolidate skills and knowledge, you actually are!
Finally, patience – perhaps a better word is fortitude – is also required for the occasional times we feel clumsy, confused, or unsure of our skills. Occasionally feeling inept or insecure is normal when learning a new skill, and it’s important to recognize that it is normal, and to not allow such feelings to weaken our motivation.
Appreciation of Current Skills
There’s value in appreciating the skills you already have, rather than grumbling that you can’t yet play a certain piece. Appreciation of your current skills enhances your enjoyment of playing and increases your motivation for becoming an even better player.
Quantity of Practice
Practicing regularly is crucial for long-term success. This means you need to consistently have time for practicing and the ability to effectively manage that time.
It’s useful to consider how many other priorities are competing with one’s desire to learn the piano. If you have too many other hobbies or goals, you may not prioritize practicing as much as you should. As I’ve always had multiple musical goals, this has personally been a struggle for me at times!
Sticking to a regular practice schedule can help many students, while others may need to fit their practice schedule flexibly around a shifting work schedule or other demands.
We obviously need to have enough mental energy at the times of day that we choose to practice. If you wait to practice until the end of the day, but you’re usually exhausted by that time, you may not make it through your daily practice session consistently, which will compromise your chances for long-term success.
Quality of Practice
Just as important as practicing enough is practicing well. Twenty minutes of high-quality practicing is better than an hour spent making mistakes. There are several components involved in high-quality practicing, including knowledge of practicing procedures, concentration, detail orientation, body awareness, and listening.
There are good and bad ways of practicing the piano. It’s every music teacher’s responsibility to teach their students how to practice. If your teacher isn’t helping you learn how to practice, ask them to teach you how (though it may be better to find another teacher).
High-quality practice requires concentration. Concentration in turn requires mental energy. While adults can concentrate longer than kids, they can still only concentrate for so long. Take breaks to refresh and recharge. Notice when your concentration falters, so you don’t exceed your natural limit and start making mistakes.
Limiting distractions is also helpful.
An unsung but extremely important factor in practicing is detail orientation. Without it, you may miss symbols and instructions in written music and forget to observe and learn them. Detail orientation includes everything involved in playing including rhythmic issues and the way you move (technique).
How you move at the piano determines how you play. Better movement leads to better musical results. Piano technique is a vast subject, and of course every student needs to learn about it. But there is a prerequisite for learning technique, which is body awareness. Without it, you have little chance of assimilating new ways of movement that will help you play better. Mindfulness is one of the best ways to develop body awareness.
The more attentively and carefully you listen to yourself as you practice, the better your practicing will be.
In addition to long-term goal orientation and consistent quantity and quality of practice, there are a couple other practical factors that enhance adult piano students’ chances for long-term success:
Finding the Right Teacher
Finding the right teacher for your musical needs and goals is essential. Once you find that person, you should also have the courage to state your learning needs. Especially if you studied music as a child, you may neglect the fact that as an adult, you have total autonomy over your learning process.
If your teacher is unwilling or unable to meet your needs, you may need to find a different teacher.
Taking Regular (Weekly) Lessons
Weekly private lessons are traditional for both children and adults. However, in my experience, it’s barely enough instructional time for optimal advancement. Taking lessons less often than weekly – for example, every other week – comes with the risk of spending many days practicing something wrong, using the wrong technique, etc.
For optimal advancement as an adult piano student, keep this formula in mind:
success = long-term goal orientation x quantity of practice x quality of practice
and constantly strive for improvement in each of these areas.