I first experienced the joy of teaching adult students as a graduate assistant during my Master’s degree and was assigned to teach an evening “Piano for Pleasure” course. From that first class, I learned how much I enjoy teaching adults who have chosen in their own time and their own way to study piano. I’ve now been teaching adults in group classes and private lessons for nearly seven years. Through this time I’ve learned there is a huge range of types of student you can encounter when teaching adults.
Understanding the mindset, goals, and experience of your adult students is crucial to creating a lesson environment that meets their needs and keeps them active in piano for many years. I’ve realized through my own private students that there are three broad categories of adult students you may encounter, and each requires a different approach to teaching. Of course there are actually millions of types of adult students because each student is unique in their own way, but I think these three categories will cover the general types of students you will encounter.
Profiles of Adult Students
#1 – The Jessica
Music has been a part of Jessica’s life as long as she remembers. Her parents were musicians and she took music lessons from an early age, these may have been piano lessons or they may have been another instrument such as voice, cello, guitar, or violin. She has a good basic understanding of music theory and can read music well but may not have taken formal piano lessons for many years. Jessica is determined and focused. She has the time now to study piano and practice diligently and she wants to take advantage of that. Jessica wants to learn challenging pieces and perform them at a high level. She also wants lesson time to be used efficiently, no chatting about her children or her dog.
You can serve Jessica best by having high expectations, giving precise corrections, and suggesting new repertoire that will challenge her. It is also important to make sure that she is developing a good foundation for her technique. She may suddenly increase her daily practice time and if her technique is poor she could have pain and injury. Discuss proper technique from the beginning and maintain an open dialogue about any pain or discomfort she is experiencing during practice. Jessica will also appreciate recommendations of pianists to listen to and watch.
#2 – The Bob
Bob has always wanted to play piano but was never given the opportunity as a child. Now that he is retired from a successful business career he’s finally found the time to pursue a lifelong dream. Bob is starting from scratch, no musical skill or experience. He will never play at the same level as Jessica, but he will be a dedicated student nonetheless. Piano is a social event and a hobby for him. He loves to share his progress at the piano with his friends and family.
Bob will appreciate if you create community events for him to meet other adult students. (See our post “Creating Community Among Your Adult Students” for ideas on how to do this.) Bob will have strong opinions about what music he would like to learn. Guide him to pieces that are an appropriate level while still honoring his repertoire choices. Be patient and gentle. Bob will not respond well to the direct critiques that Jessica desires. Offer suggestions for how to practice at home, but don’t force your methods on him. Bob is playing for his own enjoyment, and that is the most important goal. Teaching Bob can be very fulfilling if you let go of your own performance expectations.
#3 – The Helen
Helen played piano as a child. She never felt like she had much natural talent, but she did enjoy playing. Her childhood piano teacher was very strict and refused to hear pieces that hadn’t been practiced enough. Helen has always wished she had stuck with piano longer. She is thrilled to now how the time and money to take piano lessons again. She may be embarrassed to play for others because she feels her skills are not where they should be. Helen may also be a perfectionist and be harder on herself than you are on her.
You can serve Helen well by creating an encouraging environment. Emphasize repeatedly that you can always start at her level each week. If she hasn’t gotten as much practice as she feels she should you can still make progress in the lesson time. Point out specific improvements you hear each week. Offer small and manageable steps she can take to correct problems. Do not push her to play for other. Help instill a sense of internal reward when she learns new pieces and teach her to find joy in her practice time.
What does this mean for you?
Adult students are different than average age students. We should approach their lessons with a different mind-set and adjust our goals depending on what type of student we are teaching. My lesson with Bob will have a totally different feel than my lesson with Jessica. Our job as teachers is to meet the student where they are. What types of adult students have you encountered?
Spring Seals, NCTM, teaches 60 piano students ranging from age 3 to 70 in Fort Worth, Texas. She also serves as the Director of Certification for TMTA. She is passionate about helping teachers become more effective in their studios through professional development, new resources, and fresh ideas.