This past March I had the privilege of presenting a session at the MTNA National Conference titled “Adult RMM Students: More than Just a 30-Minute Lesson.”  For this presentation I recorded interviews with 5 adult students at our studio.  From these interviews compiled several short videos.  Over the next several weeks, I am going to share these video with you along with tips I’ve learned about teaching adult RMM students.

First, we need to lay a framework for what RMM study actually is.  RMM, or Recreational Music Making, is any lessons, group or private, committed to promoting the pleasures and benefits of making music. This approach to lessons is process driven rather than outcome-driven, which means that we focus on the student enjoying the learning process rather than producing a certain end performance.  With a student-focused approach, RMM allows the student more choices and direction in the learning process than traditional teaching. RMM can apply to lessons with children and teenagers as well, but my presentation focused on adult RMM lessons.

My Background with RMM

I began teaching adults my first semester of graduate school when I was immediately tasked with teaching an evening extended education course titled “Piano for Pleasure” as a part of my graduate assistantship.  I have a vivid memory of the first week of this class. First because I had no idea what I was doing.  I wish I could go back and apologize to all of those students! But also because I remember asking the students to introduce themselves and share why they were taking piano.  As the students talked about their many reasons for taking piano, I began to realize that this was something special. Many of these students were finally fulfilling a lifelong dream to learn to make music, and I got to be a part of that! They came from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, but were all together in that moment to try something new. Since then I’ve been “hooked” on RMM.

I’ve taught adult students in group and private settings ever since.  I’ve also attended the RMM Track of Pedagogy Saturday for several years and tried to learn as much as I can about RMM teaching. I currently have 9 adult students in private lessons and one adult beginning group class. My adult students are some of my favorite lessons each week!

New Perspective

I gained a new perspective on teaching adults when I started taking ballet a couple of years ago.  I had absolutely zero ballet or dance background, but had always thought I would enjoy ballet. When a friend was going to try a class and asked if I wanted to go with her I nervously joined.  Imagine my surprise when we accidentally ended up in an intermediate class doing things far above my head! But… I have continued in a more appropriate level class and learned a lot, both about ballet and about teaching adults (read more about my ballet experience here).  In ballet, everything is new to me, the vocabulary, the routines, the muscles (muscles that I didn’t know I had are sore!). My brain is constantly working at full speed and it is physically and mentally exhausting. And yet I enjoy it!  I’ve started to get some idea of how my adult piano students must feel. Having a friend push me to go to that first class was just the nudge I needed, but here’s some things that would have been definite deal-breakers for me:

  • Long-term commitment – I was not committed beyond the first hour class, I could never ever come back if I totally embarrassed myself (there was a high possibility for total embarrassment).
  • High upfront cost – I only had to pay for the first class (less than $20) and was optionally encouraged to purchase a pair of ballet shoes (about $20), they would have let me try without the special shoes as well
  • No flexibility for “life” – the studio lets me buy a “class pass” and drop in to classes as they fit my schedule.  Paying for a set time each week would feel like too much wasted money for me. I make it when I can, but sometimes it’s not the most important thing to schedule in to my day.  That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it, and it’s nothing personal against the teacher or the class, it’s just life

And the final thing that would have been a definite dealbreaker for me:

  • Wearing a leotard – I’m not sure how this one translates to piano teaching, but the rest do easily.

We should structure lessons in a way that offers our adult students a chance to try it out with little long-term commitment and upfront cost and also provide flexibility to fit in with their lives.  The music and joy will keep them hooked, but we want to break down the barriers for students to start. This is quite a shift from the approach I take with kids.  My kids are committed for a full semester and have a set time each week with no make-ups offered.  But I see the adult’s perspective now and try my best to cater to their needs.  I do this because I enjoy teaching them and want to welcome them into my studio.

So this is the challenge with adult students that I focused on through my video interviews, seeing things from their perspective.  From conversations in online groups for piano teachers, I see that teachers are often frustrated with their adult students.  Here’s some comments I’ve read recently:

“Adults don’t practice very well, are full of excuses, and perform horribly in recitals. Music is a language. Everyone knows that the best time to learn a language is when child is young!”

“Most adults are very hard to teach and a lot are undependable and want make ups most of the time. I try to stay away from them, but I know they want to play things they know rather than scales and stuff.”

“Most of my adult beginners stop taking after a short time. I may be doing something wrong, but again, I’ve heard from other teachers that this is the case with them, too. I’m often confounded as to how to handle what seem to be stiff, almost petrified fingers.”

“I’ve had no luck keeping adult students either. It always comes down to them saying they don’t practice.”

So is this true?  Are adults hard to teach, undependable, and full of excuses?  I think this all depends on your perspective. Teachers seem easily frustrated that their recreational adult students don’t make the musical progress and corrections week to week that the teacher desires.  But, much of the growth and many of the benefits an adult students seeks actually happen outside of the repertoire. I believe that being aware of the student’s perspective, and what they see as success can help frustrated teachers become more fulfilled in teaching RMM students.  What better way to gain this perspective than by talking to real adult students?  I think we can learn a lot from the students I interviewed about what adults are looking for in piano lessons.  Adult students can become an invaluable part of your piano studio. First I want you to hear from these students a little bit about their backgrounds and what led them to music as an adult.

Author: Spring

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.