Susan Griesdale, a Red Leaf Pianoworks composer and author of an excellent Rhythm Practice book, spoke on a topic she knows well at the recent CFMTA Convention. She started piano lessons as an adult herself, and now teaches many adults.
In a well-organized, well-presented session complete with a handout of the outline, Susan shared her knowledge and experience with us. There are several very important areas where teaching or learning as an adult (andragogy) is very different from teaching a child or learning as a child (pedagogy). Andragogy is learner-centered – adult students are responsible for their own success and they need the tools to direct their own learning.
Susan briefly discussed Adult Piano Method books – what they contain and what they don’t cover. They do cover all the academic information as well as technical skills and music to practice the theory and technique. However, there are a number of key areas that they don’t cover such as:
- the physical and co-ordination challenges
- how to deal with the vital role of tactile (muscle) memory
- the time it will take to learn, the amount of repetition that will be needed and the inevitable plateaus
- the importance of eye movement
- how to develop musical flow and speed
Susan gave us some of her solutions for dealing with the biggest problem areas (listed above). She assigns Dohnanyi exercises, particularly # 2 (see below), to learn to release tension on cue, achieve a grounded state, and to improve co-ordination. The importance of learning to release tension can not be overstated. These exercises should be played at “thinking speed,” allowing no wrong notes.
Developing musical flow is another area that causes frustration. This is muscle memory and it needs to be trained. Susan identified eye movement as a muscle memory as well. Analysis is critical for this stage – both to see where the flow is interrupted, and to determine where you really need to look.
The session title in the conference program was “The Older the Better! – NOT!!” The harsh reality is that memory, eyesight and reaction time all diminish with age. The best we can to is to slow down this process. Our children will get better faster than we will. Adults need to know roughly the time it will take to learn a piece, realizing that there is generally about a 40% “plateau time” sandwiched between the 30% note-learning stage and the 30% polishing stage. Different pieces can be learned to different stages, and a process should be set up so the adult students can see their progress – never less than 6 months.
The session covered so much more than what I have posted here. Sight-reading, ear-training and memory need to be incorporated into every lesson. The frustration of a piece not sounding like it should could be a result of one of two extremes: the student might have a fully developed musical knowledge and they want their playing to sound like it should, or they may be unable to hear or recognize even simple intervals. Listening and sight-reading need to become daily habits.
Being a composer, Susan has written specific technical exercises for her adult students. She also gives them her compositions as well as those of her Red Leaf colleagues, in addition to standard classical repertoire. Some of Susan’s compositions, such as the collection called Piano Poems, are well-suited for the adult student. Check out her beautiful website.