The Perfect First Lesson with an Adult Piano Student

Teaching an adult piano student has unique challenges. I know many piano teachers will avoid taking on adults because they’ve had bad experiences in the past with commitment or expectations.


Teaching piano to adult students

But teaching adults has great advantages too. If you can learn the skills needed to teach this demographic they can be a valuable part of your studio.

It all starts at the first lesson with an adult piano student. You need to get started on the right foot – then everything else will follow.

This post was originally published in August 2017 and was updated in September 2019.

Connect with Your Adult Piano Student

Start by getting to know your new student. What do they do, what do they like, and why do they want to learn piano.

Adult piano students are usually very nervous. So keep that in mind when they walk in the door. This is a completely new environment for them and they might feel way out of their comfort zone.

Think about how you would feel going starting something completely new, knowing that most kids embark on this journey at 7 years old…?

Combine that with the perception many people have of the strict piano teacher, and the mystique that often surrounds music notation – no wonder they’re a bit on edge when they first arrive.

So put them at ease, make them feel welcome – and above all – make them feel heard.

Goal Setting for Adult Students

This goes hand in hand with knowing why they’re taking piano in the first place. Ask your adult piano student about their goals at the first lesson.

Do they want to…

  • Write their own music?
  • Learn a Beethoven Sonata?
  • Sit an exam?
  • Play their favourite Beatles songs?

Not all your new students will have an answer to this, and some may be too shy to tell you at first. But make sure you ask.

Ask about goals

You don’t want to set them off on the path to classical music if that’s of no interest to them. And you don’t want to assume they’re not ambitious just because they’re an adult student either!

Whatever goals they do give you – have a little chat about their expectations for when they’ll achieve these things. Be quite frank about what it takes to do what they want and how you would get them there.

If they saw an 8 year old playing Für Elise, they might be quite surprised to learn how long that normally takes, and how many hours that 8 year old had probably practiced to get to that level.

I go into goal setting and expectations more in this post: A Practical Guide to Teaching Adult Piano Students.

Remove the Mystique

If you don’t know what this “mystique” is that I’m talking about – ask a friend who has no music training what they see when they look at sheet music. Or what they think when they watch a pianist.

People who didn’t study music kind of think it’s….a bit magic.

Mystique of note reading

(They’ll probably talk about talent too. UGH, talent – one of my least favourite words. But that’s a topic for another day.)

So we need to take some of this away at the very first lesson with an adult piano student. We need to show them that they were right to think they could learn to do this. There’s no magic or witchcraft at work here.

This is why I believe you should give your new adult piano students a full tour of the grand staff. Explain the relationship between the keys and the lines and spaces as clearly and succinctly as you can.

I wouldn’t be afraid of over-explaining either. Even if something seems a bit obvious, say it. Otherwise, you risk them not knowing – and not asking because of the aforementioned nervousness and mystique factors.

Once you’ve given them this tour, get them reading on the staff right away. Get them to put this to work so they can see straight away that this music notation stuff is decipherable by average folk.

Something Cool

Finally, make sure you teach all new adult piano students something cool that they can play immediately. The staff reading likely won’t meet this requirement, so I recommend teaching your student something by rote.

Cool piano for adult students

This really could be anything, as long as it:

  • Is playable by a beginner
  • Sounds great straight away
  • Has a full rich sound and isn’t “childish”

The last rule is the only one that’s tricky. While ‘I Love Coffee’ does sound great and is playable, it is just a tiny bit kiddy for the something cool (definitely worth teaching to them later though).

My personal go-to something cool to teach my new adult piano students is the chords for the verse of ‘Let it Be’. This is a simple four chord pattern, it’s very accessible, and everyone knows it.

The other thing about this particular chord pattern is that it’s quite easy to add little snazzy bits if they pick it up quickly. But it also sounds awesome with just a single note in the bass and an open fifth in the right hand if they need to keep it simple.

Teaching Chords

Since many adult students do want to learn pop-style music, chords are a great thing to teach them. Vibrant Music Teaching members can do this with the Chord Crash Course here.

If you’re not a member, you can download the chord grids used in that course here to help your adult students with the visual patterns of the major chords on the piano.

Do you teach adult piano students?

What challenges have you found with these students? What do you find are the biggest differences between adult students and kids?

Tell us your experiences in the comments or the Vibrant Music Studio Teachers community on Facebook.

11 thoughts on “The Perfect First Lesson with an Adult Piano Student”

  1. I actually teach the clarinet and hold a DMA in Clarinet performance and pedagogy. I have had both wonderful and negative teaching experiences with adult learners. I currently have several mature students in my studio that have great attitudes towards learning the instrument and we have very positive working relationships. During my 20 years of teaching, I have have had to release two adult students from my studio due to poor and disrespectful attitudes. Both these students came to me as former amateur musicians (having played the instrument in their late teens/early 20s, but not having played the instrument in 30 years). I found that these two students were impatient with their progress (they were expecting to immediately be at the same level they once had ascertained); both individuals presented with an attitude of arrogance; and both students questioned my suggestions on how to implement quality practice. With each student, I discussed having patience in regard to the return of muscle and brain memory; we also discussed, at length, practice techniques that are methodical and lead to quicker progress. After several months of very difficult lessons, I parted ways with both students. Having had time to reflect on both experiences, I can draw many similarities in personality, gender and age of these two students. I do wonder if their attitude was a result of their difficulty studying (ie. taking direction) with someone younger and of the opposite gender. Primarily, I do believe there was such a clash due to their arrogance. I’m wondering if any other teachers have had similar experiences and whether they were able to redirect these behaviors in a more positive direction. I did have minimal red flags during pre-lesson consultations but most of the negative behavior presented during formal lessons.

    Reply
    • That’s tough Mandy. I do think these type of things all start at the very beginning – because I used to get adults with these attitudes all the time, but now I almost never do. I think this is because of the way I set up expectations and environment from the start, perhaps you’ve subconsciously changed that too?

      Reply
  2. Hi, Nicola. I just wanted to thank you for the tremendous resource that you provide to other teachers via this website and blog. In my comment on your post about planning a new student interview, I indicated I was getting another student (I’m a rookie at teaching, remember?), and now I am getting another one on top of that. The kicker is they’re both adults, so finding this post and your linked Practical Guide to Teaching Adult Students are a godsend for someone who has never taught adults before. Now I have some solid direction and ideas, and I think that my teaching them will be much more effective than simply teaching from a book. Thanks again, and keep up the good work!

    Reply
  3. Thanks for the tips! I seem to have a good rapport with adults, and have gotten quite a few piano parents to become…piano students! However, their schedules usually mean that they don’t have the time to be regular weekly students for any more than a couple of months. I’m going to beta test something over the next few months that’s a little more flexible that I hope will enable me to get some of these adults back.

    Reply
  4. Such a great article,Nicola. Thank you for sharing! I happen to use ‘Let it Be’ as first lesson win as well and my students always seem amazed that they can already play something after their first lesson! My current issue with adult students is method books… seems hard to find an adult book with ‘cool’ songs, most of them contain ‘Merrily we roll along’ and ‘when the saints..’ I just cringe at the selection! Does anyone know a good book?

    Reply
    • If you want just pieces, no fluff, in a pop-style then try Fired Up! by Piano Pronto. If you want more of an incremental approach with strong technique then check out Piano Safari Older Student.

      Reply
  5. Thanks for the tips! Most of the adult students I’ve been getting are seniors who have always wanted to play. Chords for ‘cool songs’ were a total failure as they were incapable of playing them. Their hands are too stiff, They weren’t well coordinated and they couldn’t think quickly so we had to work with single notes in one hand which didn’t sound ‘cool’. I do love the Piano Safari books and do use them with my adult students. I’m finding that’s about the level most of these can handle. Any other cool song ideas for seniors who aren’t capable of chords? Actually I’ve had a couple of teens lately who actually couldn’t play a chord for several weeks. Some just aren’t coordinated enough and most of these couldn’t put both hands together even with a single note in the bass for weeks. Any ideas for cool sounding songs for this type of student?

    Reply
    • Firstly, chords don’t have to be triads so I would try open fifths or thirds with any student who found this challenging at first. If you need more rote pieces outside of Piano Safari try roterepertoire.com. Samantha writes great pieces that students love and are very comfortable to play.

      Reply
  6. Good tips for those beginner adults. I’ve only worked with one in the recent past and the nervousness is spot on. She was so out of her comfort zone it took nearly the entire first lesson just to get her to relax and get comfortable in the space. So the second lesson was more focused on what she wanted to accomplish with the piano and how long she wanted to practice. Don’t forget that adults are busy people so some can commit to daily practice and some every 2-3 days. Depends on how much they truly want to learn the craft in a short time.

    Reply

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