This can really be a sticky issue for older beginners. When teaching piano technique to adults, we need to make it relevant to them and avoid sounding like a schoolteacher telling them off for swinging on a chair.
⬆️ Listen to the podcast above or keep on reading, whichever fits your style. ↙️
The problem with teaching technique is that it can sound a bit fussy and stuffy.
Older beginners are often taking lessons for a bit of fun, and don’t feel like they need to go into every detail. It’s not like they want to be concert pianists, after all. What does it even matter?
But great technique is for everyone. Whether you want to play Rachmaninoff or The Rolling Stones, sound technique is essential for achieving your goals.
Don’t Be Afraid to Discuss Posture
One of the first conversations many of us have with our young piano students is about how they sit at the piano.
- Bench height
- Bench distance
- Sitting tall
- Feet planted
- Curved hand shape
Don’t skip these basics with your older beginners.
It’s just as important for your adult students to sit correctly. And it won’t feel stuffy or condescending if you don’t let it!
I usually start off by telling my older beginners that I’m going to teach them something they probably think they know already: How to sit. This sounds silly enough that it breaks any potential awkwardness before it forms.
It’s also helpful to demonstrate at a second piano as you go. If you don’t have another piano, just use a pretend piano in front of your teaching chair.
Planting my feet dramatically, scooching to the front of the bench and doing an exaggerated shoulder roll up and back with my older beginners stops them from feeling awkward about it.
Wouldn’t you feel self-conscious doing these movements with a teacher staring at you? Don’t make that your older beginner’s first lesson experience!
Teach Non-Legato First
I believe in teaching beginners to play non-legato first so they play with arm weight and without tension.
This will often feel strange for adult students as they’ll be used to listening to legato playing more than non-legato. Their instinct might be to try to play smoothly right away but it will often lead to visible tension in their shoulders, dropped wrists and/or uncomfortable-looking fingers.
But this instinct and their aural frame of reference doesn’t change their physical movements. They’re still beginners when it comes to technique.
Adult students are actually more at risk of playing with tension because they have built up habits in other areas of life. They have ingrained ways of sitting and typing on computer keyboards which can bleed through into their piano technique.
It is even more important to start an older beginner with non-legato first.
They may find it a bit strange at first but if you explain the mechanics, they should be on board. Which brings me to my next point…
Older beginners can benefit from understanding why you’re asking for this technique or that.
Animal analogies are great for kids, and I have no shame in using them with adults too. But adult students also need to understand the logic.
Older beginners need at least basic knowledge of the tendons in their arm and the muscles involved in playing. It will make your technique training much more likely to get through the door into their practice room.
If you’re not sure about the anatomy involved, or want a brilliant book to illustrate your points, I recommend ‘What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body’ by Thomas Mark.
The pictures in this book are very useful to show your students when teaching piano technique to adults. Enthusiastic students might even like to pick up a copy to read themselves.
Use Scales to Explore
Don’t do dispassionate scale drills. With anyone.
I believe passionately in the importance of teaching scales. What I’m not a fan of is teaching a beginner to play a C major scale right away and having them practise it slowly until they’re finally ready for a G major scale.
Wait to teach scale fingerings and patterns until your student can play fluently, with legato and without tension. But explore scales right away with older beginners.
- Play a simple accompaniment in C major.
- Tell your student they can play anything they want on the white keys.
- If they’re nervous, play a few notes for their part while keeping your accompaniment going so they can hear that there really are no wrong answers!
- Try this in different keys each week so your older beginners get a sense of key signatures, chords and scales without any long-winded explanations.
This is also a fantastic opportunity to practise non-legato technique. You can instruct them to do their explorations with just finger 2 at first so they have no choice but to play non-legato and use arm weight.
If you want accompaniment patterns and lesson plans to approach scale and key exploration in this way, check out the Circle of Fifths Odyssey.
(If you’re not a yet a member of Vibrant Music Teaching, you can sign up here to get instant access to this and all our other courses.)
How do you alter your approach when teaching piano technique to adults?
Do you change things or is it quite similar to kiddos for you? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.