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How do you teach the more "serious" adult student?

When my adult students tell me they are "not serious" about their piano study, a red flag goes up- "serious" means different things to different people. Although students may be trying to say their final goal is not to be a performer, more often than not they are saying, "I don't have time to practice a lot, but I'm very serious about learning to play the piano. Please be patient with me."

To see just how serious adults are about piano, visit the online Piano World Forums ( bin/ultimatebb.cgi). The Adult Beginners section is one of the most popular there, with over 160,000 posts. Included in the threads are recital preparation (yes, they are giving online recitals), a Liszt Devotee Club, and a Rachmaninoff Study Group. There are over 245 pages listing all the threads in the Adult Beginner category. How can you say these adults are "not serious" about their piano studies?

Teachers need to be equipped to help our adult students meet their goals, no matter what those goals are. Jill Dew, a professional singer and voice coach, wants to accompany her students as well as possible. She also has a passion for piano playing. Traditional piano literature isn't going to help her meet her goals.

Other "serious students" want the breadth, depth, and structure found in the National Music Certificate Program. Some of my adult students really like the rigor and organization of this approach. Peteris Zarins discusses what is involved in this program and how it applies to adult students.

Adults need to take charge of their own lessons, and we are responsible for guiding them in whatever direction they want to go. Our primary goal should be the satisfaction our students receive from their piano studies. Adult students will find a way to achieve success, with or without our help. 

I need to play the piano well

by Jill Dew

l am a returning piano student who wants to further my career by improving my piano skills. I'm a voice teacher-I have been for the past 18 years. Before that, I was an opera singer. Before that, I was a typographer (hey, we all gotta eat!).

I was born into a musical culture. My mother played the piano by ear, and my sister had already been studying piano for two years by the time I was born. Growing up, everyone took piano lessons from one of the many piano teachers in the neighborhood. Playing the piano was as normal as taking a daily bath-everyone did it, although not everyone really wanted to.

Imagine my surprise when I found out some people didn't have a piano in their homes. Not having a piano in the house was up there with not having a refrigerator or television. In fact, I knew people who had a piano but didn't have a television!

So, music in general-piano music more specifically-was a part of my early life. I studied for years and years. I loved the piano. My mother had to pull me off of it and make me go play outside. I wanted to play everything I could get my hands on. Usually, I would play songs given to me by my teacher, but often I would play the Jerome Kern or Rodgers and Hammerstein so ng collections my mother had lying around. To get the full effect of the music, I would sing along as I played.

That's when I realized I could sing.

The piano, however, was my first love. I played for hours and hours, or so it seemed to me. Once, I drove my older brother to distraction wi th constant repetition of the opening lines of The Spinning Song by Ellmenreich. Torturing him was just an added bonus.

But slowly I discovered that I couldn't play the music the way that I felt it. My fingers just wouldn't do what I wanted. I played everything my teachers gave me, and they seemed to like it just fine, but I wasn't satisfied. I knew it could be better. I thought, "I can't do this. I'm just not capable."

The capper was the recital I played in when I was 12. I was the teacher's second best student in a studio of over twenty kids. The boy that was the best was some kind of phenomena at the time. Boys in a suburb of a southern city in the 1950s did NOT play the piano, so he had to be pretty amazing to study. (In retrospect, I believe he was an import from the North.) He was to play after me; I was next to last on the program.

The worst possible thing that can happen, happened. I got halfway through my piece when I forgot my place. It was a rather large piece, and I just got lost. I was DEVESTATED! All I could do was go back to my seat and sob quietly. Afterwards, my mother, who tried to make light of the situation and wanted me to feel better, said, "Get over it - it's not that important."


It was to me. From that point on, I never wanted to play for anyone again. I still practiced at home, but usually when I was by myself. I continued to study through my undergraduate years until I was 25 years old. After that, I played less and less, until a time came when I quit all together. I was a singer by then, and I only used the piano to accompany my voice.

Time came and went. Fast forward to the year 2007. I was 55 and wondering what to do with the rest of my life. I was an accomplished voice teacher, but not singing as much anymore. Teaching was now my life. I thought about it - I've got another good forty years or so left (the women in my family live a long time). I wanted to become an accomplished acco mpanist. To me that meant transposing, sight-reading-whatever it took to help my students sing the best they could.

I went to a friend where I work, who is the accompanying teacher for singers there. He heard me talk; then he heard me play. His response was, "You need a piano teacher to loosen you up. Do you know Janet Smith?" Thus began a wonderful collaboration that continues to this day. When we first started, I told Janet what I wanted to do. She sat down with me, and we made a plan of attack. I told her I wanted to transpose, sight-read, improve my technique (which, I discovered, was nonexistent), and become a better pianist in general. Specifically, I wanted to be a better accompanist. She wrote all this down and started tracking my progress on weekly pages in a notebook, giving me copies to keep as well.

Janet taught me how to practice: so much time on strengthening exercises, so much time on flexibility exercises, time spent on playing pieces for fun, and time spent on tearing apart passages in the pieces that gave me trouble.

Every four to six months, we review the plan to see if we're on track or if changes need to be made. This way, I keep on task for my goal of accompanying. I like that she has included me in the teaching process. I'm not six years old anymore-I don't need to be spoon-fed information. Involving me in the process helps make me responsible for my own education.

An extra added benefit I didn't expect is the insight I have received. I see Janet every week, and every week I have an epiphany.

One of my first epiphanies was, "It's not my fault. I CAN do this!" I realized my past teachers never taught me technique-they taught me literature. I never learned scales or arpeggios. I never learned how to listen. Who knew different strokes of the keys could produce different sounds? Certainly not me! I COULD do this. I could play the piano the way I wanted to! This was an amazing revelation that, to this day, still gives me a shiver.

Janet understands that I am not doing this for my pleasure. This will help my ability to teach my voice students. I could anticipate their interpretations, but I simply couldn't play the notes, making me a pretty anemic accompanist. I used to say, "If you can sing with my playing, you can sing with anyone." I'm not that weak accompanist anymore.

In a recent studio recital, all my students sang better than they had ever sung before. I know I accompanied them better than I ever had before. I was proud on so many levels-I was proud that my students did so well, and I was proud that I was able to help them achieve their goals by being both a good voice teacher and a good accompanist.

I'm on my way. In forty years, I suspect I'll have this accompanying thing down.

National Music Certificate Program model

by Peteris Zarins

An adult student who says they are "serious" is usually a student with goals and plans, but they need a teacher to help direct them down the right path. For students like this I use the National Music Certificate Program (NMCP) curriculum. Regardless of whether a student is a recreational learner (the vast majority) or on a music career track, the comprehensive nature and many options in the graded repertoire and study/etude books allow for a pedagogically sound and enjoyable musical education.

Included in the examination are grade appropriate scales and arpeggios, cadences, inversions, repertoire, etudes, ear training, and sight-reading. The examination is performed in front of trained examiners, who assign a "grade" for each part of the examination.

There is a syllabus that contains the exact examination parts and procedures. The syllabus is available through the NMCP website: (

The critiques provide a "third-party" objective assessment within established standards, a quantified mark, and observations and suggestions in an encouraging tone. Most often the teacher's own observations are validated, yet a set of fresh and sympathetic ears benefits all participants. Surprisingly, my adult learners have found the examination experience rewarding and even enjoyable, albeit initially daunting.

There are many appealing qualities of this program for adult learners.

Organized levels

The organization into grade levels provides tangible goals and arrival points. There are two preparatory levels, followed by ten grade levels, finishing with the Associate Diploma. Each level allows for a gradual and measured increase in ability at a personal pace. 

Comprehensive examination

It is the philosophy of NMCP that the repertoire component is more successful when the other areas of the examination are played successfully. This translates beautifully into adult learning. Since cognitive skills come relatively easily for most adults, motor skills need to be carefully and sequentially developed.

The NMCP has developed coordinating materials for all the skills needed for the examination. All are published by the Frederick Harris Music Company and are both diverse in content and very affordable. 

 Professional critique

The College of Examiners undergo an extensive training and mentoring program followed by mandatory annual professional development workshops. The positive examination room experience is particularly emphasized, as is a nurturing environment for all candidates, whether they are shy youngsters, skittish adolescents, or hyperventilating adults. The examiners are trained to be understanding and patient.

Variety of repertoire

The repertoire requirement lists are divided chronologically by style periods - Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern era. Each examination level provides a vast array of repertoire choices, including a "Teacher's Choice/ Own Selection" option.

In Grades I and 2, inventions are compulsory, and are considered essential in developing hand independence. This is particularly significant for adults. At each level, etudes are required and help the student focus on a particular technical aspect or challenge.

The Celebration Series Perspectives (published by Frederick Harris) are award-winning collections that contain the repertoire and etudes chosen by NMCP. The Piano

Repertoire books contain carefully chosen literature, and the Etudes/Studies books provide the etudes required for the examination.

The Piano Syllabus for NMCP also contains repertoire not found in the Celebration Series Perspectives. Candidates in Grades 3 to 9 have the option of substituting a selection chosen from the Popular Selection List for one study in their grade. This list can be found on the NMCP website. 

Co-requisite theory and music history examinations

Starting with Grade 5, the certificate program's co-requisites involve theoretical and music history examinations. It has been my experience that adult students are particularly intrigued by the notion of "putting it all together." In fact, many who are ambivalent about practical examinations sign up for the theoretical subject examinations. When students develop this rich historical perspective and learn to listen discerningly, they emerge as more sophisticated and involved concertgoers and consumers of music.

There is a vast quantity (and quality) of literature available for study. Often adults have certain repertoire they really want to play. In the sidebar on page 46 I have listed a sampling of supplementary collections that work well with the NMCP syllabus. 

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