The beauty of a publication like KEYBOARD COMPANION is that we can change our questions in mid-stream if our incoming mail provokes a change. Jane Karwoski wrote me a thought-provoking letter last summer challenging the assumption that all adult students study piano only for personal enrichment. I asked her to expand her thoughts into the article below and to include her own experience. Jane's enthusiasm is infectious. 

Janeen Larsen has excellent improvisation ideas for beginning adult students. She stresses the importance of adults having non-threatening experiences and the importance of the adult and the teacher having fun in the process. 

Since one of our authors alludes to music as a career change, I want to mention a timely publication that has just been produced jointly by the Music Educators National Conference and the American Music Conference. Exploring Careers in Music, revised and updated, was originally published by AMC in 1976. This is an excellent publication for adults who want to examine music-related job opportunities. It is available from MENC at 1902 Association Drive, Reston, VA 22091.


by Jane Karwoski 

Is It Accurate to Assume That All Adults Study Piano Only for Personal Enrichment?

​Although piano study for most adults may start as merely a casual diversion, it can indeed develop into an avid interest, a real love, and yes, even a new career.

Did retiree Minna Keal - or her teacher-suspect, when she resumed the music studies of her youth, that the BBC Symphony Orchestra would premiere her Symphony when she was 80 years old? 

Did neurologist Frank Wilson suspect, when he took up piano, that he was inaugurating a whole new career of writing and speaking on the brain's function in music-making? 

Did research analyst Mari Molenaar suspect, when she looked through the newspaper for a piano teacher instead of taking yet another course in statistics, that she would be playing 40-minute recitals of Bach, Haydn, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Scriabin? Or that she would be publicist and promoter of Greater Princeton Area Steinway Society Concerts? Or that she would be a student at the first Moscow Conservatory in America last August? 

What came over these people? Interest! Compelling, consuming, burning interest! 

The common supposition when an adult takes lessons, that somehow it's not to be taken seriously, is linked to our concept of what the future possibilities are for the student. Would not the vocational options open to our from-youth-on-up students (music business, writing, accompanying, teaching, coaching, composing, retailing, developing and administrating concert associations or arts festivals, etc., etc.) be just as viable for our adult students who progress? Would not the number who do progress equal or surpass that of children, if we but take them seriously? 

Let's stop stereotyping the minority group! If we make any assumptions based solely on age (other than that an adult wishes to be treated as an adult), we stand to be wrong a good part of the time. For instance, some presume an emphasis on lighter music in adults' musical goals which can lead to the absurd conclusion that few adults have refined taste or a desire for excellence! Don't we find children who would like to play mostly "fun pieces," and teenagers who are motivated only by pop/rock? The phenomenon is not age-specific! We are also as likely to find among our adult students as many achievers, as many dreamers, as many with artistic sensibilities and as many (but no more) who want instant results! 

The adults in our studios have that vital ingredient, interest, or they wouldn't be there. How can we fan those embers into a roaring, joyful blaze? Try to identify where music intersects each person's present life-situation and other proven interests, then provide resources which will strengthen that inter-connection. For instance, if the student is a parent or grandparent of small children, introduce him or her to a book of nursery rhymes or "silly songs" which have simple piano accompaniments. Piano study will then quickly go from personal enrichment to family enrichment. That adult piano student may well become fascinated with children's response to music or perhaps with their development of rhythmic skills. If so, we can again search out resources to nourish that interest. In time, he or she may wish to offer services to day-care centers or begin a preschool music-readiness program, making it a case of community enrichment! 

Perhaps the student's background is in the physical sciences. Hemholtz's classic, On the Sensations of Tone or Science and Music by Sir James Jeans might delight him or her. Manuals for piano tuner-technician training may hit the spot for one who also enjoys working with physical mechanisms. Students in the electronics field may enjoy learning about musique concrète. A sociology/psychology background naturally brings music therapy to mind. 

Ask yourself two questions: How can music enhance the student's other life activities? What special aspect of music study is indicated by the student's other interests? We can help them discover their own treasures by suggesting they browse frequently at the music store and at the library. (Give them a list of the music periodicals available at the local libraries. Even the advertisements in professional journals are helpful in letting students know what is "out there." Be sure they know that Dewey Decimal call numbers 780 to 790 and Library of Congress "M" are the sections they will want to go over thoroughly.) Some books that are excellent for adults in general are: Playing Piano for Pleasure by Cooke; Tone Deaf and All Thumbs by Wilson; Soprano on Her Head by Ristad; The Inner Game of Music by Green and Gallwey; With Your Own Two Hands by Bernstein; Just Being at the Piano and Improvisation by Chase. 

Aside from print resources, we can apprise our students of radio stations that play music they'd like to hear (with programming schedules if available), community groups which promote musical activities (making introductions when possible), TV specials, publishers' workshops, recitals, and classes offered on local campuses. We can arrange group sessions as a basis for networking, support, and interchange among our adult students. If you only teach a few adults, they could be combined with a fellow teacher's studio for group activities. 

Certainly the music world recognizes the reality of career change, multiple careers, and the validity of part-time careers. An adult student in our studio may well be taking the first step toward further training and education, making music a big part of his or her life, or even livelihood. 

In answer to David Dubal's question (Reflections from the Keyboard, p. 269), 'When do you think one is most receptive to great music?", Ivo Pogorelich answered, "You never know when you are ready to begin to love music. Many don't get the chance in childhood and then they must wait. It's like falling in love with someone. You only know you're ready when it happens." 

And if piano study becomes a great love and, in turn, a vocation, then one more person will discover that "if you find a job you love, you'll never work a day in (the rest of) your life!"


Did Jane Karwoski suspect, when (at the insistence of her shopping companion) she walked into a music store after having scarcely touched a piano in twenty years, that she'd buy a Steinway, resume lessons, begin teaching, earn a BA in Music, become State and Nationally certified, and write this article for a professional journal? No, she did not suspect. Presently, she is re-establishing her studio, Piano with Pleasure! after moving from Bismarck, North Dakota to Los Alamos, New Mexico. It is devoted exclusively to the adult learner.


by Janeen Larsen 

If Adults Students Want to Improvise, What Are Some Activities That Will Get Them Started?


Many adult student pianists believe that improvisation is an innate behavior which is acquired through heredity or some unexplained mysterious process. Adult pianists often have difficulty improvising because they perceive themselves as lacking in improvisational talent. Thus, it is important to provide adult students with successful improvisation experiences in order to boost their confidence and change these attitudes. 

The following set of activities may appear childish, but the goal is to help adult pianists recover some of the lack of inhibitions they had as children. These activities can be used in either group piano situations or private lessons. The important thing to remember, if you direct or suggest these activities, is to avoid criticizing your students in any way. Move quickly into each activity so your students don't have time to be self-critical, or to think about what they ought to sound like.

Activity 1 

Make the ugliest sounds on the piano that you can. Smash down all the black keys. Use the pedal. Use your elbows if you like. There! Anything you do from now on can't sound any worse. 

Activity 2 

Use the piano to paint a picture or describe something. For example, think of several different animals (a bird, a mouse, an elephant, a kangaroo, etc.). Then, try to make your piano sound like them. (Hint: try using clusters, the pedal, black keys; stay away from scale and chord structures.) Other possibilities include sounds from an alien planet which has a variety of weird life forms; a storm; a parade; a circus; etc. 

Activity 3 

Use the piano to tell a story (this works best with two or more people). For example, "Once upon a time there was a spaceman who landed on earth" (use the piano to illustrate the spaceman and his descent). "The first thing he saw was ... " (next person continues the story and illustrates on the piano while, or after, talking). Keep the story going by interjecting "then he saw" or "then he went" or simply "and then...". Alternate quickly from person to person until you are tired of the story, or someone ends the story. Make sure the story is childish and silly, and play clusters, glissandos, and other non-structured piano sounds when it is your turn. 

Activity 4 

Use the piano to project or describe several emotions. Some examples might include rage, melancholy, frustration, rejection, elation, jealousy, anxiety, sorrow, etc. 

Activity 5 

Make up an ostinato pattern in the left hand using Gb and Db. For example, play Gb - Db, Gb - Db as quarter notes; play Gb as a quarter note and Db as an eighth note; play Gb and Db as a blocked 5th repeating it as a whole note drone; etc.) Make up melodies in the right hand using only black keys. Try repeating the same melodic idea in different registers. The student can play the right hand while you play the left. Call-response or follow-the-leader approaches can help more inhibited students get started. Take turns, with the student being first the follower, then the leader. Adult students who have enough coordination can learn the left hand pattern to try at home. 

Activity 6 

Make up an ostinato pattern in the left hand using a low D, the A a fifth above, and the D (d) an octave above. (For example, play D-A-d as quarter notes in a 3/4 meter pattern; play D-A-d-A as quarter notes in a 4/4 meter pattern.) Using a slow tempo, make up melodies in the right hand using a D dorian scale (D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D). Again, coordinated students may learn the left hand pattern. Switch the whole pattern to C-G-c in the left hand and C dorian (C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb-C) in the right for more variety. 

Activity 7 

Place the right hand thumb on middle C, 2nd finger on Eb, 3rd finger on F, 4th finger on Gb . While you or another pianist plays a simple 12-bar-blues bass line or chord pattern (C C C C F F C C G F C C), the student can imitate the teacher or another student in a call-response pattern. Take turns being the "leader." After mastering the 4-note pattern, transpose the pattern up to G (using the same fingering, G-Bb-C-Db) and improvise using the entire 8-note blues scale. 

Activity 8 

Play a D dorian scale with the right hand. While another pianist (or bassist) plays a Dm7-G7 repeating pattern or ostinato (or simply four quarter notes on a low D, followed by four quarter notes on a low G), imitate the teacher or another student in a call-response pattern. Take turns being the leader for two- or four-measure segments.


Generally speaking, adult pianists will gain much greater confidence in their improvisational ability after the above experiences. They will also start to lose their inhibitions toward improvisation, and will find it much easier to explore creative ways of using the piano. Call-response activities will help provide security in the initial stages. Avoid using notation of any kind, as fostering "notation-dependency" can inhibit improvisation. Also, be careful to avoid criticism or comments; just do the activities. 

Today, many adult pianists are interested in acquiring improvisation skills for a variety of reasons. Improvisation is a skill that can be learned by any pianist at any age or level. However, just like learning ballet or tennis, it takes time and practice to become adept at it. Remind your students (and yourself) that improvisation is fun as well as challenging. Improvisation provides an emotional outlet, develops listening skills, hones technique, and enhances self-confidence. Enabling your students to feel successful with simple improvisation activities will start them on their way to expanding their creative abilities through a uniquely personal and enjoyable musical activity. 


Janeen Larsen is an Associate Professor of Music at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota, where she teaches piano and piano pedagogy. She performs frequently both as a concert pianist and as a member of a professional jazz quartet, Straight, No Chaser.