What does it take to succeed as an adult piano student? This simple formula gets to the heart of it:
adult piano student success = long-term goal orientation x quantity of practice x quality of practice
Long-Term Goal Orientation
Long-term goal orientation includes setting appropriate goals as well as having present-moment focus, patience, and appreciation of one’s current skills.
Setting Appropriate Goals
Set appropriate goals (and even better, write them down). Avoid setting goals that are too low, which can reduce your motivation and interest. An appropriate goal is challenging but achievable.
Like any high-level skill, learning to play the piano takes years. When you play a piece of music, it’s about the journey, not the destination (otherwise, why not just play the end and get it over with?). Similarly, learning to play piano is also a journey. While a goal may provide a current destination, there is no final destination, since you can always get better or learn something new.
Patience includes the willingness to not make music with a new piece right away, but to break it down to its components to learn it effectively. For example, it’s standard practice to learn new pieces one hand at a time before playing hands together.
Patience also includes the willingness to practice the same piece or scale over and over until you get it, and the ability to weather the inevitable plateaus in your progress. Improvement at any skill is not an always-upward trend. But even plateaus are part of your progress. You may not appear to be making progress during a so-called plateau, yet because you’re continuing to assimilate and consolidate skills and knowledge, you actually are!
Finally, patience (a better word might be fortitude) is also useful for the occasional times you will feel clumsy, confused, or unsure of your skills. Occasionally feeling inept or insecure is normal when learning a new skill, and it’s important to not allow those feelings to get you down.
Appreciation of Current Skills
It’s important to appreciate the skills you already have, rather than complaining that you can’t yet play X, Y or Z. This enhances your enjoyment of playing and strengthens your motivation to become an even better player.
Quantity of Practice
Practicing regularly is crucial for long-term success. You need to consistently make time to practice and manage that time wisely.
Consider how many other priorities are competing with learning the piano. If you have too many other hobbies or goals, your progress might become too slow to sustain your interest. I’ve always had multiple musical goals along with other non-musical goals, and I can attest that this has been a struggle for me at times!
Sticking to a regular practice schedule can help, or you may need to adroitly fit your practice schedule around a shifting work schedule or other demands.
You obviously need to have enough mental energy at the time of day you practice. If you wait to practice until the end of the day, but you’re usually exhausted by then, you may not make it through your practice session consistently, which will compromise your chances for long-term success.
Quality of Practice
Just as important as practicing enough is practicing well. Twenty minutes of high-quality practicing is better than an hour spent making mistakes. There are multiple components involved in high-quality practicing including knowledge of practicing procedures, concentration, detail orientation, body awareness, and listening.
There are good and bad ways of practicing the piano. It’s every instructor’s responsibility to teach their students how to practice. If your teacher isn’t helping you learn how to practice, ask them to teach you how (though it may be better to find another teacher).
High-quality practice demands concentration. Concentration in turn requires mental energy. While adults can concentrate longer than kids, they can only concentrate for so long. Take breaks to refresh and recharge. Notice when your concentration wanes, so you don’t exceed your natural limit and start making mistakes.
Limiting distractions is helpful.
An unacknowledged but extremely important factor in practicing is detail orientation. This means paying attention to everything involved in playing including noticing symbols and written instructions, giving attention to rhythmic issues, and bringing awareness to the way you move (technique).
How you move at the piano determines how you play. Better movement leads to better musical results. Piano technique is a huge subject, and every student needs to learn about it. But there is a prerequisite for learning technique, which is body awareness. Without it, you have little chance of assimilating new ways of moving that will help you play better. Mindfulness is one of the best ways to develop body awareness.
The more attentively and carefully you listen to yourself as you practice, the better your practicing and playing will be.
In addition to long-term goal orientation and consistent quantity and quality of practice, there are a couple other practical factors that will enhance the typical adult piano student’s chances for long-term success:
The Right Teacher
Finding the right teacher for your musical needs and goals is essential. Once you find that person, you should also have the courage to tell them what and how you want to learn. If you studied music as a child, you may not realize that an adult, you have autonomy over your learning process.
If your teacher is unwilling or unable to meet your needs, you may need to find a different teacher.
Taking Regular (Weekly) Lessons
Weekly private lessons are traditional for both children and adults. Taking lessons less often than weekly – for example, every other week – comes with the risk of spending time practicing something wrong, mastering the wrong technique, etc.
For optimal advancement as an adult piano student, keep this formula in mind:
success = long-term goal orientation x quantity of practice x quality of practice
and constantly strive for improvement in each of these areas.