Saturday, August 29, 2009

Better Late than Never

When Mrs. D. signed up for piano lessons with me, she was 82 years old. She had just exchanged her spacious home for a cottage in a retirement community. The cottage was small, but not too small to host an upright piano.

She had taken lessons as a child for a while, and had decided to give the piano another try. She wanted to play songs she remembered from her younger years and learn some theory. Also, there were repertoire pieces that had always intrigued her, but she had never gotten around to learning them.

Mrs. D. was a busy retiree. She loved to socialize, went to Yoga class, and served on church committees. She took care of the flower beds in front of her cottage, and they were a jewel of landscaping. She complained about lack of practice time.
Nevertheless we enjoyed working together. She read music well and had no trouble finding her way around the keyboard. The trembling of her hands that had developed with age inhibited her playing much less than she had expected. We even observed that her hands became steadier the more she played, and when she read in a magazine that playing the piano was a good way to keep arthritic fingers flexible, she was fully convinced that she was doing the right thing.

Once she had learnt several pieces she joined a group of adult students who regularly met to play for each other. At a practice workshop she revealed to us her deeper motivation to take piano lessons at this time of her life.

When she was twelve years old, she had had a memory slip during a performance. Unable to find her way back into the music, she had walked off the stage, leaving the piece unfinished. She had stopped taking lessons, and never returned until now. Determined to face the challenge once more, she set a new goal for herself: to play Chopin’s Prelude in c-minor at a recital. She insisted on memorizing it, and even considered the possibility to perform from memory.
It took some time and effort, but she did memorize the piece. Her performance earned her the admiration of the entire audience. Later, she told me: “You know, I’m not so sure whether I can do this to myself at this age. The night before the concert, I woke up at 2 am. My heart was pounding, I heard the piece in my mind and found myself trying to picture the chord patterns on the piano.”

A few months later she fell and broke her wrist, so she had to discontinue lessons for a semester. She did not resume - other tasks had come up. She had promised to write the family chronic, and at 84 she felt she needed to get things done. But the courage she had proved in returning to the piano and getting over the former trauma inspired everyone who knew her.

Over the years I have taught many adult students. They were at different places in their lives and in their careers, and they played for different reasons.

Some wanted to “activate the other side of the brain”, feeling their profession didn’t give them enough of a chance to do so.

For quite a few the piano had proved a reliable partner to lean on in times of crisis, when everything seemed to fall apart. “When I was diagnosed with cancer, the piano was the only place where I could find peace,“ one student said.

Some wanted to improve their understanding of music. There is no better way to do that than to play yourself. How else could you hear the details of a piece in slow motion, or recognize a single voice in a piece? Even if you don’t play like a professional, your own playing will help you appreciate the professional’s performance in a way you never could just through listening.

Many adult learners underestimate how far they can develop their pianistic skills. Compared to the seemingly effortless learning of children, they feel their progress is slow and laborious. “Let’s hope this child still plays the piano when she is your age”, is my standard reply to such comments at student recitals. Understanding their personal way of learning, and accepting their own pace, I have seen some people go very far. “Never too late” one of my students wrote on the program of her first solo recital, which she played a few months before she turned 70.

Making music is a life support at any age, nourishing the soul as food nourishes the body. It is an activity that enriches our emotional world. Often, it takes the life experience of an adult to fully appreciate that, and I can only encourage any adult who feels drawn to playing the piano to give it a try.

Rehearsing a 6-hand piece for a recital

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