What are the motivation reasons behind why adult piano students sign up for lessons? In this article, you’ll learn the six primary motivation factors for adult students — and learn why they’re fundamentally different from teaching children.
Firstly, teaching children how to play the piano can be formulaic, to a certain extent. Children are the primary focus group for pedagogy majors in college. They are also the main clientele for most music educators. Furthermore, children often don’t know what they want out of music study- they are in lessons because their parents want them to be there.
But adult piano students are different, and perhaps that’s why many teachers shy away from working with them.
Adult students decide to spend their own valuable time and money on a teacher and an instrument. Because of that investment, they expect a tangible return on that investment.
Therefore, it is your responsibility as the teacher to understand their motivations, craft a learning path accordingly, and help your adult piano student find fulfilment in music.
Observe these six primary reasons we’ve identified as to why adults sign up for music lessons.
Did you know that according to the American Psychological Association (APA), self-esteem among adults is lowest during young adulthood, rises steadily throughout middle age, then starts to plummet after 60?
At the Philadelphia Piano Institute, we teach 50+ adult piano students on a weekly basis. At least 90% of them fit into one of two categories:
If the study mentioned above from the APA is to be trusted, that means about 90% of our adult students may be battling low self-esteem.
Many adults look for a skill or attribute to make them feel more confident, and this is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, adults who learn another language, start going to the gym, practice a musical instrument, or try to improve themselves in some other way deserve our respect.
Related: Read how to make your adult student feel more comfortable in their lessons experience
This is an extension of the self-esteem argument. Still, in reality, many adult piano students enrol in lessons because they want to experience any one of these social goals:
There’s nothing wrong with this! At its very core, piano education exists to improve lives. Music has an intrinsic value, of course, but many students discover that by initially pursuing the external benefits of playing the piano.
Many older piano students (in the over-60 crowd) enrol in piano lessons simply because they’ve always wanted to. They may not have a specific goal other than “I’ve always wanted to play the piano.”
Older students may tend to enjoy the process of learning just as much as the act of playing a piece fluently.
These students will sometimes practice every single day, sometimes for hours.
So it’s important that you, the teacher, never assume that someone is too old to gain a significant level of proficiency at the piano in their remaining years.
We’ve been surprised by the number of adult students who tell us they enrolled in piano lessons specifically because they love Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Miles Davis, or another composer or artist. This is more common than you’d think!
These students are not motivated by the act or any perceived prestige of playing the piano; they simply love a certain composer and want to engage with that music on a deeper level.
Parents often realize their child will progress at the piano more quickly if they are involved. Support matters to children, and practising is less of a chore if a parent participates.
But how can a musically illiterate parent help their child learn an instrument? Yelling “go practice!” across the house doesn’t work in the long run.
The best way is for the parent to also show interest in music and to pursue it alongside the child. Children who grow up seeing their parents exercise probably develop the same habit, and the same applies to practising an instrument.
Furthermore, parents are able to grasp certain musical concepts faster than young kids, and they can help communicate those concepts to the child at home.
Other adult students don’t need piano study to find social fulfilment nor connect with a child in lessons, but because they just think it’s fun!
Hobbyists at the piano are often driven by staying productively busy and challenging the mind. (Bonus: these types often make excellent students because they commit to practising regularly!)
It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure this out – you can ask your student! In your enrollment form, consider leaving a field for the prospective student to list their goals.
If you don’t glean that information during the enrollment period, spend some time in the first lesson getting to know your student and learning about their goals at the piano.
The exception to this rule is that while many adult students are looking to boost their self-esteem by learning music, they won’t explicitly tell you that. You will need to read between the lines if that’s the primary motivation.
Another good rule of thumb: assume that every adult student could use a confidence boost and make sure piano lessons are affirming and uplifting. Negative feedback will hurt your student’s progress, not to mention decrease your annual revenue.
You should never enforce a particular dogma with adult students unless your school has a very specific mission statement that students are aware of, like “we prepare adult students for the Van Cliburn amateurs competition.”
If a student enrols in August and tells you their goal is to play holiday music with their family, use holiday tunes in lessons, even if they are unseasonal. This communicates that you care, and your students’ motivation will be galvanized because they are working with a teacher towards a specific aim.
Related: Hear teacher Will Baily explain how he uses student-led teaching and the Way Cool Keyboarding method in his ever-full studio on episode 234 of our podcast.
You can teach note reading, music theory, rhythm, and ear training with “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” as easily as you can with the Alfred piano method.
If a student very obviously wants to impress friends with top 40 hits, perhaps step away from your traditional method and introduce pop songs with chord accompaniments early on. You shouldn’t be ashamed to go so far as to use the Rockschool piano method or something similar.
If a parent enrols in lessons to support a child who is learning piano, you should treat them with the utmost respect. At an adult level, explain to them what their child is learning, and more importantly, communicate why. Young kids don’t need to understand the why behind everything, but parents often do.
Adult students often enjoy lessons because they finally have someone to “talk shop” with, and you should be open to questions and conversational teaching. If a student asks you a music-related question about a piece he enjoys, be willing to talk about it! Don’t rush past the question and quickly skip to the lesson material.
Most adult students will ask a lot of questions, and this will both keep you on your toes and allow you to deepen the student’s appreciation of music.
Unlike children, adult piano students choose to spend their own money and time to be part of your studio. You must maintain boundaries (per your studio policy), of course, but you exist to serve the client within that framework.
If you are “too good” to help an adult hobbyist learn to play ABBA, perhaps you should rejoin academia as a professor. And if you are too set on a particular piano method to make exceptions for your students’ goals, you should either broaden your knowledge of teaching strategies or abandon teaching adults altogether.
Would you like to fill your extra studio times with adult students who are motivated to learn piano, but unsure what to teach them, apart from method books? Get our adult student checklist and read this can’t-miss advice from our TopMusicPro members and experts about how they teach adults differently!
Read: My Adult Piano Teaching Checklist for Ultimate Success by Tim Topham with the free adult checklist download!