The art of teaching amateur pianists

Lady practicing on a grand piano

My love for amateur pianists

Like most pianists, I have started teaching in my late teenage years. My first two students were a 6-year-old boy and a middle-aged lady. After a few lessons, I realised that teaching children and adults required a different set of skills and that I was much more talented at helping this lovely woman become a better pianist rather than tutoring little Leo.

I still taught both children and adults up to my mid-twenties before deciding to specialise in adult piano education. I quickly realised that I tremendously enjoyed guiding amateur pianists throughout their piano journey and that I had a passion for this occupation.

I was teaching privately from my apartment in Pall Mall. For those we do not London well, this renowned street is located in St James’ and is home to the most notorious private members’ clubs in Central London. I remember teaching David, who was a very talented pianist and lawyer as well as Ame-Love who was a piano beginner and a writer.

The combination of both the elegant social settings I was surrounded by and piano playing soon woke up in me the desire to create an environment where adult amateur pianists could meet fellow piano enthusiasts.

Hence, I founded my first piano school for adults in 2006 and opened a larger piano academy in the City of London a few years later.

Lady practicing the grand piano

Who are the amateur pianists and what are they looking for?

There are four categories of amateur pianists:
  1. Those who have never played before but always had the burning desire to do so.
  2. Those who played in their youth and wish to get back to it.
  3. Those who have rekindled their love for the instrument in their adulthood and have been playing again for a few years.
  4. Those who have never stopped playing but decided not to pursue a career in music

They are all fantastic people who are passionate about piano playing and who take lessons to benefit from the guidance of an expert.

They are not looking for perfection. They do not have the intention to become concert pianists. They simply want to enjoy playing the piano and be guided to reach a certain level of proficiency. The goal varies from a person to another as it can range from being able to play a few pieces by Einaudi to perform Chopin 1st concerto to the best of their ability. All adult piano learners are different and require specific attention.

I have never taught or approached two of my students in the same way. On the contrary, I always adjust to their needs, wishes, abilities and personality. I believe it is what makes adult piano teaching fascinating as it includes psychology and adaptation.

To be a fantastic piano teacher for adults, you must put your student first, analyse who is in front of you and find the method to teach each of them in the most suitable manner. You must always follow them while respecting a certain structure and revealing the aspects of piano playing that will make a difference. Unlike children and future professional pianists, it is not appropriate to expect adult amateur pianists to excel in all aspects of piano playing. You must use finesse and intelligence to show them what is going to be beneficial and nothing else.

I did not understand the above as a young piano tutor and I tend to teach everything I knew to my piano students. I soon realised that it was not the way to go and adaptation was key.

Amateur pianists must be approached in a specific way which I could describe as an art.

Photo of hands on the piano

How to approach adult amateur pianists?

When teaching children, you are bound to provide a complete piano education since these little ones could potentially aim to become professional pianists. Teaching adults require different psychology and pedagogy since adults play for pleasure. Analysing and understanding the personality of each of your students is essential to be successful and help them become the best pianist they can be.

Throughout my career, I have dealt with hundreds of adults who all had to be approached differently. Some were extremely sensitive and criticising their performance had to be done with gloves to avoid causing any offence. One of my female students excelled at interpreting Chopin beautifully but her lack of technical abilities would prevent her to express her emotions fully. As she had a demanding job and a limit amount of time to practise, I could not give her an endless list of technical exercises to help improve her overall playing. I had to find the right balance to enhance it.

Another lady was obsessed with perfection and would spend up to 4 hours a day practising to perform as well as Maurizio Pollini. It was her favourite pianist. She wanted to know everything about piano playing at once and was never satisfied with the results. I had to teach her everything I knew but I had to adjust since her goals could never be reached.

A gentleman was extremely quick as learning some of the most complex pieces of the repertoire. He was very talented but his lack of technical abilities would result in him not being able to perform these pieces professionally. I tried to introduce him to technical exercises but I quickly realised that he was not interested. I could not push him in that direction since he was playing for pleasure. Having to practise scales, arpeggios, doubles notes or octaves daily would have surely discouraged him greatly and possibly lead him to stop his piano lessons. It would have been a great shame since he still had a lot to learn to improve his interpretation skills.

I have also met an Asian lady who had a fantastic technique. Everything was played accurately, including musical phrases that were respected impeccably. Unfortunately, she could not feel the music internally and I had to focus entirely on this aspect, without ever telling her what the problem was.

I am a very honest person, but I have never shared my deep thoughts with my students. The truth would have hurt them deeply and it would not have done any good. Remember that adults are not looking for perfection. Maybe some do but their demanding life will never allow them to dedicate the necessary amount of time at the piano to become a concert pianist. Making them aware of that fact would simply discourage them and not help them improve. Your job as a piano teacher for adults is not to break your pupils down but to make them shine using their qualities and work on the faults periodically.

At the end of the day, music is what you should focus on unless a student specifically asks to work on his technical skills.

I use a similar approach when it comes to piano repertoire. I always let them choose the pieces they wish to study, as long as it is within their level of competency. Some students love Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven pieces. If it is what they like playing, well, it is wonderful. My job is to make them play this particular style as well as possible until the limit is reached. It could be a technical or a musical ceiling that won’t be passed. I know it and they know it too.

My sister who is a professional cellist doesn’t understand amateur musicians. She often says “I don’t understand why they are playing. They are so bad. What is the point?”

It is precisely what I am discussing. The point is to help them become the best they can be by figuring out what can help them without ever judging or criticising them. Understanding who each individual is and work around it.

A lot of adjustment is needed while teaching amateur pianists. You must come down to their level and never expect them to come to yours. You must encourage them in their endeavour and find a way to make them excel at their level without aiming for perfection.

All of that said, I am often very impressed by the love for music and the expressive abilities that some amateur musicians have. Their technique is perhaps not up to par but they possess a great sense of artistry which I must command!

Article by Celine Gaurier-Joubert

Celine Gaurier-Joubert is a master pianist and educator specialising in adult music education.

She is also the founder and director of S & C, The London Piano Institute and Institut de Musique de Paris. Thanks to her outstanding knowledge and experience, she is a reference in terms of music education for adults.