17 April 2019

Adult Learners, Tigers and Goats


A presentation by a colleague on approaches to teaching the piano to children was quite an eye-opener.  Although I spent the best part of 20 years working as a private piano teacher, I never taught really young children (or “kids” as they are called in Singapore – I always thought a kid was the young of a goat, so perhaps that explains why the song Chan Mali Chan is so popular in Singapore.  But I digress.).  My speciality then and now (I still have a few private pupils scattered around the globe) is in guiding the niceties of interpretation and musical insight in more advanced level students.  I suppose the youngest pupil I ever had was aged 12, so to hear about teaching approaches to younger ages than that was fascinating.  I have nothing but admiration for those who can somehow impart the knowledge of piano tuition to those who can barely walk and talk – which seems to be common practice here in Singapore as well as in Hong Kong and China.

One of the more memorable comments my colleague came up with was in response to a question about children lacking the life experience to cope with the full emotional range of music.  She suggested that sometimes imagination was a form of experience, and sometimes imagination served the purpose better than real-life experience.  I liked that idea, and realised how appropriate it was for young children.

But as the presentation continued with fascinating examples of how young children had been encouraged to express music through movement and how the principal focus in all teaching was to make it “fun”, my mind began to wander.  It had not been advertised specifically as being a presentation about teaching piano to children, but that is what everyone expected.  In Singapore society “teaching music” means teaching the piano, and teaching the piano is something which is almost exclusively done before one reaches puberty. 

I am currently working on an article for an educational magazine in which I address the idea that “music” is such a wide-ranging term that, in education, we need to use it with extreme care.  After all, both the kid learning the piano and the teenager being taught how to lay down song tracks in a recording studio are being taught music, even if they are mutually incompatible.  So it concerns me deeply that teachers so freely use music as a synonym for piano.

Even more so, it concerns me that we assume “music” is best taught when the student is young.  There are elements in music which can only be taught to those of more mature years, and even the laying down of a technical foundation for pianists is not something which should be the sole preserve of the under-fives.  And as my mind wandered even further, I suddenly realised that, while in most societies of my experience, adults – even the very old – are encouraged to learn a musical instrument, that is not the case in Singapore, Hong Kong or China.  Piano lessons here are the preserve of the young and represent an alien culture to most over-30s.

In my examining life, I examined in some places where adults formed a majority of the candidature – notably in the West Indies and parts of India – and the exam boards have done much to encourage the adult market by introducing such things as performance certificates.  I have been to conferences in the UK which have concentrated on the techniques of teaching adult beginners, and I can look back over my past students and realise that a majority of them has been adult.  Indeed, one of my first ever students was a lady of 65 who passed her Grade 3 after a couple of years work; and the achievement for her was more glorious than that for the 6-year-old kid and Tiger Mum whose real satisfaction was getting past Grade 3 a year before anyone else in the class.

True, if you start learning the piano at 65 you are unlikely to become the next Lang Lang; but, to be brutally frank, if you start learning the piano at 5, it’s still extremely unlikely that you will be the next Lang Lang – as my colleague pointed out, many of those who start young see success in graded exams as an opportunity to quit and move on to things other than playing the piano.  But the therapeutic, psychological and all-round mental health benefits of learning a musical instrument at an older age equal, if not outweigh, the physical, emotional and competitive values of learning it as a child.  Yet so skewed is the Singapore/Hong Kong/China mentality to piano lessons as a childhood thing, that few adults or teachers even contemplate it.

Musical activities for older people here tend to look towards communal things like choral singing and orchestras, but the experience from other countries shows that there are huge benefits for the individual in taking up the piano (or other instrument) in later life.  Perhaps if this idea could be implanted into Singaporeans, we might find our musical climate a little healthier.  After all, we are only young for a short time in our lives – we are old for ages!  If you have given up the piano after grade 8 at 14, you are looking at a bleak musical future; if you take it up when you are 55, you are looking at a wonderfully fulfilling retirement.

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