Older learners - is learning piano 'worth it'?

November 28, 2014 at 03:07 PM · I first thought of learning the piano in April, when my accompanist for the grade 3 violin exam turned out to be so nice. But I had two violin teachers and it seemed too much.

However, I have now parted company with my exam teacher - I felt I had to accept things handed down 'from above' without any chance to discuss or give my own opinion. My other teacher, a performer, is very willing to let me participate in my own learning process and he is caring and also great fun.

But the reason that I am now taking piano lessons is because my husband has had two major operations in the past two months and had to drop his own lessons till after Christmas, when he'll be 'allowed' a more normal life again. He had just moved to this teacher after his former teacher became seriously ill and has had to give up for a while. I felt sorry that we had messed the new piano teacher about & wanted to keep my spouse's slot open for him; I also remembered my earlier thought.

It hasn't worked out the way I expected. I'm 63 and the huge concentration needed to co-ordinate two hands and learn the bass clef notes makes me tired after ten minutes. I practise daily but it's a joyless chore, and it also reduces my time and energy for fiddle practice, where my real interest lies.

My piano teacher is lovely, and can't bear to think I'm not enjoying it, so this week she gave me a book to consolidate my experience of the first finger positions and told me to have fun and let her know when I'm ready to move on.

So I now have the added complication that when my husband goes back to her after Christmas, I'll be disappointing her if I don't carry on with the lessons.

My initial thought was that it's worth even a short course of lessons to familiarise myself with the bass clef - to learn about chords and harmonies, which I know nothing about - to have a visual representation of scales which would lead to a greater understanding of theory, in case I ever want to do violin exams again.

And also because I want any help available for my ageing brain - my 90 year old mother has dementia - and I have read that learning the piano in old age is about the best thing I can do.

But is it worth it, if it detracts from my violin playing - if I expend huge effort on it, and never get anywhere?

I am interested in hearing from any violinists who took up the piano in adulthood or later life. What is or was your experience?

I'd also like the benefit of advice from other members, on learning, on musical skills, on life and the best use of time.

Should I go on with these lessons for six months or a year? Or is it a waste of time?

Thanks in advance for any replies.

Replies (31)

November 28, 2014 at 03:26 PM · Ultimately, you have to enjoy something about it. If not the actual playing...then some other part of it (even if it's only the social aspect). No point in pursuing something that is torturous or otherwise stressful.

When my daughter was little and taking piano lessons, I took one official lesson...and then taught myself to about the RCM Grade 3 level. I can't really play much, but I enjoyed the process and the keyboard gave me a clear visual understanding of basic theory that I still use. I am very glad I put in all that time into the piano.

I have also recently picked up the bassoon. Reading the bass clef while learning piano made reading the bassoon music easier.

There are other benefits I can attribute to the piano as well...

But you can also live quite well (musically) without it - so if it's just a stressor...let it go.

November 28, 2014 at 04:08 PM ·

November 28, 2014 at 05:00 PM · Mollie, that was an interesting (and quite valid, imo) reason for leaving your "exam teacher". When I was seeking violin lessons 7 years ago my local violin dealer (also a luthier/repairer) kindly provided me with a 4-page list of violin teachers in the area to chose from. Nearly all of them seemed to be "grade" teachers of grades 1-8 and not often beyond, and that worried me because I felt that the grade system was primarily designed for children (i.e. sub-teens and early to middle teens) and not mature adults, and that young pupils weren't normally intended to question or discuss the whys and wherefores of technique and interpretation with their teacher, at any rate until they reached grades 6 - 8. On reaching those higher grades they would be presumed to have sufficient musical maturity to change from "pupils" to "students", when such questioning and discussion with the teacher would be in order.

The problem, to my mind, is that grade teachers seem to be inherently constrained by the need to get their pupils up through the grades, a need often reinforced by the aspirations of the paying parents.

Fortunately, the aforesaid "4-page list" included a small number of teachers who didn't offer the grade route, and I was therefore able to select a teacher trained to a professional standard as a classical violinist (Suzuki in Japan) and who has since been immersed in folk music for many years as a busy international performer. Music from Suzuki and non-Suzuki classical repertoire, and folk music from Eastern Europe, including Bartok, have been the bases of my tuition. So, the best of both worlds.

The piano is more difficult than people think, not least when it comes to coordinating two hands which are mirror images of each other. But I can assure you that with a good inspirational teacher, slow practice and careful listening (and not too much - 10-15 minutes is likely all you need as a beginner) it will all come together and one day you'll be wondering what all the fuss was about. I don't think age of itself hinders the acquisition of co-ordination in playing a musical instrument; think of the equally difficult independence of bow control and left hand that is required of the violinist but which adult learners can acquire with good teaching.

November 28, 2014 at 05:31 PM · "I'm 63 and the huge concentration needed to co-ordinate two hands and learn the bass clef notes makes me tired after ten minutes."

It seems like you've already boxed yourself and decided that because of your age you can't learn anymore. Yet I think people have the same issues at ANY age: music is difficult and requires intense effort to get anywhere. If you were a violin student of any age and had the same complaints, I'd ask:

-Do you have appropriate material, or are you struggling through music that is too difficult?

-Are you practicing efficiently, or just banging through the pieces from start to finish and not fixing tough spots?

-Are you working on any music you really enjoy, or just dry etudes?

-Do you make a habit of daily practice? It's like exercise--you have to do it regularly or you don't want to do it at all. And once the habit is there, it becomes a daily need.

-lastly, is your piano a decent instrument that has been regulated and tuned? A poor instrument would certainly turn off a violin student.

*disclaimer: I also try to practice piano daily and have always found it challenging, even after lesson through college and grad school. But I keep at it...

November 28, 2014 at 06:37 PM · Hi Mollie, The piano is helpful but not essential. If you are not enjoying it, why not drop it for now? You can always pick it up later if you want to. As for staving off dementia, the violin will do a fine job of that (at least that's what I'm counting on). On another topic, that is great that you have found a compatible violin teacher! Take advantage of your momentum and forge ahead.

November 30, 2014 at 12:49 PM · The thread seems to have come to a stop for now; so thanks, gallant five,for all your advice. I read each post, totally agree, read the next, totally agree. Anyway, I think I'll try and live in the moment - carry on for a while, appreciate the fact that no learning is ever wasted, and review what happens in a month or two's time when my husband goes back.

The whole situation of John's health crisis has left me shell-shocked in any case. Reculer pour mieux sauter! :)

November 30, 2014 at 04:41 PM · Hi Mollie,

I played piano first, then violin second.....much later in life.

My suggestion is to find a piano teacher that gets into chords , chord structure, and music theory, maybe even improv. Jazz piano teachers will cover this. For some completely unknown reason the classical teachers I've experienced know the information but dont teach it. First although initially it may seem harder to learn, it make playing easier because you can think interms of chords rather than sight readin 5 simultaneous notes. Also this knowledge will help with your violin playing as you'll have more in depth knowledge about what you are playing.

November 30, 2014 at 05:09 PM · Hi, Molly,

Do you use solfege when approaching a new piece? Would your teacher help with this? Piano is wonderful at any age!

November 30, 2014 at 07:18 PM · What about deferring it? Why not stop the piano and learn a monophonic bass-clef instrument instead? Bassoon was mentioned above but that might be an equally big jump as the piano (dealing with blowing, mouthpieces, reeds and such).

How about learning the cello as a second instrument? You already have much of the technical and musical demands from the violin - and it will help enormously as you expand your ensemble experience (trios, quartets).

Of course there is no rule why you have to learn piano at all. I am also a returner/late starter and I resolved to focus solely on the violin to maximize my progress. I look at other instruments once in a while (viola, cello, guitar ..) but I don't want to get side tracked...

If you don't like it you really don't have to continue - its your music...

December 10, 2014 at 08:04 PM · I've decided to stay with the piano for the time being. First, I'm finding it a bit more enjoyable now that I don't have to concentrate quite as hard. And secondly, I suddenly decided that I might take my Grade 4 violin exam after all, because it has some lovely exam pieces, some of which I know and have played already, and others that I'd like to learn and play well. The other thing is that it still rankles, the split with my exam teacher after he suddenly lost his temper with me and treated me like a naughty schoolgirl. But my nice performer-teacher has agreed to guide me through the pieces, and my piano teacher has said that she will help me with the aural tests.

So I now definitely have a reason to continue for the next six months, and even if I don't actually take the exam in the end, it will give me a focus and a way of progressing in areas that cause me problems, like timing and music theory.

December 10, 2014 at 08:08 PM · I can't imagine what losing one's temper at an adult student would look like. That's just too weird.

December 10, 2014 at 08:32 PM · I feel like practicing piano is great for manual dexterity and simple hand strength, and that has a direct transfer for violin.

December 11, 2014 at 01:02 AM · The bass clef is the F clef. It's absurd to say that if a student doesn't master it instantly, the teacher is at fault. Learning to read in a new clef takes time and practice even for pros.

It's equally absurd to say that if you have to ask if something is worth it, the answer is no. There are times when commitment and motivation flag for everyone, including the most dedicated students. Any relationship or pursuit has its ups and downs and times of uncertainty. I hope the OP will not be discouraged by that opinion.

December 11, 2014 at 07:49 AM · Thanks, Sarah - that's very nice of you. Clearly Philip is entitled to his opinion and obviously he must be a quick learner. Congratulations to him, and it is good that he finds the piano so compelling.

However, many adult learners besides myself find the first few weeks of piano hard going. I have a lot of experience as a learner - once taught myself New Testament Greek - plus a lifetime as a teacher, at every stage from juniors to university students and adult learners, and my own experience suggests that new skills don't necessarily come all at once, and that it's worthwhile learning many subjects that are useful even if you don't feel passionately about them. My violin is my passion, and the piano is useful, and is becoming a little more pleasant now.

I asked an honest question and I've been interested in reading all the helpful and courteous replies. :-)

December 11, 2014 at 03:53 PM · That sounds perfectly reasonable to me, Mollie, and I agree with everything you say!

December 11, 2014 at 03:58 PM · One bonus of learning piano is that you'll understand harmony much better. Much easier to explain a dominant 7th or fully-diminished chord to someone who plays the piano

December 11, 2014 at 04:07 PM · I'm glad you decided to go ahead with it! And thanks for the update.

I hope it just all becomes fun for you!

December 11, 2014 at 04:23 PM · That's right, Scott. Other than accompanying my students, that's been the best application of piano for me.

December 11, 2014 at 05:18 PM · I think the ulterior reason why a lot of music schools require soloists to learn some piano is precisely because it makes theory instruction so much easier. Theory becomes visual.

Mollie, I play both violin and piano. I love the violin, but I really could not live without the piano. When my daughter, who studies violin, first showed some interest in the piano, she did not want lessons and all of that, so instead I gave her the accompaniment book to Suzuki Book 1 and suggested that she work through that on her own. Over time she played through most of it, catching her own mistakes easily because of her familiarity with the pieces. Once in a while I advised her on fingerings, hand positions, etc., but nothing even close to a "piano lesson".

So, I don't know where you are in your piano studies, but working on the accompaniments to your easier violin pieces might be an idea. Who knows, maybe in a little while you'll feel good enough about your piano skill to accompany someone else! There is always a shortage of accompanists, and it's really fun. Don't lose sight of what you're trying to do, which is to improve AND to enjoy yourself. Sometimes the balance between those two isn't the right one.

December 11, 2014 at 06:40 PM · "I think the ulterior reason why a lot of music schools require soloists to learn some piano is precisely because it makes theory instruction so much easier. Theory becomes visual."

Probably a side benefit to what is essentially a social-welfare system for grad piano students. Piano professors have to recruit lots of students, who then have to do SOMETHING to earn their stipend.

December 11, 2014 at 06:49 PM · It's not only the visual aspect, although that is also very useful. It's also much easier to understand and hear a diminished chord when you're freed of having to play each note separately and tune them all. Piano is so magical like that: push the button, get the sound! Hocus pocus!

December 11, 2014 at 10:40 PM · I am happy to say that my husband will be well enough to resume piano lessons after Christmas. We enjoy playing duets together and are very close after forty years, so if I can understand something about his instrument, it is another good reason for me to continue, as well as the help with harmony, chords, timing etc that will aid my violin playing and exam taking.

And hopefully with my very supportive piano teacher, I will gain more confidence. To answer Paul's question about my exam teacher and his loss of temper - it was partly exasperation with me, because I was very nervous with him and filled with self-doubt. My performer-teacher is fab, but it took me at least a year before I lost my nervousness with him.

When I began this thread, I was in two minds, and was swayed by each answer as it came along, whatever course of action it supported - give up or go on. But now I think - go on.

With thanks again for the thoughtful & sympathetic responses. It is always helpful to hear of other people's experiences.

Live long and prosper! :-)

December 11, 2014 at 11:19 PM · So glad to hear that you will continue and that your husband's health is improving. I hesitated on weighing in because I suspect that most readers here have more experience than I do with both piano and violin.

That said, as someone who has come to both instruments in my 40's, I think starting the piano has really helped my violin playing and overall musicianship -- sight reading, keeping time, playing in tune -- all of those things have improved dramatically for me since I started learning to play the piano.

December 12, 2014 at 06:13 PM · I am a pianist since childhood who started violin late in life. Piano is much easier, it certainly helps you play in jam sessions with fiddle because

you understand chords and harmony. The violin teaches you to listen, to a greater extent than piano does, mainly because you are constantly tuning the instrument. Violin work has improved my piano playing in lots of ways, somewhat

hard to define, but perhaps learning any other instrument is beneficial. the more the better!

December 14, 2014 at 10:05 AM · I'm just getting more back into piano myself. I play mostly classical guitar until I got an old Baldwin Hamilton studio upright, my 1st piano in 6 years after losing all my things, and home, in a flood and being in an apartment. I've been at the violin a year and a half- wish I started much sooner, and so it's really my third instrument in line.

I'm assuming you know the keys, but some may not, so there's good reason to have some hand in piano, but have you also considered the KEYBOARD? Because here you can have violin voice or string section voices, in fact several, and keyboards are relatively inexpensive. You then can have some recording and arrangement possibilities to experience and grow with, maybe even play along with.

I think there may be some intangible aspects to playing string voices on keyboards, or at least possibly creative inspiration, and music to conceive. There are different rhythms and cadences to the different voices, though I'm not sure the variance benefits the violin or playing of the keys the most.

I'm spread thin on many instruments, but my overall aim is to enjoy. As I get older and play longer, the abilities merge, and I'm really a better player on almost any instrument I play (some ukulele, banjo, and flutes and whistles too) although the initial progress on any was a bit hindered by all the others, I feel I've reached a point of more momentum now, and have no regrets I've tried them all. I even have a 5 string viola that's quite a challenge.

The other thing mentioned above is tuning- and I've done a pitch raise and am fine tuning a 440 tuning on the Baldwin- a lengthy and repetitive manipulation, but I think my ear has improved in the course of it even though I've played strings instruments for a couple of decades now. I have fortunately broken no strings yet, and the piano is really sounding nice. Anyway good luck Mollie on whatever you decide.

December 14, 2014 at 11:17 AM · Hi Mollie,

Gees, There are some experienced people here in this article. I totally agree with Trevor. Some teachers are only interested in getting you through the exam/

I've only been back to playing violin now for two years. I restarted on my own after 4 decades but took an advanced teacher, She wanted me to go through the grade system too but I told her I was only interested in playing and not getting graded. She was fantastic and very patient and understood that for me it was about just playing. Unfortunately I couldn't keep up with regular lessons because of a few family mishaps. I think we reached a peek when we started plauying duets. But I've kept on going on my own. Now I'm getting a Tenore Ukelele and the whole cord thing is going to be a challenge. What I'm alluding to here is "Do You really want to learn to play piano?" If you do then just keep at it. At our age things just don't click like they did when we were 14. We need repetative and structured practice and above all patience with one's self. (Pssst) Keep this to yourself but I'm also looking at a Viola as well. People say to me "But you're too old, why do you want to learn, you'll never get that good? I keep telling them "I got the rest of my life to improve." Just don't set you target too high too soon. I think your greatest allie at this point is to learn the basics and pick the pieces that you like to play. Good luck'

December 14, 2014 at 05:23 PM · Nancy made a good point, I find that my digital piano is more versatile in some ways, but you need to get a pretty good keyboard before the "other sounds" become good enough to bother with, and to get a properly weighted action. And digital pianos sound great through headphones but getting an amplifier and speakers that do justice to the quality of the samples is another significant expense. There is something very special about just having the real thing in your living room, especially if it is a decent instrument and is kept in tune and good working condition. I have a Yamaha U3 upright, and I really like it. I'd love to have a grand (I really like Yamaha and Estonia grands) but even a 6-foot grand would occupy my *entire* living room. A good studio upright has approximately the same size sound board as a baby grand, so a baby grand would not really be an upgrade for me.

December 14, 2014 at 06:24 PM · Thanks very much for the posts about keyboards.

We have a piano - a second hand upright that John bought when he retired; it was an 'impulse-buy' that started the whole Musical Retirement ball rolling. We thought it was a German piano (it's English, actually) so we called it Liebling. It has a sweet tone and we keep it in tune.

I am learning on this, to get the right experience of weight of keys etc. My teacher has a grand piano - her husband is our piano tuner - and it does indeed fill the whole room that it is in.

But because we like to play folk and early music together, John bought a keyboard that also does harpsichord and is very nice. It also has a good piano sound. And then, a few months ago, we thought it would be nice to be able to play together on holiday, so John bought a second, lighter and smaller, keyboard. This one has a harp setting, so you can imagine what fun we have playing Carolan tunes together.

We would never have imagined that our retirement would take this direction, and become 'All for Music'. It feels like a miracle, and makes us very happy.

March 19, 2015 at 09:18 AM · I think I am going to give up on the piano - maybe to take it up again, as some suggest, in a few years if my circumstances change. At present, with John's illnesses and my mother's dementia, I feel as if I need more 'empty time' for me, as well as more time to keep the house & garden in order.

The fiddle is my one true love, and my only real desire is to be a folk fiddler. So I'm not going on with the Grade 4 exam either. I've spent money on the books, but at least I have learned to play three lovely pieces with greater flair and polish than I usually do, and that was a good experience. Practising scales and shifts didn't harm me either!

It is not a question of being too old to learn the piano, as my teacher tells me that I'm making good progress - but I see that to get anywhere, I'd need a lot more time and motivation than I've got. I hate to skimp, and that is what I've had to do so far.

I don't regret trying these lessons - I think I'll go on with them till the summer before stopping. I have learned to read the bass clef and improved my timing and sight-reading somewhat & strengthened my fingers a little.

Thanks to everyone who responded on this thread. Live long & prosper! :)

March 19, 2015 at 11:12 AM · I've been telling myself that I'm going to quit piano every week for over a year due to bad hand coordination XD (I'm 28) .

Then I tell myself it'll get better and I end up pushing on.

March 19, 2015 at 12:40 PM · It isn't just chords and harmony that you get from the piano - that's something you could get from the guitar. It's also counterpoint. If you keep on with the piano until you have got that concept into your head, you'll have picked up far more from the piano than you have picked up already.

In her last days, my mother got something from battling with Bach's 48, not having played piano for years.

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