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“The Piano Lesson”
 
I have taught piano off and on for many years. Most of the time I taught children between ages 5-17. Occasionally I had an “older” student, say around 20-30. For the most part, teaching piano to children was straightforward and not terribly difficult. I learned variations on my own approach as I became more seasoned at teaching these one-on-one weekly music lessons. While teaching piano has by no means been the bulk of my working life, it was a part of it, interweaving through the years as I was asked by this or that friend or acquaintance to do them a favor and teach piano to their kids or grandkids. And during that time I managed to teach my own two kids as well. It’s been a great way to keep my “teaching mind” sharp and on track.
 
Starting in September 2016, I took on a new adventure that partially involves teaching piano again. Not children, though. Older adults in a retirement community. The average age of my piano students now is 77, not 7! And it is a different experience on many levels. In fact, I think I am learning as much if not more, than my ladies and gentlemen are. The tables aren’t exactly “turned” as the old adage goes; but the tables — I would say — are pretty equal. In other words, I am having to learn how to teach piano and music to older adults, while I am actually teaching the lessons. It is an “in the moment” process. There is nothing out there that I know of that could adequately prepare a piano/music teacher how to teach to this specific age group and demographic.
 
Here is what I have learned so far:
 

  1. Music is not simple. I used to think it so. But now I know otherwise. What I have taken for granted for nearly 50 years is not simple. Music is complex. It’s simple to me because I learned music at the piano beginning before my 4th birthday. I will never again underestimate how complex music is to learn — at any age.
     
  2. Learning music IS learning a new language. Before my current journey in teaching piano to older adults, I always used to say: “Music is LIKE learning a new language.” I was incorrect. Music IS itself its own language, complete with a complex set of code with many variables therein. Music is not only an art, but it is also squarely based in science and mathematics.
     
  3. People can learn music at any age. My oldest student right now is 94 years old, the next oldest is 92. One took piano lessons off and on, the other started with me. His first lesson was in September of 2016 at the age of 91.

 
And it is these two people — my two oldest piano students — who I would like to briefly feature here by simply sharing some gems, some wonderfully gratifying moments I have experienced with each of them.
 
First, Jane Lamka. Jane began asking me to put her on my “waitlist for piano lessons” before the end of 2016. When an opening came up, I quickly called her and invited her to come for her first lesson, which happened in April 2017. She told me she had taken piano lessons as a child and again briefly as an adult. But, between her last lesson and her first with me, lie around 40 years of time without touching a piano. So here we sat, together at the piano for her “first lesson.” I didn’t know what to expect. I put up some simple songs and she began playing. And playing. And playing…as if it were just yesterday that she was a child in her original piano lessons. I watched transfixed. I could not believe that the human brain, Jane’s brain, could so quickly and marvelously recall and recapture this “language,” this detailed, complex set of code with all of its variations. In her humility she shyly stated something to the effect, “Well, I know I’m not that great…” And I stopped her midstream and said, “What? Jane, do you have any idea what I just saw and heard you do?”  

The next time we met she had successfully reviewed an entire level of basic piano lesson studies and I advanced her on to the next level. She did all of that work in between lessons. I’m stunned and honored.
 
Second, Paul Marr. Paul was the very first person in our retirement community to step forward and ask to be taught piano. It was something he had always wanted to do but had never gotten the opportunity. Paul learned quickly, studied and practiced multiple times a day, seven days a week. Eventually, he had to fight for time at the classroom piano and decided to invest in his own keyboard with fully weighted keys to proximate a real piano somewhat. He is a “practicer”…dedicated to the degree that I have never known any other student to be. Watching him process this complex set of code — notes, rhythms, black keys and white keys, octave ranges, intonation, dynamics, staccato and legato, etc. — helped me realize how daunting it must be for an older adult to engage with this learning journey at this stage of life. Paul has enriched me personally because I now know more than ever before that if one really wants to learn something new, that is enough. The desire to learn will drive the “what” and the “how.”
 
After all is said and done, I think “The Piano lesson” has been a two-way street. It’s for them…and it’s for me. I’m grateful and honored. Thank you my dear students.

Leslie Lehnhoff

Leslie Lehnhoff coordinates a continuing education program for a Seattle-area senior living organization.

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