Questions and Answers

1. 26th July 2011
QUESTION: Am I being realistic, thinking I can one day with lots of practise become a diploma level pianist?

ANSWER: I have a good friend who returned to piano in his late 40’s after a break of over 30 years, having previously reached Grade 5. Within two years he had passed his grade eight and withn 5 years he passed the DipABRSM. (he nailed passed the recital, programme notes and Viva components but had to retake the Quick Study a couple of times). More amazingly, amongst the many other interests and responsibilities in his busy life he took up the flute one year into his piano journey, and passed Grade 8 after just two years.

He may not be a good example, as he learned the basics as a child. However I have other adult students who are improving as quickly as any child and I have no doubt that they can reach Diploma level, they retain their interest and enthusiasm.

So I am sure that you can leave learning the piano to quite late in life and still reach diploma standard – provided that in other respects your development has been “normal” (by which I mean that you are not suffering from a physical or mental disease that specifically gets in the way, Arthritis, Dystonia, deafness, learning difficulties etc.).

But that is partly because the diploma level – while it represents a lot of work, is an admirable achievement, and is a standard that can be listened to with pleasure – is a very long way from the standards that are achieved by really good pianists.

It is a bit like a black belt in martial arts. Outsiders think it is the ultimate mark of achievement. Martial artists think of it as the first step, marking the end of the beginner stage, and the beginning of the quest for real mastery.

2. 26th July 2011
QUESTION: Can you really get to the same heights starting as a grade 5 pianist at (say) 22, as someone starting at 6 and it being their only instrument?

ANSWER: This is where things get difficult. The simple answer is NO. If the 6 year old continues to work hard you can never make up for those 16 “lost” years. Only if the young starter stops improving later in life will you have a chance of closing the gap.

This can happen for many reasons. If they establish a professional career they could easily spend all their time playing works they already know and learning little that is new. Or they may simply become lazy, and practice less, while the hard working late-starter continues to slog away. Or the “talent” hypothesis might be true after all, and you may have more of it than the 6 year old!!

But it is yet more complex. It is possible that some skills need to be learned before some pre-programmed changes in the brain/nervous-system/body (critical developmental stages) and can never be so well learned afterwards.

This is or was the view of many famous piano teachers (e.g. Nadia Boulanger) that if you not already pretty good by the time you are seven that you will never be world class.

The trouble with this sort of belief if that it is self-fulfilling. Teachers expect less of older beginners (even if the expectation is subconscious it is still felt by the students), and students may themselves believe it, as do their parents, friends, and the rest of the musical and educational establishments that they belong to.

At the other extreme are researchers like A Anders Ericsson, who believes (with persuasive, though not watertight evidence) that the only differences that matter between high achievers and the rest are the number of hours of practice that you put in, and the nature of that practice. That prodigies were born into an environment where they managed to put as much of the right kind of practice into their few young years as most people devote to anything in their whole lives. Furthermore that the age at which you do the work does not make a whole lot of difference, and that special “talent” or genetic gifts are unnecessary .. at least for complex skills like piano playing, where size, strength, and endurance are less important than in competitive sports. In his view the only reliable predictors of skill are the type of practice and how much of it has been done.

As someone that returned to studying the piano at the age of 50+ (Yes … 22 is Young, Young, Young!) I would obviously like to believe that Ericsson and his followers have the truth, but it is self-delusion to choose to believe whatever is most convenient or most comforting. I will leave that particular delusion to politicians and others that reason backwards from the result they would like to the convenient “truth” that is consistent with it.

With a scientific background I can see that there are many questions here that are unanswered. The other viewpoint (Special “Talent” is a pre-requisite – but even then you have to start very early to develop it) could well turn out to be true.

However …

1. None of us is ever going to get any younger
2. None of us is ever going to have any more “talent” than we were born with
3. There is no doubt that at any age enough of the right kind of work produces staggering results

Therefore, the most that any of us can do is aim to do the optimum amount (whatever that might be) of the right kind/kinds of practice (whatever they might be!!) starting from wherever we are now.

Furthermore, if you want to become exceptionally good you need to either have a very strong desire for the ultimate goal or, more reliably, to love the PROCESS so much, that you simply enjoy the work, and it is no hardship to do lots of it, sustained for many years.

And finally … if you like what you are doing that much, then it hardly matters what level you eventually reach.

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3 responses to “Questions and Answers

  1. Hello Tom, I picked up learning to play the piano as an adult after a long break, having reached grade levels between 3-5…I have read some of your pointers in how to work towards being a good piano player; I was glad to read your example of the gentleman who like myself, picked up with the piano later in life, and became a successful pianist in four years. This made me feel really good about that sort of possibility for myself. Thanks Tom!

  2. Hello Tom. I have read that you came back to the piano 4 years ago. I was interested to know what your goals are, whether you set yourself any time limits/intended dates, and how you created your ‘road map’ to your goals. If you’re willing to share these details, I would be very keen to know. Many thanks, and best wishes.

    • My goal was to reach the standard of a professional classical concert pianist within ten years. I have learned that detailed “road maps” are rarely effective, and often counter-productive. For one thing it is hard to predict what difficulties lie ahead. For another it is hard to figure out for yourself what you are doing right, what you are doing wrong, and what you just don’t know. So I have put myself in the hands of a good teacher, and settled down to hard (but enjoyable) work. But whether I succeed in the goal or not, I shall continue to play the piano, to work at improving, and to enjoy it.

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