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Idea Exchange: Tips for Teaching Older Adults

By Tamra Brunn

The MacPhail Music for Life™ program is expanding at MacPhail Center for Music and we currently serve over 1,000 adults age 55+ in our student body! Earlier this month we gathered together a panel of experienced Music for Life teaching artists—Jeanie Brindley-Barnett, Joey Clark, Jerry Rubino, Andrea Leap, and Guna Skujina—to share teaching tips for older adults. Experiences ranged from leading choirs to individual lessons to group piano teaching and more. Attendees jumped right in sharing their experiences, asking questions, and getting tips to bring back to their classrooms and studios. There was great insight, idea sharing, problem solving, and topics for further discussion during this packed hour. Below are some of the responses to the questions of the hour. If you teach adults 55+ we hope this will be helpful to you!

1. What is the best part of teaching older adults?

  • They have a pretty clear idea what they want to learn and they aren't afraid to ask for it.
  • They have a perspective that can be instructive to ME.
  • They really enjoy and appreciate their lessons. They have a great curiosity about music and about the instrument they are learning.
  • They can express their desires and their trepidations to each other and the teacher. Adults love the camaraderie that they develop with each other and enjoy lessons more because of that.
  • They have so much to share with all they have experienced and they inspire me to listen, learn, and be present.
  • People may be sedate, non-responsive, and isolated at the beginning of the session—by the end they are smiling, singing, dancing, and talking to each other.

2. What skills are needed to teach older adults?  

  • Treat them as any other student (age doesn’t matter) and challenge them to do their best at the artistic goal at hand and give them techniques to accomplish this!
  • There is an important social component to my work... time to chat, build community, share joys and concerns and work on music. Time management is an important concern for me to make sure we get all these elements in.
  • Keen awareness.
  • Sensitivity.
  • Respect.
  • Being able to explain the same concept in many different ways.
  • Infect the student with love for the material or the subject at hand.
  • Empathy and compassion.
  • Patience, patience, and more patience.
  • A sense of humor: Never underestimate the FUN factor! Learning is FUN!
  • A teacher must be able to put the adult students at ease and to not intimidate them when presenting any new material or skill. It is important to give enough time to students to get used to new material and to performing new skills. They want to be sure they will not look or sound foolish and sometimes they want to understand everything to an extreme degree before attempting something new.
  • Flexibility and ability to improvise.
  • Taking time to listen to them and hear their stories

a. How does teaching older adults differ from teaching children/teens/young adults?  

  • Older people understand what they want to accomplish very quickly, but if they are beginners on an instrument they often do not have the patience/skills in place to get where they want to fast enough.
  • They are adults with much more life experience than us. More to draw from in your lessons. More to listen to. More to reflect upon.
  • The pace of delivery and response differs between age groups.
  • Structured assignments and practice are directed differently with children/teens/young adults than with older adults.

b. What have you learned the hard way in working with this population?

  • The frontal cortex is one of the last things developed in youth and one of the first things to go in dementia. They might not have a censor, and you'll need to roll with those punches.
  • They are not shy about complaining.
  • They will sometimes use the status of "older" to blow you off. And you can't let them get away with that... because you wouldn't let a teenager do it, so... listen to the complaint, determine if it is indeed valid, and then proceed.
  • You may need to explain the usefulness of some of your teaching tools in order to persuade them to try things.
  • To experience the death of individuals that you grow close to.

3. What have you found that "Baby Boomers" are interested in? (repertoire, goals, lesson activities, etc.) What has been effective in lesson planning for this population? What keeps them coming back?

  • Challenging them to be vibrant and effective in a way that they can maintain!
  • Present 75% material they have heard before (their childhood through their thirties, primarily).
  • 25% introduction of new material (modern material or lesser known works).
  • 75% making music time.
  • 25% laughter, story-telling and additional arts (e.g., visual, dance, theater) time.
  • A combination of fun, accomplishment and community is what keeps them coming back.
  • Adult students are interested in music they know and would like to play and perhaps have heard in concerts or the radio or remember from their younger days. They are not as interested in completely new music that they have not experienced before and consider not very attractive, for example: atonal or dissonant music. Often they are not interested in fast, brilliant music that requires a lot of technical ability and lots of practice. Adults are interested in the structure of music, why it sounds the way it does, how to make it expressive, and how to learn new pieces efficiently. Learning to read music is also a priority. Sight reading is a favorite activity as is ensemble playing. Playing various musical games is often a favorite as is listening to the teacher perform and listening to recordings.
  • Your passion, sharing of your talent and your preparation of exciting subject content keeps them coming back... keeps them “voting with their feet”. You want to surprise them so they look forward to each session with anticipation and purpose. This group wants to have fun and produce something quickly to feel satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment.
  • Repertoire: Songs that they know, they remember from a specific moment during their life: Popular, Rock ‘n Roll (50’s), Folk, The Beatles, Funk, Gospel, Blues, Jazz.
  • Goals: To take away a sense of accomplishment after each session, having participated and learned something. Having a scheduled culminating presentation, working towards a goal. Some structure, but not rigid.

4. What elements of classes/rehearsals/lessons are intimidating or challenging for students? What adaptations have you made for students to help them succeed/gain confidence?

  • Teaching and modeling patience with them and ME is most valuable!
  • High notes (spend more time on breath and energy).
  • Fast songs (slow it down).
  • Patter songs (cut down the amount of lyrics).
  • Lyrics in print (reformatted and larger fonts).
  • Adults never like to do anything that they won't be good at immediately. Kids are better at this; they are used to not being perfect. But adults have more ego on the line. So getting everybody to take risks can be tricky. My best tool is, frankly, my own goofiness and willingness to look stupid in front of them. I make loads of errors and plow ahead and let them see that it's just part of the process.
  • Often, students are intimidated by playing for others and by memorizing pieces. Usually, I let playing for others be voluntary, not required, but encouraged. Playing in small group settings or in familiar surroundings, like someone’s home, helps to make students less fearful. In class, taking turns playing a phrase or two alone, also helps to ease students into being able to perform. If keyboards are used, recording one’s performance of a piece and then playing the recording for the class or the teacher is less stressful than performing in real time. Memorization is also not required, but encouraged for selected pieces. Sometimes, only parts of pieces can be memorized to make page turns easier or to play difficult sections more easily.
  • There are some physical difficulties that older students (sometimes even younger students) are likely to have. Arthritis is one such condition. In this case, refingering and rearranging of music can help. Also using the playing apparatus in a relaxed manner and relying on arm weight rather than finger action to play louder or more intricate material will help. Electronic keyboards are easier to play, their touch can be adjusted to fit the pianist.
  • Eyesight can be not as sharp, so good lighting is important, as is placement of music on the music stand. When giving out handouts, it is best to have them enlarged or printed in bold type. There are portable led lights that are not expensive, and can be used to supplement the lighting in a studio or classroom.
  • Hearing also can be a problem, so students should sit nearer the instructor and the use of the headsets in the electronic piano lab is a great help. When there are hearing aids used, some students take the hearing aid out when using the headsets.
  • The height of the bench is also of great importance. Usually the bench does not reach the height that is good for a student, so I have a piano bench cushion that I use, and some students have their own that they bring to the lesson.

Other tips:

  • Helpful to record and play things back. They often can’t tell they are improving otherwise.
  • People who have had some experience (even if it was 50 years ago) seem to have an easier time.
  • Adults often want immediate enjoyment. Teach them the fundamentals while teaching them songs they want to play right away. Too much time spent on scales will leave them feeling unsatisfied yet they need to learn the basics too.
  • Get easy versions of songs they know.
  • Humans like ritual. Demonstrate to students that you can be trusted. Make them comfortable and show they are in good hands.

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