BLOG ______

#64 Age.

Posted by on November 17, 2008. 5 comments

I want to point out that it is never too late to start playing the piano. This entry in the Daily Piano Tips is aimed at people wanting to pursue a career in music; anyone can learn to play the piano reasonably well, but it is a very competitive field for people wanting to be professionals.

Because I started playing the piano when I was sixteen years old— not in the way most people mean it, that they started “taking it seriously”, which is pretty common, I mean that I really started, playing Clementi sonatinas and pieces from the Anna Magdalene Notebuch— I’ve gotten several e-mails asking me about the importance of starting early. It is well known among pianists that, if you want to be a professional, sixteen is an extremely late age to start. I won’t lie to you, it is very difficult. I also had previous musical experience, having played the trumpet since I was a small child. I have no idea what it is like to start completely from nothing at that age but it must be near impossible. During my time studying, I learnt one thing:

Age matters.

I studied in a very competitive environment in which most of my classmates had been playing the piano since they were four or five years old. I experienced first-hand the big difference age makes in every aspect of a musicians life, from learning and reading new repertoire to performing consistently well. People that started younger simply have an easier time with all of it. Gradually, I have tried to close the age gap and I think that, in the end, I am at a point where it has ceased to be a big issue. Getting here was a whole other matter.

If you are starting to play at an older age, expect it to be very hard. Classical music is already a fiercely competitive field without adding such a severe handicap. The only advantage you have over a six year old starting out is a (hopefully) more developed mind and maturity. To make it, you have to make as much use of it as possible; a person starting so late does not have the luxury of slacking off mentally while practicing. You will have many more problems to solve in each practice session, and you won’t have that mass of empirical knowledge other pianists have (at least not as much of it), or the instinct that many develop over years of playing; your problems, you are going to have to actively think about and solve, one at a time. It should be obvious that a lot more practice time is also necessary.

I had a really hard time studying alongside people who had a ten year head start over me and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone; imagine how it must be to attend classes with a group of people and having to do ten times the work that everyone else does to get the same result. To be completely truthful, I’m not sure if I would do it again if I had the chance; I had no idea how hard it could get. I would probably have studied something musical but not performance-related if had known back then.

For me, the worst part of starting late was getting over the “started late clause” to any opinion, grade or review I ever received. Every time I got a positive opinion, it was along the lines of: “that was really good, considering you started so late!” or “that wasn’t bad since you started so late”. It was a big moment for me when my teachers and classmates started treating me like a normal person, and the “started late” issue was not apparent. You will be treated as having some kind of disability, and it will block your progress in some way. Learning to get over this, is a big part of closing the age gap.

If what you are aiming for is doing something “great” and being a “concert pianist” while being so old and just starting out, I think you should forget about it; you are probably doing it for all the wrong reasons and won’t be able to handle the load of work you are in for. You’ve got to have a desire, a passion, for making music that will carry you through the hours of labor that starting late entails.

I knew I had to do it when I realised that I wanted music in my life. It didn’t matter where I ended up, I knew I would be very happy even if I never left the tiny town I was living in, just teaching the ten kids in the church choir and playing along with them on a small electric keyboard; working part time at the local dancing studio playing the piano for the old ladies learning Spanish dance, and the little kids in the ballet class. Even if I ended up bagging groceries at the local food market, it would be all worth it if I could come home and play some Schubert.

In short, my answer to those e-mails I’ve received:

– Starting late is hard, expect a lot more work.

– You’ve got to use your head a lot more than the other guys.

– You’ve got to practice a lot more than the other guys.

– Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

Thanks for the e-mails, I hope this helps!