Learning to play the piano at 40

Overcoming adult-student awkwardness to accomplish a musical milestone

A woman at a piano performs in a church.

“As soon as you start, on day one, you’re a musician.”

My piano is a 60-year-old spinet. My house in Mt. Lebanon’s Cedarhurst neighborhood is the piano’s third home, at least, and during a recent tuning I learned that the piano itself was previously home to a mouse, as evidenced by the nest inside. It may not be a particularly good piano, but it has charm.

When I turned 40, I decided to learn how to play it. To me, 40 felt like a good time to finally acquire certain life skills that I hadn’t mastered yet, no matter how awkward the learning process might be. I figured that enough embarrassments had happened in my first four decades that potentially being the only adult student in a music studio full of children was a survivable one worth a small amount of discomfort.

So, I signed up for weekly private lessons at Kathy’s Music in Lebanon Shops, and as of writing this blog, I just completed my first year with my instructor, Skylar Bunk.

“As soon as you start, on day one, you’re a musician,” Bunk, of Bridgeville, told me.

But on day one of my piano lessons, I didn’t feel like a musician. I felt like an awkward middle-aged woman, and, at the same time, a new student cautiously excited that I might soon feel like a musician.

It was a slow start, of course, as is learning anything brand new. I came into the experience with a basic understanding of music—what I could remember, anyway—as I played the flute and percussion throughout high school. Picking up a new instrument as an adult was a fascinating experience. My mind attempted to reach back nearly 20 years for musical knowledge, adjust to reading music in a completely different way, and get my hands to move independently of one another and sometimes together. I could certainly feel parts of my brain working much differently than it does on a normal day-to-day basis.

Between the excitement of learning and the challenges of fitting lessons and practice time into an already busy schedule, it took me about eight weeks to develop the skill to play a simple song and enjoy the music beyond simply hunting and pecking for the right keys. But I looked at it differently. It only took me eight weeks to feel the accomplishment and thrill that one gets when things start to click into place, and to rediscover the joy of learning that often fades once we’re beyond school age, and our lives are filled with families, jobs and other often more pressing priorities take up that headspace.

“We’re all learning. What’s the next thing?”

I wondered how other adult students fared in my position, so I asked Bunk as well as Kathy’s Music owner, Kathy Morrison, about their experiences with adult students. I also sought advice for how to overcome the awkward feeling of being an adult learner.

Bunk, who is a pianist, conductor and educator and has taught students of all ages, said that adult students especially can become intimidated by the prospect of learning and may feel that others are more talented, or that it’s too late to become a real musician.

“For all students, especially if you come to it later in life, there’s no threshold to worthiness,” said Bunk. “Music is a contribution, not a competition. Any music can be a gift to a listener.”

Morrison, Fruithurst Drive, started Kathy’s Music 20 years ago, beginning as a Kindermusik studio and later adding private lessons for students of all ages with locations in Lebanon Shops, McMurray and Squirrel Hill. Both Morrison’s mother and husband have taken music lessons as adults, with her mother expanding her piano skills and her husband picking up the mandolin.

“We’re all learning. It’s a matter of what’s the next thing?” said Morrison, who noted that three adult students participated in last year’s Kathy’s Music recital performances, ranging in age from 20s to 70s.

Her advice for apprehensive adults who are interested in pursuing music: “Find a teacher who will partner with you, who you can be yourself with, and who you’re comfortable asking help from.” She adds that it’s also helpful to approach musical learning with a specific goal in mind, such as a song you’d like to learn to play or sing.

A woman, with a smile on her face, walks through a church after finishing a performance.

“The feeling of awkwardness—is that so bad if you get to do what you want to do?”

If you’re an adult learner and interested in picking up a new skill or dusting off an existing one but are still reluctant or think it can’t be done, Mt. Lebanon resident Monet Sulkowski, a clinical social worker, has added insight.

“People may have the idea that we’re cognitively wired to learn during childhood or adolescence, and that by adulthood it’s too late,” said Sulkowski. “But what we know is that the brain has neuroplasticity well into old age, meaning we’re always learning.” For people who might think it’s too late, Sulkowski encourages a growth mindset and a perspective of, “I may not know something today, but I can learn.”

The awkwardness may come, but it’s all part of a normal range of the human experience, Sulkowski said. “The feeling of awkwardness—is that so bad if you get to do what you want to do and pursue your goal?” she said.

This past week I participated in the Kathy’s Music end-of-year spring recital, and yes, I was the only adult performer in my group. It was a bit awkward, but also rewarding.

After nine months, I’m still very much a beginner. But I now have a couple good party tricks up my sleeve if I ever find myself near a piano in a social situation. I can play a fancy version of Happy Birthday like my grandmother would play for me each year (She also learned to play the piano later in life). The joy of music, learning and progress is also accessible to me at almost any time of day, thanks to a great teacher and support system, a willingness to bear some embarrassment and my previously mouse-infested, charming relic of a piano. While we both may have several decades of life under our belts, we still have lots of music to play.