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I am 74 years old, and learned piano as a child. I got quite far, my crowning glory was being able to play Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C# Minor. I practiced for about a year and managed to get through it with no mistakes, once, when I was about 17. But I have not played at all since I was about 30ish.

My musical (very) children have told me that the way to get back is to practise scales, and when I've finished that, practise more scales, and arpeggios. So I have been doing that, an hour every day (I wish I could do more, but I still have a full-time job, etc) for about 6 weeks now.

But I very sneakily found some sheet music on line for "intermediate" players. I am trying to to play an "easy" version of Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring. There are a few places that are tricky and every practise session, I try to work on those tricky parts individually over and over again to get them right. It's not the way I was taught as a child, but those same musical children have told me that it's the way.

It seems to be going well, but is slow going. I don't know if I will ever be as proficient as I even was at 17,but I'm hoping I will one day be able to get Jesu right and move on to other pieces.

Am I right to be hopeful?

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  • There's a lot of interesting material here, but it led to a different answer than I expected. I thought it was setting up "am I going about it the right way?" (and note, the answer you've gotten already focuses on that). The question "can I hope for progress" (or, implicitly, "is it worth my time" or "am I progressing 'fast enough'") seems to be as common among adult learners as it is rare among children, and the proposed duplicate is in fact a collection of 40 questions and answers along those lines. Are you sure you don't want to edit to focus on the "how"? May 21, 2023 at 13:36
  • (And if so, maybe add a bit more detail. My hot takes include the fact that it would be as wrong to practice only scales/arpeggios as an extended plan as it would be to omit them; you don't have to be "sneaky" to add actual repertoire. And that finding your zone of proximal development is important when re-learning as well as when learning. If Jesu is too challenging for now, pick something easier. If you find something too easy, pick something harder. And consider getting a teacher to pick for you?) May 21, 2023 at 13:40
  • Also, please read about how to avoid broad, discussion-based questions. There should be a central, answerable question; right now it seems to be "will I progress." May 21, 2023 at 13:54
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    @Michael: I do have arthritis in some of my fingers, but I just play slow enough not to let it bother too much. I don't think I'll ever make Sinding's Rustle of Spring. I'll try it at Slow Walk to Summer instead. :)
    – Peter
    May 22, 2023 at 11:07
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    There is a lot of stuff that I've discovered I still remember. Like the fingering for the new piece I'm trying. I notice that I'm reading a bar or so ahead to see what's coming so that I can get the fingering right. And sometimes disagreeing completely with the suggested fingering. I seem to remember some "rule" about not using the same finger even when a note is repeated. I just automatically use another finger. It's all quite exciting, really.
    – Peter
    May 27, 2023 at 20:47

4 Answers 4

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There are two important factors here:

  1. Your goal/interests
  2. How you practice

Goals

If you are motivated by the idea of developing a very good technique, you will need to be more technical in your practice. You must be aware this is an investment that does not pay off right away. You have decided to learn more slowly in order to gain a better general skillset that applies broadly to many types of music. Scales are the simplest technical exercise, and there are lots of others.

If you are motivated by actually playing music, you may do a little technical exercise to start your sessions, but you'll generally be trying to learn a specific piece, and you'll be focusing there.

How You Practice

This is the overlooked aspect so often left out. Even after you know your goals, you must practice well to actually ensure progress with any goal.

What does that mean?

  • Deliberate (you must have some objective with a phrase or portion of the music, e.g. play it smoothly, play it uninterrupted, practice a particular fingering, etc.)
  • Consistent (you must repeat the practice in the same way each time, e.g. play a phrase with the same fingering so you are reinforcing something consistent and not giving random info to your brain)
  • Correctness, at some speed (after having a goal, you must ensure you can achieve correctness of your objective, no matter how slow you must play to make it possible).
  • [Others...]

Correctness

  • Played with the right fingering, or at least a workable fingering
  • Played at a continuous rate without pauses
  • Played where each note has the right relative duration (even if tempo is slow)
  • Played with reasonable dynamics (reasonably consistent volume)
  • If more advanced, played with a good phrasing

Possible objectives

  • Play a section correctly with the left hand
  • Play a section correctly with the right hand
  • Play a section correctly with both hands
  • Practice a specific fingering for a small section (ensure the fingering is possible to transition to from the previous section, and leaves you ready to play the next)

Conclusion

The good news is, if you practice anything well, you will make progress with it. The better news is that you don't have to be an expert to make this work for you. Find something you can feel reasonably confident to try that fits your knowledge, but do it well.

While you don't have to practice this way the whole time at the piano, if you want to see noticeable results, you will need to do this some of the time.

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If this is what you feel like doing, then totally go for it. Whether you get quite as good as you were in your youth again is a bit of an open question but that isn't what matters, what matters is that you enjoy yourself.

But speaking of enjoying yourself, I'm a little skeptical about your children's advice. I'm not disputing it's good for improving your technique, but is it also good at keeping you playing in the first place? If you find yourself getting bored or frustrated, then I suggest you set the exercises aside for a moment and play some actual music. Any kind of music you like. Doesn't even need to be challenging, but very much needs to be fun. Though, the pieces that'll best help you grow are those that will provide some challenge for you to overcome, just not so much they'd be overwhelming.

Wishing you the best with your rediscovered hobby.

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  • As to the second paragraph; the goal matters. Is the goal (A) to acquire as much skill as possible in a given timeframe (or reach a certain skill level in the least amount of time), or is the intention to (B) enjoy oneself on the road to (re)learning how to play the piano? Given the "very" musical nature of OP's children, I suspect they're answering the question from the perspective of achieving their (presumed) high skill level (A), but OP clearly is more interested in (B). None of the people in this story are wrong, they're just not realizing that they're answering subtly different questions
    – Flater
    May 22, 2023 at 6:02
  • @Flater isn't (A) part of (B)? Or at least potentially part of B? As an amateur musician (e.g. in secondary school and university) I always found the most challenging pieces to be the most rewarding. Isn't mastering this particular arrangement of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring going to be more enjoyable than stumbling over it, and all the more so for the sense of accomplishment it will bring? That's certainly how it works for me.
    – phoog
    May 22, 2023 at 6:47
  • Thank you for all the comments, and encouragement. I guess my children didn't rule out trying actual compositions by someone (like Bach), but I followed their insistence on scales for as long as I could (still do). I found it quite fascinating how the brain works. My first attempt at playing the C Major scale with both hands was very revealing. I thought I could "just do it", but then, of course, it's not like that, left and right being mirror images, and having to cover an octave with only 5 fingers. But then after a while my muscle memory clicked in and I was away. Same with Jesu.
    – Peter
    May 22, 2023 at 10:57
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    @phoog: I formulated A and B as opposites in terms of priority. If a choice needs to be made between doing something that's not as fun but is a good learning tool, or something more fun that might not net long term skill acquisition; which will OP pick? I didn't mean to imply that a person should only do one or the other, but rather I'm trying to highlight that while a person tends to do both, some people prioritize them differently, and that's what I think has happened between OP and their children.
    – Flater
    May 22, 2023 at 22:52
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    @phoog: Different strokes for different folks. I'm the kind of person who needs to be faced with a problem before he can listen to the solution. For me, when learning guitar, I needed to first try and play the songs I liked, only to really struggle. This made me more receptive of "boring" skill exercises. If you'd started me on those exercises before I got to try and play a song that I liked, I probably would've given up then and there.
    – Flater
    May 22, 2023 at 22:56
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"...managed to get through it with no mistakes, once..."

The well-known 'keep taking a run at it, one day you'll get lucky' technique! We've all done it. But your children are correct. Don't keep playing the tricky bits wrong in the hope they'll magically turn right. Play that passage super-slowly, but right. If you still fumble, it's a fair bet your hand's got into a position where 'you can't get there from here!'. Sort out the fingering so that doesn't happen, then play it 10 times over but SLOWLY. Sounds like your kids will take you from there!

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Kids are like sponges - they soak up stuff far more easily than us old'uns! But, working on scales/arpeggios - mainly as warm-ups for those gnarled old hands - is a good start.

I've found that as an old'un, things take a lot longer to sink in, and my answer is to practise for very short periods, but many of them. As Laurence says, slow practice is the answer. Remember - amateurs practise till they get it right; professionals practise till they can't get it wrong. I appreciate you probably don't want to pursue a professional route at your time of life, but the premise is certainly a good one to embrace! Good luck, and keep going. It will do your kids a world of good to 'teach' you things. It's a known fact that when one teaches something, one gets to know it better as well...

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  • I like the "professionals practise until they can't get it wrong" I will try to see it that way. In the beginning, I had real trouble playing the B Minor scale, but I avoided frustration with myself by saying, "Pretend this is a concerto that you're playing. If you can't get the B Minor scale right, how are you going to progress to Bach's Toccata and Fugue?"
    – Peter
    May 22, 2023 at 11:03
  • @Peter another approach that is opposed to "until they get it right" but is more accessible and realistic for an amateur is "practice until you get it right three times in a row." If you stop the first time you get it right then you've just done it 10 times wrong (or however many) and only once right; your muscles won't remember the last time too well.
    – phoog
    May 23, 2023 at 18:48
  • @phoog yes, nice advice, thank you!
    – Peter
    May 24, 2023 at 19:16

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