I often hear adult students expressing regret that they either gave up an instrument as a child, or never learned one in childhood at all. They feel that they are late to the game, and most seem to hold the belief that they would have found the learning process easier or been able to pick the physical technique up faster had they started younger.
Although there are certainly benefits to learning an instrument from a young age, starting as an adult also has big advantages. If you are a beginner adult musician, I hope this post might give you a boost of confidence and reassurance, and highlight some potential obstacles to look out for and avoid.
Advantages to starting an instrument as an adult
Although children seem to soak up new information like sponges, adult students have a better foundation of general knowledge for new information to attach itself to, making them better able to understand new concepts.
Adults have more experience as listeners of music. All the passive exposure to various types of music over a lifetime adds up to your advantage – your memory holds a library of sounds, rhythms and melodies that you will be able to tap into as you progress.
Similar to the point above, adults have had time to develop a relationship with music, and most adult beginners are motivated by a love of music to begin with. If you dream of learning a certain song, you already have a far more powerful intrinsic motivation to learn than a child who may have had their instrument decided for them by a parent.
Adults generally have better coordination and dexterity than young children (of course depending on age and other individual factors). A six year old piano student attempting to move their fingers independently requires far more patience than a grown-up who has mastered writing, typing, tying shoelaces, etc.!
Many adults who learned even some basics of an instrument in their childhood find that they have retained more knowledge than they thought they had, giving them a head start (e.g. some students recall the ‘face in the space’ rhyme for treble clef notes, or the fingerings for a few recorder notes, which can be transferred to other wind instruments).
A lot of my most successful adult students have stuck with their instrument because they view the activity as ‘me-time’ – a pursuit that is purely for them in a life that might be filled with responsibilities and errands. This mindset means that they look forward to practice and enjoy the process of learning, rather than impatiently striving for an end-goal.
Adults have (hopefully!) better organisational skills than children. Use this to your advantage! You can: design a practice routine that works for you; write down lesson notes in a dedicated notebook; practice with purpose and aims to make the best use of your valuable time.
Obstacles to adult learning
Without parents or other authority figures pestering you to practise several times a week, it can be hard to hold yourself accountable to a new practice schedule (or remember to practice at all between lessons). Adults have more responsibilities that get prioritised above instrumental learning time, and this, along with tiredness, can hinder good intentions and slow students’ progress. Adults have to consciously make a decision to place importance on their practice and make time for it on a regular basis. This means finding a time within an existing routine that works for the individual, and maintaining a consistent approach.
Adults who view practising as a chore are far more likely to lose interest and give up. If you find yourself slipping into this unhelpful mindset, try to associate the task with positive things (e.g. make a cup of tea, take yourself off to a quiet corner if possible, and make sure your practice space is clean, comfortable and inviting).
Many adults seem to lack self-belief, and allow perfectionism or embarrassment to stunt their learning. Children are constantly faced with new experiences and challenges, and fail on a regular basis. Adults are familiar with more tasks through years of repetition (i.e. practice), and once we are comfortably in our grooves we can begin to fear and avoid situations where we might fail or look silly. When you start learning an instrument, you will experience a stream of failures from which you will learn and progress. It is crucial to embrace these little slip-ups and carry on. Expect to be challenged as a beginner, and trust that a little tenacity will propel you in the direction of improvement. (If you can enjoy the process and observe your mistakes with good humour, all the better!)
This point is related to the last and is more relevant to instrumental learners than you might think: adults are often far more embarrassed to sing aloud than young children. This may seem like a redundant point if you’re learning piano, but singing is such a valuable communication tool for any musician, and is far more immediate and intuitive as a way to learn good phrasing and rhythmic feel. It’s a real shame that many people shy away from singing in their adolescence due to a fear of being judged (I was certainly one of those very self-conscious people until I decided to work on it). You don’t need to take singing lessons, or even have a pleasant tone – it’s far more useful to me as a teacher if a student is willing to confidently squawk out a melody, than having another student who declines to vocalise anything in the fear that they may not sound like a professional singer (I inwardly cheer any time a student has an unabashed go at singing something in a lesson, regardless of what they sound like!). I know this is easier said than done, so I’d recommend starting off by softly humming along as you play (or along to a recording if you’re a wind player), and then progressing to a syllable like ‘dah’ which is nice and open and has a clear consonant attack. (Make the most of any time when you might have the house to yourself!)
My final point is an important one in my opinion: adults can forget to relax and have a sense of play with music learning. If you’re bored of your current study pieces and exercises, just put on some music you love and noodle along to it. Not only will you enjoy yourself, you’re also far more likely to stumble upon exciting discoveries this way. It’s often this kind of free noodling or playing along to music I like that has the most calming, almost meditative effect for me, and time flies by. Breaking out of your practice constraints by just messing around is a great way to exercise creativity and experiment without being judged. Bring the play back into playing an instrument!