When adults come to me for music lessons they come with a lot more background, knowledge, and skills than my young students, who can start as early as three years old. Adults have advantages. They can often grasp concepts quickly, are more dextrous, and have a lot of experiences to draw from. They also usually have a good idea of what they want to get out of lessons (specific songs or styles they want to learn) and can communicate that with me. Unfortunately, an adult’s confidence can easily turn to frustration when they don’t see as much progress as they’d like.
While learning (or relearning) an instrument can be incredibly fun and rewarding at any age, here’s what adult students should know to increase the likelihood of a positive and musical experience:
1) Commit to Weekly Lessons
- Adults tend to be less consistent about coming to lessons every week at the same time. Of course you’re busy and sometimes other things take priority, but like so many things in life, just showing up is more than half the battle. Only cancel or reschedule lessons if you really need to and you and your teacher will be happier for it. Most places will charge for cancellations because they are holding the slot for you, so it’s to your advantage to get your money’s worth. Bottom Line: Show up mentally and physically every week.
2) Be Playful
- Musicians love to play. When learning a new skill as an adult there will be things that come very easily and things that are frustratingly out of reach. In order to make progress you must be willing to try things and fail. I guarantee you will not like the sound of everything that comes through your fingers, vocal cords or mouthpiece, so adopt a playful attitude, be willing to laugh at yourself, and be kind to yourself. Trust me, professional musicians do not sound professional 100% of the time if they are working on advancing their skills. Bottom Line: Learn to love the process.
3) Carve Out Realistic Practice Time
- Setting aside some time to review what you worked on in your lesson ensures that you don’t have to go through the same lesson week after week. Having a set practice time is helpful to be consistent and more days per week is more beneficial than a long time spent in one day. Be realistic about what you can do and communicate that with your teacher. Don’t feel guilty if you feel like you can only set aside fifteen minutes two days a week. A little bit goes a long way as long as you are consistent. Bottom Line: Don’t practice when you have the time, make the time to practice.
4) Set Small Goals
- When you come in with the goal of playing the Moonlight Sonata and instead find yourself working on basic notes and fingerings it can be difficult to hear and feel the progress being made week to week, but I assure you it’s there. In order to feel that forward motion more tangibly set small goals that can be accomplished in a week, such as practicing for three days in a row, learning the fingering of a song for one hand, or playing a simple song accurately in slow motion. Of course you can surpass these goals and set new ones, keeping your larger goals in mind. The more goals you achieve the more your brain is rewarded and is motivated to keep going. Bottom Line: Setting and achieving small goals can save you the frustration of trying to tackle too much at once.
5) Learn the Language
- Music is a language all its own. Expect fundamentals like reading notes, rhythms, and identifying chords to take up part of each lesson, but not the whole thing. Listen to music! Try listening to the music you are working on, music you love, and music you are unfamiliar with. Just as hearing adults speak as a child helped you learn the language, listening to musicians play will hone and expand your musical vocabulary. Watch musicians you wish to emulate. When you see their posture, confidence, and technique and try to recreate that in your own playing it can make a big difference. Bottom Line: Learning music involves more than learning to play songs.
6) Get Physical
- Music is both a physical and mental activity. Sometimes we assume that a skill is easy to do just because it is easy to understand. While it might take a few seconds to mentally understand the hand shape of a chord, your fingers will need a lot of repetition to make that shape feel comfortable and automatic. It’s a great idea to isolate and repeat these physical skills, just like a tennis player working on her serve. Your mind is not very good at multitasking, so once things like scales, chords, and patterns become automatic you will be free to focus on ways to be more musical, like dynamics, articulations, and phrasing. Bottom Line: Repeat physical skills until they are automatic.
7) Find the Right Teacher
- You probably have a good idea of what you want to get out of your lessons. It may be as specific as learning to play and sing a love song for your wedding, or as general as wanting to play for yourself to unwind at the end of the day. The main thing adults can do that children generally can’t is communicate exactly what they want to gain from lessons, how long they can spend on lessons and practicing, and what kind of teacher they are looking for. Music teachers will generally accommodate your goals, but each teacher has their own specialty and style, so go ahead and ask if they are the type of teacher who can push you hard and hold you accountable. Remember, though, that this is a give and take relationship. Be willing to try things you are skeptical about. You may be surprised at where it leads! Bottom Line: Decide what outcomes you are looking for and get your teacher on the same page.
Are you an adult beginner? What has your experience been like?