Adult Music Students: Myths vs. Facts

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adult studentAdult music students are a special breed. They are enthusiastic and dedicated. They are eager and interested. Where young students might be more adventurous, adults are more likely to want to do things right the first time, bringing their life experience and maturity to their studies.

But adults are also more likely to be frustrated by what they perceive as insurmountable obstacles to playing their music the way they have always wanted. That frustration can lead to a shift in attitude. Their enthusiastic optimism is replaced by growing doubt that they can ever achieve their musical goals.

In my teaching, I see that doubt first surface in a student as an increase in the amount of practice time. Then comes a question like, “Do you think I should go back to basics, and just work on my technique?” or “Is this piece too hard for me?” or “Should I have made more progress by now?”

We can talk through all the issues, though, and still not break through the doubt, if the student harbors one of the common misconceptions about music study or musical ability. These misconceptions are powerful in that the grain of truth contained in each shields a much larger falsehood that can stop a music student in her tracks.

I would like to share three of the most common misconceptions, or myths, as well as a practical “myth-buster” step you can take to bust the myth and get back on the path to making music.

MYTH #1: I Just Need To Practice More

Perhaps you do. We all need a consistent practice schedule that allows us to work distraction-free to accomplish our goals. But if you’re still using the practice routines you learned as a child, or if you haven’t ever been taught how to practice, there’s a good chance that you aren’t using your practice time well.

Effective practice isn’t a matter of how long you practice. It’s about working on the right things in the right way, the way that leads you to playing the music well.  So while the fact is that you need to put in the time, the time by itself will not get you the results.

MYTH-BUSTER STEP

Before you begin your practice, identify your “why.” Why are you practicing? What do you want to accomplish in that day’s work, or by the end of the week?

When you start with “why” you are practicing, it becomes easy to know “what” you should be doing to make that happen. If you are doing technical exercises, perhaps it is to generally train your fingers, or address a particular weakness or increase agility. Each of these goals would require a slightly different practice method to get the desired results.

Once you know the “why”, focusing your practice is a snap!

MYTH #2: I’m guess I’m too old.

You are probably too old at this point to be a child prodigy. But no one is ever too old to learn and to play music. It’s the ultimate lifetime sport.

Grandma Moses didn’t begin painting seriously until her late seventies, when her arthritis prevented her from continuing at embroidery. She lived to be 101 years old and in those years she painted more than 1500 paintings.

The author Daniel Defoe wrote “Robinson Crusoe,” his very first novel at age 60. Mark Twain wrote “Huckleberry Finn” when he was 49.

While we hear about the 4 year old wunderkind and the 12 year old violin superstar, the achievements of the post-puberty crowd (let alone the over 50 adult music students) are often overlooked or underrated.

It’s difficult to begin music study, or to start another instrument, as an adult. But it’s not impossible; it just takes a little time and a good helping of patience.

MYTH-BUSTER STEP

Your mastery of any skill, especially music, is a function of the time you spend at it combined with the breadth of your experience. Put more simply, the more you work at it and the more different things you do with it, the faster your level of accomplishment will rise.

Play every day. Play lots of different pieces and types of music. Don’t get stuck on one thing for too long. Move on to the next thing; you can always revisit pieces you played before. Develop your technique as solidly as you can at the same time. Keep stretching and never be afraid to reach for the next rung on the ladder.

MYTH #3: I’m just not talented enough.

Enough for what? To become a celebrated soloist? To play every piece perfectly? To read well or play fast or play expressively?

It may be true that you might not be able to achieve everything you want in the way that you’re thinking. You may never be SuperMusician, able to play faster than a speeding bullet and leap octaves blindfolded.

But you shouldn’t be using that as an excuse to be unhappy about what you as an adult music student truly can achieve.

I believe that your talent is as unique as you are. If we were all meant to be concert soloists, there wouldn’t be anyone left to be an audience. Playing music is a personal expression. Your music, your way, even if it’s slower, or simpler, or takes longer to learn.

MYTH-BUSTER STEP

Find one piece, a simple one that you played long ago and loved. That’s the start of your personal musical expression. Start there and then find another piece.

There is so much music in the world, much more than any one person could ever play, and some of it is yours.

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  • Alyson

    As further encouragement, I started playing in my thirties, and have played professionally with orchestras and have a regular gig at a winery. I am getting a freelance business started. I don’t play academic concert pieces (except with orchestral stuff which takes A LOT of work), I play mostly easy to intermediate stuff. I can make the harder stuff easier by using three finger chords instead of four, or simplifying the left hand for quick learning. I can make it more difficult as I improve and get comfortable with the piece if I want.

    No one ever said that to play the harp you have to be virtuosic. You just have to make music at whatever level you are!

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  • Wm Hull

    I started the harp at 66 after attending an early music workshop and becoming entranced with the sound of the harp. Now 10 years later I am aware that the harp played second fiddle to the wind instruments I play and I want “to catch up.” Being patient enough to play beautifully rather than to progress to more difficult pieces is, I think, where I need to go. Thanks for your comments! Bill

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    • Wm Hull

      I just looked up Bochsa on the internet character. was shocked that our cultured and refined instrument could produce such a character. Does the harp bring out criminal tendencies in its players with frequency?

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  • Regina Clarke

    So encouraging and super timely–I have been feeling all the myths of late. Thank you so much!!

    Reply

  • Donna

    Thank you. Like Regina, I have been feeling all of those frustrations lately so this post comes at just the right moment. I’m going to have to revisit my practice procedures…I have been throwing time at the problems but not focused time.

    Reply

  • Satya

    Thanks for this great post Anne! It’s practical and helpful 🙂

    Reply

  • Becki

    This is great advice for adult musicians no matter what learning stage they’re at, thanks!

    Reply

  • Tracy M Sweet

    This is Wonderful Anne, thanks so much, I have really adjusted my expectations of myself since taking your course.

    Reply

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