Now and then, non-musician friends express to me their regrets about their own supposed inability to play music. My usual response to this is meant to be encouraging: “It’s not too late to learn!” This is most often met with a doubtful look and a lament about wasted youth.
I find that there is a prevailing attitude that learning a musical instrument is a new trick of the sort that old dogs simply can’t learn, and that if you didn’t start young you’ve missed your chance. I don’t think that’s true.
Do children naturally learn more quickly or easily than adults? Possibly. But if it’s true that children have some sort of built-in edge at learning musical instruments, I would say it’s also true that adults have at least enough advantages of their own to level the “playing” field.
- Motivation. My adult students are taking lessons because they want to, period. They aren’t in it to please Mom or their friends or their school band director.
- Focus. In my experience, adults win outright in attention span. My lessons with adult students often run over time because they are still fully engaged and full of questions at the end of the hour. Many kids have trouble maintaining that kind of focus even for a half-hour lesson.
- Follow-through. Adults and kids both struggle to find enough practice time. But adults are better at prioritizing for long-term goals. Adults also seem to respond better to the intangible rewards and/or failures of private instrumental study: satisfaction at demonstrating mastery of the assigned material, embarrassment at a less-impressive showing. Kids figure out pretty quickly that the consequences for not practicing aren’t particularly concrete.
- Nuance. Music is full of abstractions and subtleties. I find that the younger the student, the more I have to reduce things into black and white. The idea that a quarter note only gets half a beat in cut time is simple enough for most adults, at least conceptually, but can easily throw a kid for a loop.
- Context. Life experience counts for something here. Adults are usually better equipped to set and achieve goals, self-evaluate, and cultivate the student-teacher relationship. They also tend to have a larger collection of lifetime musical experiences (concert attendance, ownership of recordings, etc.).
- Resources. Since adults are making their own financial decisions, it’s a much simpler matter to get them set up with quality instruments, reeds, trips to the repair shop, etude books, concert tickets, and other beneficial-yet-costly items at which parents might balk. Additionally, since adult students pay for lessons from their own pocket rather than having Dad write the checks, they are more likely to be conscientious about getting their money’s worth.
So, if you’re an adult and wish you could play a musical instrument, I say, don’t let the kids have all the fun.