6 advantages of adult students

February 5, 2010

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.).
  6. 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.

Comments

  1. Geoff Allen

    Amen!

    When you said “nuance,” I expected you to say adults can appreciate, say, the differences between tonguing styles, and when different ones would be appropriate. I would think of cut time changing note durations as more of an issue with abstraction. And adults will certainly be better able to grasp that the printed music is merely an abstraction of the desired sound.

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  2. Bret Pimentel (Your host)

    Thanks for your comment, Geoff. Your example is a good one, and perhaps “abstraction” would be a better title for point #4. I’ve had the cut-time thing on my mind because I’ve had a number of my own young students struggle with it—they learn quickly that a quarter note gets one beat, and are then reluctant to buy into a system where they have to think in ratios instead of simple values. My adult students have grasped the idea immediately (though they may need some practice before they can execute it with confidence).

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  3. Geoff Allen

    Turning it around, I think (by far) the greatest advantage of children, and perhaps a large part of why people think they learn more easily, is that children are far less self-conscious about sucking!

    Kid gets new instrument, starts blowing, makes the most hideous noises ever heard on a saxophone, and says, “Mom! Look at me! I’m playing saxophone!”

    Adult gets new instrument, starts blowing, makes the most hideous noises ever heard on a saxophone, and says, “I knew I had no musical talent! Whatever made me think I could learn this, anyway?”

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  4. Bret Pimentel (Your host)

    Geoff, I think I’d be inclined to see un-self-conciousness as a double-edged sword. While it might reduce discouragement in those early stages, it also fails to provide much motivation to improve. This is my point about self-evaluation in #5. Students who can hear what’s wrong in their playing tend to fix it tout suite, and my adults are far better at this than my kids.

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  5. Geoff Allen

    Ahh… Yes. Good point.

    I don’t teach (formally) but have 4 kids who’ve all done music. I’ve endured the “I stink, I don’t care, and in fact, I don’t even notice” phase four times. :-) I guess it’s double-edged both ways. Adults have to realize that it’s ok to be bad, and in fact, everyone is bad when they start, and kids need to realize that you have to move beyond honking on a fun toy and start making music.

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  6. Tim Buckley

    Great topic! I am a 67 y.o who took up the trombone on my own 10 years ago, and recently enrolled for 2 quarters of music theory (with the music majors) at our local university. I was invited to play in the college symphonic band—-a REAL stretch for me!

    As an adult, the hardest thing indeed for me was my self-consciousness. It has taken all the courage I can muster to get up in front of others knowing I will make embarrasing mistakes and fall short of my goal. But one of the greatest learnings of my life has come from this: for mortals like me, risking and making mistakes is the only way to succeed.

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