New Tricks: Adult Music Students

Thursday, January 21, 2021 by Cara Walsh Dorman | Adult Learners

“You’re never too old to learn something new” is a proverb that must have been inspired by adult music beginners. Every adult who boldly enrolls in music lessons gives credence to this encouraging chestnut. Whether they come to a music education with lofty or modest goals, I have found no beginning adult music student who couldn’t start up and get the basics down just as well as any kid. With time and a comparable amount of practice, adults show that they can in fact learn at least as fast as kids, sometimes faster!

Adults come in different varieties, however, and this does factor into the process. Those who begin lessons as complete newbies are always excited to start blazing their musical trail. These clean slates usually only need some affirmation that learning an instrument will be fun, of course, but challenging as well. Other adults, however, have a past. They may be battle scarred from prior attempts to learn, and may harbor doubts planted decades before. These adults feel compelled to give a laundry list of their perceived personal shortcomings and potential obstacles to learning to play an instrument. They believe (or have been told) that they have no rhythm, are tone-deaf, can’t even attempt to read music, etc. 

After a full recounting to me of struggles and trauma they remember from first musical efforts, these adults confide that they secretly wonder if it’s all true—that they may be the single unmusical soul who won’t be able to learn, and starting now is an exercise in futility. These poor souls are extra susceptible to two tragic misconceptions that will ultimately thwart their efforts and only serve to confirm fears of ineptitude in the adult beginner: that a higher power has predetermined who can and can’t play music, or that adults can’t escape a major handicap in that their learning abilities have long since expired.

The good news is, regardless of personal musical history or any pesky, pervasive mythology, these fears have no merit. On the contrary, it is absolutely, unquestionably, indisputably possible for adults to simply put in the practice time and ultimately become completely capable players. In fact, adults are uniquely equipped to learn more comprehensively than children due to reaching the status of adulthood.

What are these adult advantages?

For starters, adults have a lifetime of listening to music and a vast exposure to a variety of musical styles. This comes from just being on the planet awhile! We attend performances, watch movies, shop in stores, ride in elevators, and hang out with people of differing musical tastes. We absorb and accumulate music day in and day out over the years, which forms an ever-expanding database of sounds and styles that we can draw on as music students. 

A related advantage is adults’ broader appreciation of different musical styles from all those years of listening, allowing them to more easily enjoy learning songs from genres they may not count among their favorites, but don’t necessarily reject based on differing taste. A diversity of music helps with managing the basic facets of musicianship whether it be traditional folk songs with simple melodies, patriotic songs with simple rhythms, or contemplative spirituals with wide-ranging dynamics. Adults, more so than kids, can appreciate what each song will contribute to their cache of abilities.  

Another useful adult attribute is patience which translates to infinitely more productive practice. Patience for working on small and large tasks is a most critical part of learning thoroughly, allowing the student to get beyond a rudimentary grasp of the material. In the same vein, adults can concentrate longer and absorb more. During lesson time, they can pick up on the finer points and glean more detail from instruction. And adults are more willing to implement into their own practice these finer points and practice suggestions that teachers are more than happy to impart.

Adults are very experienced learners, having already been schooled and coached in multiple disciplines. They more faithfully follow instructions. They ask questions when concepts are unclear, admit confusion or frustration, and can communicate troubles more easily. They more easily suspend skepticism when given advice that a particular drill or exercise truly will pay off, understanding that these are parts of a whole when it comes to learning songs, and that those bits and pieces will effectively provide the building blocks of the very music they want to learn. 

Adults understand what it is to work toward larger goals, but as kids, may have had a harder time seeing the “bigger picture”. Adults get that how they choose to spend their time and what they prioritize will help them hit milestones in their pursuits. Their skills in time management prove to be a great benefit in this way since the demands of life require that adults spend each hour wisely, and practice time is regarded as more precious and will consistently be more quality intensive.

Adults realize that an art requires some sophistication and familiarity with the abstract, whereas kids just don’t have the capacity yet. Adults can relate lessons they’ve learned in life to what they encounter in music lessons. They care about context and nuance. They take an interest in stylistic norms of an era or a composer’s character quirks. They can identify with song lyrics!

There are also the physical advantages. Adult-sized hands and bodies, feet that reach the floor, strength, coordination, muscle dexterity, stamina: all of these attributes come after the awkward years of developing into full maturity. 

Feeling good about your hard-won adult super powers yet?

Adults should be heartened to find out that age does not diminish their capability in the least when it comes to learning music! From what I know of students 4 years old to 72 (total beginners at both ends of the spectrum!), the hard-won merits of adulthood yield a wealth of wisdom and aptitude that serve as great resources. What you put in is what you get out, no matter your age, but if you have the added perks of being an adult, you can wield the richness of your experience as your greatest asset.


Originally published in edited form in Echo Magazine, October 2018