My piano student Jane is nearing a nervous breakdown. To help her learn music intuitively, I’ve just explained that I’d like her to experiment by holding down the sustain pedal and improvising with random black keys. In an attempt to inspire her, I suggest the dulcet, though accidental, harmony of wind chimes in the breeze.
She tenses. Her fingers curl into fists. She narrows her eyes at me.
“I hate wind chimes!” she says.
Did I mention Jane is fifty-four years old?
Most children don’t have a problem improvising, perhaps the purest form of “playing” piano—until they’ve taken formal lessons from a teacher who doesn’t emphasize or even touch upon improvisation.
My unfortunately uninspired fifty-four-year-old student had taken lessons from such a taskmaster as a child, and when she came to me as an adult hoping to rekindle her passion for piano, I had to help her break through layers of learned negativity and dogmatic restrictions.
Meanwhile, suggest to a blooming kindergartener that she play the black keys like falling raindrops, and almost invariably the child will do it.
No thinking. No trying. No practicing.
And isn’t that the point?
Yes, it’s generally easier for kids to learn music for a number of reasons. Their brains are still developing. They are more easily satisfied by slow progress. They don’t mind sounding bad, and they’ll happily put on a stilted performance of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star for their adoring parents who will, nearly without exception, praise them. And through it all, they will improve, and some will grow up to be world-class musicians.
But adults have several things going for them that children do not. For one, they are often more motivated to practice and improve because they are spending their own money on lessons. They also usually have a clearer picture of exactly what they want to learn, and their expectations tend to be more realistic.
So before you throw up your hands and say you wish you had started when you were seven, here are a few tips to keep in mind if you’re hoping to learn music later in life.
FIND THE RIGHT TEACHER
When I was eight years old, I quit piano. I wanted to rock Jackson Browne to impress my mom, his number-one fan, but I ended up struggling to sight-read a simplified sonatina I hated. I’m not saying this to blame my childhood piano teacher, but to point out that there are a few things he could have done to help me. In short, he wasn’t the right teacher for me.
Find a teacher with experience teaching adults. Look for a teacher who specializes in the genre you are most interested in—not a guitar teacher, but a jazz guitar teacher, for instance.
You may be tempted to “teach yourself” with the “help” of the internet. While this is certainly possible, conflicting information abounds online, and there’s no substitute for a one-on-one lesson with the right teacher.
DON’T JUST PRACTICE—PLAY!
The old joke—How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!—has stuck around since at least the 1950s for a reason: practice is important, and you will improve very slowly without it. But play is equally important, be it solo, with a group, or jamming to a “jam track.”
Music should be fun. Seek out other adult students and get together for a slow jam session or to learn a few duets. If you’re not feeling confident enough to play with others yet, there are many sources for free “jam tracks” online. Sure, some of them sound corny, but they can be great tools for learning how to play in an ensemble setting and improving your timing.
BE PATIENT AND PERSISTENT
My first attempts at singing could only be described as tone deaf. Being the first and only member of my family to take up an instrument and attempt to sing, I was constantly reminded (by my family as well as—it seemed—objective reality) that I was destined for the porcelain concert hall of the shower and maybe the steel and glass arena of a car with the windows rolled tightly up. When I sang, crows squawked harsh countermelodies.
But I continued to work at it, studying, practicing, and singing as much as possible. And eventually I was able to sing on pitch and even to harmonize. Patience and persistence are essential. Access your inner child and try to enjoy the process without focusing too much on results. If you patiently persist, results will come.
IGNORE YOUR CRITICS
As I mentioned above, when I started learning to sing, my family was the first to point out how terrible I sounded—in no uncertain terms. Many friends also warned me, perhaps from a place of friendly concern, that maybe I shouldn’t sing in public.
Learning to tune out these critiques was the only way I could move forward. I listened to and noted what my friends and family were telling me, but I didn’t let their lack of faith disrupt my forward momentum. Don’t let critical people stand between you and your goals!
When learning an instrument, you’ll have many chances to compromise. You may be tempted to take biweekly lessons instead of weekly lessons to save some cash, or you might buy the cheaper instrument because you’re not sure you want to commit, but if you make either of these mistakes, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
The more regular lessons you take, the faster and more thoroughly you will learn music. And the nicer your instrument is, the more likely you are to want to play it and to actually sound good!
Learning a new skill is difficult—at any age—and learning music as an adult can at times seem like an insurmountable task. But there are many compelling reasons to persist.
These five tips have helped my adult students succeed despite the obstacles, and I hope they will also help you overcome some of the difficulties you may face if you learn music later in life.