Learning How to Play a Musical Instrument as an Adult
I sure wish I had stuck with my piano lessons when I was a kid. Plenty of my friends and colleagues have a similar lament, and most seem to think it is more difficult to learn to play a musical instrument as an adult. As I've started to learn to play the upright bass in the last couple of months, I wonder if we are not psyching ourselves out, if learning a musical instrument as an adult is not only possible, but maybe not as hard as we thought.
In my twenties, I talked to a piano instructor who would not accept adult students because she thought they were harder to teach than kids. Former high school band instructor, Leroy Bland, is not as hard-lined.
"I've only taught a couple of adults. On the whole, it's easier to teach adults. They listen and understand better," Leroy said. "However," he continued, "kids learn quicker. I think teaching kids is more fun. They exhibit more joy in learning. Adults are more methodical and have more things that hold them back."
But Howard Richman, the author of Super Sight-Reading Secrets, says it is a myth that children learn easier. "What may be true is that the child is less encumbered by the busy-ness of life and tends to have less mental clutter," Richman states on his webpage, Piano Lesson Myths.
Richman also says it is a myth that kids who are forced to learn piano as a child will appreciate it as adults. "For the small percentage of people for whom this may be true, there is a much higher percentage of people who end up permanently pulling away from music!"
I've talked to many adults who wished they had kept up with their childhood music, but most, like Richard Schaedler of Durham who had extensive music experience as a child, do not play as adults.
Despite 9 years of music education, Rich admits "Practice was never my strong suit, usually only when my parents made me."
But most of the adults I interviewed who have learned a new instrument as an adult also had at least some music training as a child. Kevin Bercaw of Wake Forest, NC took weekly saxophone lessons through the public school system in the 6th grade. "I bought my first guitar in 1991," he said, "however it wasn't until 2006 that I would say I really began to play it."
Kevin used primarily "self-taught" methods, including books and online resources, but has also signed up for formal lessons periodically. "It would be nice to believe paying for lessons will make you learn guitar, but the truth is: you have to learn it yourself!" he said. "Instructors are there to help, but they can't make you learn it."
Andrew Cook of Blacksburg, VA is also learning to play the upright bass using a mixture of self-taught methods and formal lessons. "Maybe naively, I just went out and bought one at the first place I could find one without any thought into how to play it, and as it turns out, there aren't a lot of upright teachers in the area where I live," Andrew explained. "But I managed to find a teacher to give me a couple lessons to show me how to hold the thing and finger placement and whatnot. Then for the next 1-2 years I practiced at home, mostly playing to music, with some instruction from some of the home study books."
Kevin and Andrew have both performed in public at this point. Kevin performed with a vocalist at two open mic events. Andrew frequents open mic events and sometimes plays with Chickenwings and Gravy, a blues duo with a guitarist/singer and a harmonica player. To be more accurate, Andrew says, "I periodically infiltrate their band for some of their performances."
I actually haven't heard either Kevin or Andrew play, so I'm in no position to judge, but based on their own accounts, it seems Andrew progressed more quickly than Kevin.
Kevin explained, "It was very difficult for me to learn to play guitar. From 1991 until 2006 I was trying to gain enough traction to actually be able to play a song. In that time I learned to play some chords, and I could play some practice exercises, but I still couldn't play a song! It's difficult to stick with something for that long when you're just playing excercises; it really wasn't much fun."
After just 3 years, Andrew plays frequently with other bands. Andrew had more experience as a child - 9 years of violin - but that might not be the entire explanation.
My sister, Deborah Brown, plays a variety of instruments. She also started in the public school system, excelling on the trumpet. She now plays the guitar and is learning the banjo. Her theory about adults learning to play instruments is that you need to play with other musicians on a regular basis.
I think Deborah is on to something. With only about six months of piano lessons as a child, and one year of trumpet in junior high school, I tried to re-engage with the piano at various points in my adult life. But I rarely practiced with any consistancy, and I never felt any serious improvement. In the last two or three months, however, I've "played" the bass only once a week, with just a few "lessons" from my dad, Alfred Smith.
After playing trumpet most of his life and tinkering here and there with guitar, banjo and mandolin, to name a few, Daddy has only been playing bass a couple of years. He's made great progress, playing with groups weekly at a local nursing home and a local church. On Thursday nights he plays banjo and mandolin with me, my other sister, Julia Smith (who also plays guitar), and my Aunt Judy Spruill (on tamborine and vocals). I don't have my own bass - I use my dad's, so I'm not able to practice any other time. I am by no means very good, but I can already pluck along with a handful of songs well enough to have fun.
The consensus is, yes, you can learn to play a musical instrument as an adult. A variety of online resources are available to get you started and/or to supplement professional lessons in real life. Don't let regrets about not learning as a child, or not sticking with your childhood lessons, discourage you. Plucking out a song, especially as part of a group, is immensely satisfying.
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