Updated: Sep 12, 2022
It’s exciting teaching the adult music beginner. You may be helping them fulfil a lifelong dream, or develop a new hobby, or perhaps they played many years ago at school and want to take up their instrument again. Whatever the reason, there are certain key considerations to success with the adult student.
Most music teachers love teaching adult beginners as these students have made their own decision to have lessons, no one is forcing them, therefore motivation is rarely a problem! Sometimes they come to us with a specific goal; to play a particular piece of music they love, to play at a friend’s wedding, to play music with others, or maybe they are learning an instrument because of the health benefits, especially to the brain.
Unlike some of the children we teach, our adult students are unlikely to make a career out of music, but they will still have the joy and satisfaction of making music, whatever level they attain. In the research article “The Second Chance”, the authors affirm that for adult learners: “Regardless of the level of proficiency, performing music can provide an opportunity for rich aesthetic involvement, self expression and a deep sense of personal satisfaction and fulfilment.” More and more adults are becoming music students, and our goal as teachers is to help them find the inner happiness of music making.
It is ever too late to learn music?
It’s never too late to pick up a musical instrument. A friend of mine has a mandolin student in their 80’s, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are older adult beginners. Learning an instrument later in life can actually be an advantage, in terms of time available for practice, especially if the student is not working and/or their children have left home. Recently I read about a retired vet, taking up guitar at age 70, who planned to devote 50 hours a week to learning!
Many adults may find it easier to learn to read music than young children, as they already are used to reading text symbols on pages and can grasp the logic behind note value divisions, alphabetical naming of notes, and concepts such as scales and chords. Some adults will bring highly developed professional and life skills to their music, such as problem-solving skills. Most adult learners will also have a longer concentration span than a young child.
However, as we get older it may take us longer to learn than a young child. I know from my own experience that learning Italian in my 50’s, was much harder than learning French and German when I was at school and university. Research psychologist, Gary Marcus, who started guitar at age 40, and wrote a book about this, says “most things adults can learn, but it takes more time, and they have to do it more incrementally.”
So, what does this mean for us as teachers of adult students? Firstly, we need to be patient and not push adults beyond a learning pace that is comfortable for them. Remember too that for some students, music will just be a hobby and for fun, they’re not necessarily in a rush to progress. Secondly, they will learn best if we structure their learning not only in steps (as we do for children), but these steps need to be very small, and may require frequent revision. In my method book for adult flute beginners, I only introduce one new concept per unit and have frequent revision. For example, if they are learning the fingering for a new note, there will not be any new tonguing patterns in that unit. Or, when I introduce 6/8 time, there are no new fingerings or articulations, so the student can just focus on learning 6/8 rhythms. The exercises in each unit prepare new skills or the challenge points of pieces, so when the student comes to playing the pieces, they have already mastered the essential elements; everything is in small steps.
Adult music beginners can also face physical challenges when learning an instrument. As we age, we develop muscle memory, so older adults may have poor posture or handshapes that are difficult to change. Some students may have difficulties such as low muscle tone, low physical stamina, or arthritis. Despite these challenges, it is usually still possible to learn an instrument, and many students find their arthritis is actually helped by the finger exercise involved in playing. Suggest these students play for shorter periods of time, and encourage them to use a relaxed, light grip for instruments which are held. Sometimes modification to an instrument can assist, for example, a vertical head joint for the flute may help someone with restricted shoulder movement. Again, patience is the key here, for both the teacher and student.
Rapport, Respect and Reassurance
It’s important to establish a rapport with all our students, but even more so with adult learners. Unlike children who are enrolled into music lessons by their parents, adult learners need to like you, so they’ll keep coming back! In the early lessons you can chat briefly to find out about their family, their interests, and their previous musical experience.
With children, you know what you want to teach them and through which method or repertoire; as the adult, you are in charge of the child’s learning. With adult beginners, they are already experts in their own fields, and we work more in a peer-to-peer relationship – we are simply showing them a new skill. You can show respect for their ideas and opinions by working out goals together. Ask them why they are learning? Are they playing for fun, looking for relaxation, do they want to join a local music group, or play a certain piece? Find out whether they want to learn the theory of music as well, or if they would rather just play. Some adults will ask lots of questions and what to know everything behind the music, others are happier to ignore this and just focus on learning to play the pieces.
Adult students may be much more self-conscious than young students. As they are used to being competent in many areas of life, they tend to have high expectations of themselves, and may initially feel embarrassed at their lack of skill. It takes courage to go back to being a novice and making lots of mistakes, or to play at a level much lower than they would like. Therefore, we need to give our adult music students plenty of reassurance and encouragement. Help them understand that learning anything new takes time and that they need to be patient, and not give up too quickly.
If adult learners don’t make the progress they expect, they may quit, unlike a child whose parents may encourage them to persevere. Some adult learners are surprised to find playing an instrument is more difficult than they expected. In a recent online lesson with a 6 year old beginner, I was teaching him how to get a sound from the flute headjoint (much easier in person than online!). I was amused when at one point his mother took the headjoint, thinking she would quickly demonstrate for her son, but found she also couldn’t get a sound: “Oh! It’s harder than it looks” she exclaimed.
To counter this, we need to give our students reassurance that most beginners struggle at some point, and where possible, give them praise for what they have achieved. It is also helpful to use positive language when giving feedback, for example, rather than “you’re rushing the quavers in the second line,” you could say “For the second line quavers, keep a steady tempo. Let’s try it again with the metronome.”
Routine versus Flexibility
Flexibility is important when teaching adults. Even though they may be very keen, they may also have responsibilities which take priority over their music, such as work commitments and looking after their family. These responsibilities may affect their lesson attendance and they may need to cancel at short notice. Some teachers are happy to reschedule, others may not be able to. You need to decide how you want to handle cancellations of this nature and make your policy clear from the beginning. Changing lessons to once a fortnight can be a good solution if your adult student has a busy work and/or family life.
However, our adult students still need routine and structure. With our young students, their parents usually remind them about practice, plus they may have regular school orchestra or band rehearsals. Adult students don’t have this structure, so you may need to help them work out how to fit their practice into their usual routine, and help them work around their other commitments. Just like our younger students, adult students need to be reminded that the rate of progress correlates to the amount of regular playing they do. You also need to teach them what to do in their practice sessions (that will be the subject of another blog!).
What is the best music for adult learners?
Teach your adult students music they like, so they enjoy lessons and will want to continue. If you use a method book, try to find one suitable for adults. When I was writing my beginner flute book for adults, the fundamentals were the same as the children’s method book, but I took out the cartoon pictures and replaced some of the music; adult students will not feel great satisfaction playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. I also included many tunes which adults would already know, such as Auld Lang Syne, because we all enjoy playing something familiar. Whilst it’s hard for energetic young children to enjoy playing slow melodies, your adult students may really like the expressive aspects of such music. I included the poignant melody from the slow movement of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony in my adult beginners’ book, but I did not consider this best suited for my children’s beginner book.
Keep in mind too, that even if you are using a method book, you still need to go with the flow and adapt as necessary, for example, your adult student may not want to learn any scales, or they may insist on learning a piece they are not ready for. Often the reason adults have chosen to learn an instrument later in life is because they want to play a particular piece they love. It’s important to include music they want to play, but unfortunately, students don’t always realise it may take several years of playing before this is possible! To encourage them, you could make a simpler arrangement of the piece, or transpose it into an easier key, or even teach them just a short section of the melody – they will be thrilled to play even a few bars of music they love.
Encourage them to listen to music, including performances by professional players of their instrument. I have recordings for my adult flute beginners of all their pieces, played by professional flutists, so they are frequently listening to quality performances.
It’s important to get students playing as soon as possible. Some teachers have a set piece they use in every first lesson so their adult students can finish the lesson, excited to be playing. For example, pianist and educator Forrest Kinney always used simple improvisation on the black keys, with a drone. Another option is to teach a familiar tune by rote, so they can “play music” right from the start. For instruments such as the flute it’s not usually feasible to have a new student playing five notes in their first lesson, so we explore how many different sounds we can make on the headjoint. If they can leave the first lesson playing, even if it’s very simple, they will feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment and enjoyment.
The social bond of music
Creating social bonds is essential for our health and well-being, and playing music together can strengthen our connection with others. When people play music in a group, the cooperation required increases trust between the members. Research has also shown that coordinating movement with another person, for example keeping in time, creates positive feelings, due to the release of endorphins in the brain. It’s not surprising then that many adults decide to learn an instrument because they want to make music with others.
Many years ago, in my twenties, I was fortunate to conduct several adult community orchestras and amateur music societies. The level of experience of players varied greatly, from semi-professional players to adult beginners. Even though I was teaching full-time, I kept working with these groups in the evenings because it was so much fun. The musicians were enthusiastic, showed a high level of commitment and the sense of community these groups established was integral to the lives of the players.
Joining a music group gives an adult beginner a great incentive to play their instrument. It doesn’t have to be a large band or orchestra, it could just be another adult student they could play duets with. For adult beginners who live in remote areas or who do not yet feel confident to play with others, I suggest using recordings and backing tracks so they can still get a sense of playing with another instrument.
Most adult music students do not want the pressure of formal exams, but they may enjoy performing for a few friends or family. Teacher studio recitals are not appropriate for most adult learners, but perhaps you could organize a more casual “Wine and Play” evening for them. If you have several adult students, they may enjoy going as a group to a concert by a professional player. If they are keen to play solos, they may find opportunities in their community, such as aged care homes, where regular music performances are welcomed. However, not all adult students will want to play for, or with others, and that’s also fine; keep in mind that many adults are learning music purely for personal enjoyment.
So, what IS the key to success?
The key to success in teaching music to adult learners is to have patience, be flexible, and give plenty of encouragement. This approach, combined with appropriate music, will help your adult student unlock the door to music, and find the deep satisfaction of playing a musical instrument.
It is a privilege to bring music into the lives of all our students, but especially the adult beginners, because they have actively chosen to take up music later in life. For many of them, playing an instrument is the realization of a lifelong dream.
Enjoy this journey with your adult students, as you lead them into the wonderful world of creating music, and the great joy it brings.
Do you teach adult music beginners? What have you found works best?