If only 10-year-old me had insisted on lessons...
June 6, 2011 12:59 PM   Subscribe

Did you start learning to play an instrument in your 20s? I guess I have this feeling like it's Too Late for me!

So, I'm 23 and have never played an instrument. As a little kid (think 7-8 years old) I had a couple of years of violin lessons at school, but I was pretty bad at it, and when I transferred schools I didn't continue with it. I've always enjoyed singing, and in high school I sang in a community choir, but that's the extent of my musical experience.

I recently realized that I want to get into music on a deeper level than before. I don't really 'understand' much about music- I didn't even know what a chord was until a few months ago. I have this feeling that knowing how to play an instrument would really enrich my understanding of music. And on a more selfish note, I've always been envious when I'm around the sorts of people who can just whip out their instruments and start jamming with each other- it looks like so much fun, and I wish I could do it too.

BUT every time I actually start to think about this process, I go- it's too late for me to actually be any good at, say, playing guitar. Like, if I wanted to learn how to play an instrument I should have started in middle school and been in five failed bands by now. Kids are just better at absorbing stuff like this, right? So if I learn a new language now, I'll always have an accent, and if I learn to play music now I'll always suck. I guess I have this vision of myself working on this for years and still being terrible at it.

I KNOW that this attitude is silly, irrational and self-defeating, but it's still enough to stop me spending $100 on a used guitar or banjo.

I guess what I'm looking for is stories, from your experience or your friends' experiences or, hell, famous musicians who never touched an instrument until they were 25 and still got great. I've been having this conversation with myself for over a year now and I'm getting exactly nowhere.
posted by showbiz_liz to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (57 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Well look, I started playing violin when I was like 7 or 8 and I still pretty much suck at it. The concert violinist I saw last night also started playing at 7 and he was incredible. So if you pick up an instrument now, what are the chances you will become a great banjo player? Probably close to nil, but what were the chances that I would become a great violinist, even starting at such a young age? Also pretty close close to nil.

Honestly, what are your goals in learning a musical instrument? You say
I have this feeling that knowing how to play an instrument would really enrich my understanding of music.
Even if you suck at playing, learning a musical instrument will definitely enrich your understanding - so the only way to fail at this is to never try.
And on a more selfish note, I've always been envious when I'm around the sorts of people who can just whip out their instruments and start jamming with each other- it looks like so much fun, and I wish I could do it too.
I can guarantee that a lot of these people did not start playing at a young age. Either you will be able to do this or you won't - again, the only way to 100% fail is to never try.

I'm going to take a stab at something - are you kind of a perfectionist? Because this sounds a lot like the sort of negative talk I use to justify not trying to do something I'm not good at. The silly part is that no one expects me to be perfect at something I've never tried, except myself.
posted by muddgirl at 1:06 PM on June 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

It depends on what you want to do with the instrument, I think. I tried to teach myself banjo starting around age 25. I had fun for a while, then stopped, then took it up again for a while, then stopped. Now I'm on-again-off-again.

Will I ever be a virtuoso? No. Do I regret the time I've spent on it, even if I never pick it up again? Also, no. It's been fun, and it's helped me appreciate banjo music more deeply.
posted by gurple at 1:07 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Possibly unrelated: I've been learning to ride a bike for about two weeks now. I used to have a kids' bike when I was 10 or 11, but I was never really allowed to ride it. I have learned not to worry about being behind. I like the rock and roll kid video. It really takes the pressure off to know that I'm learning something very basic and at my own pace, so there's no need whatsoever to beat myself up about not doing as well as I could have, had I started "at the right time." Do it for pleasure and because you want to, and everything else will fall into place.
posted by Nomyte at 1:08 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm almost 33 and about 2 years ago I started learning to play the drums. Rock kit/acoustic. I learned how to read music (my teacher refused to teach me unless I did this - and I never learned before) and I really love playing.

I'm not a superstar rockstar (well, no one else knows it yet), but I can play basic songs, and more importantly, it brings me so much joy to play! You are reminding me that I really should do it more often than I seem to, these days. So please, go for it! Enjoy it! Who cares if you're not going to be the next Shiela E (ok, I really want to be) and have fun!

Oh, and it makes going to concerts/shows even more fun! Now that I pretend to be a drummer, I love watching other drummers! It really brings in another dimension for watching live music!
posted by anya32 at 1:09 PM on June 6, 2011

It's not too late! It's never too late, not ever. My mom is learning to play the bagpipes in her fifties and having a lot of fun with it. My great-grandma learned how to play the violin in her 80s. Getting an early start isn't a sufficient condition for musical greatness, either (I took lots of piano lessons as a kid and am omg terrible at it).

You probably won't be awesome at whatever instrument you decide to pick up right away, but that doesn't mean you can't ever be good at it, or you can't have a great time learning to play and fooling around with a banjo in your living room. Please don't let worries about being a beginner turn you off picking up a fun new hobby!
posted by bewilderbeast at 1:09 PM on June 6, 2011

I started playing guitar when I was 22. Similar background as you, took piano when I was a kid, did musical theater in college. I picked up the guitar because winter is cold and dark and I needed an indoor hobby to prevent me from turning on the TV. I originally wanted to take up the piano again but decent keyboards were out of my budget; I found a used guitar on craigslist for $75.

I'm still playing and still having fun with it. I initially tried to teach myself, but quickly hit a wall, so I found a private instructor. The structure of going to weekly lessons really helped, since I knew I needed to do a certain amount of practice every week and it kept me motivated.

Am I good at playing? I'm certainly not great, I don't shred, but I can play some fairly elaborate finger-picking and my sense of rhythm has definitely improved. I have a set of notebooks that I can look at and it's easy to see a progression from simple three-chord strumming to much more complicated stuff.

One thing that helped me a lot is that I constantly told myself, over and over, that I wasn't going to become an expert overnight. I have a perfectionist streak that makes me want to be the best RIGHT NOW but for this I willed myself to calm down and accept the mistakes that I made. I'm not trying to go professional, I'm not even really playing for anyone but myself, so it's not a big deal.

You can do it! It's never too late to start anything. And if the cost is really worrying you, ukeleles are very cheap and easy to pick up.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:11 PM on June 6, 2011

I was in my mid-30's when I started taking guitar lessons. I just wanted to be able to play and sing for my own amusement. I loved it. Totally, totally worth the effort. What have you got to lose?
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 1:11 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think it depends on what your end goal is. If you want to play the Philharmonic, well, you might be a little late. If you want to make a joyous noise, you're exactly the right age. I started playing bass when I was 18, but I didn't decide to actually learn how to play it until I was 23, and by "learn how to play," I mean learn music theory, reading sheet music, improvisation, etc. Now I play a few different instruments, but it all started when I decided to take music seriously.

Buy the banjo. They're great fun.
posted by lekvar at 1:11 PM on June 6, 2011

I picked up a violin/fiddle for the first time when I was 40, five years ago. I suck, but there is nothing that gives me more pleasure than playing the thing. I love it and my only regret is that I didn't start sooner--like at your age. Once you learn some basic chords on a guitar or a mandolin, you can start sitting in with other people right away. Let go of the idea of being great. There's plenty of other stuff to enjoy about playing music that having nothing to do with skill level. It is a rich, rewarding, wonderful experience. Go spend that $100 on an instrument!
posted by fiery.hogue at 1:14 PM on June 6, 2011

I am 25 and started playing piano about two and a half years ago, mainly because a lot of my friends are classical musicians and I wanted to join in on the fun. It is frustrating to me that I'll never be very good the way I might've been if I had started when I was young. But it is really satisfying to see that I can play music and to learn music theory. For what it's worth, my teacher works with both little kids and adult students, and was impressed with my progress—you can pick up a lot more of the technical and theory-based stuff quickly at an older age, I think, even though you'll never be a child prodigy.
posted by mlle valentine at 1:15 PM on June 6, 2011

what are the chances you will become a great banjo player?
I tried to teach myself banjo starting around age 25.
Buy the banjo. They're great fun.

I jumped in here to recommend learning to play the banjo, or the ukulele. Didn't expect the banjo to have been mentioned three times already.

Both instruments are very amateur-friendly; the banjo greats, despite their incredible proficiency, were definite amateurs and most couldn't read music (Roscoe Holcomb, Doc Watson, et al.)

I picked up the banjo at 20, in love with the sound. I've managed to become pretty good in a year. It's a great instrument with a lot of info online about learning.Banjo Hangout is a great site. I recommend finding a good music shop near you that sells banjos and getting the down-low. Deering goodtime is a $300-400 banjo excellent for beginners. It's worth the investment as cheaper banjos also sound very cheap.
posted by gracchus at 1:16 PM on June 6, 2011

No, it's not too late for you. Not at all. I grew up in a family where everyone was expected to play at least one instrument, usually more. But my husband came from a nonmusical family. It was a great regret of his that he'd never had the opportunity to learn to play something. At first, in college, he struggled with the piano. But what he really wanted to do was learn to play the violin.

When he was 27 or 28, I met someone at church whose husband was a violin teacher and was willing to take him on as a student. We went right out to a local music store that rented instruments to students, and he was able to rent a "starter" violin for about $20/month. When he found he really enjoyed it and took it seriously, he bought a "good" violin for about $1200, and that's what he's had ever since.

He's still got a long way to go, but I think that has more to do with how hard it is to carve out practice time than with lack of ability. I've noticed that when he practices intensively (i.e., for an upcoming recital) his tone and dexterity improve vastly. And I'm astounded at how good his pitch has become, considering that he can't carry a tune in church. (You definitely have an advantage if you can sing and read music, even at a rudimentary level.)

So, my advice would be to find the instrument that you really want to play--and if you can't get into one, it might not be the instrument for you; try another. And practice. You don't just pick it up over night. You'll sound awful at first. But if you keep at it, you may not become Sharon Isbin, but you'll find yourself enjoying your increasing mastery.
posted by tully_monster at 1:16 PM on June 6, 2011

I was 37 when I posted this.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:17 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, a friend of mine (in his 30s) just started playing the mandolin a year ago and he's doing very well so far. I think he's doing well because he faithfully goes to lessons and practices alot. He complains when he hasn't played in a day or two. His interest was sparked when he moved to an area with alot of bluegrass and country music.

So, I nth the advice that it's not too late, but you have to be willing to work at it, and it should be fun!
posted by cabingirl at 1:20 PM on June 6, 2011

and if I learn to play music now I'll always suck.

Well, you'll be a shit-ton better than if you DON'T start learning now.

For real: playing music is a hard, lifetime's pursuit and if you had started when you were 8 you'd now have years of experience to draw upon and, yes, you'd be a better musician for it. But. Music is also a spectacularly joyful and forgiving human pursuit, and if you start playing now in a few weeks you'l be making noises you like, and in a few months you'll be on the road to decent and you'll never ever ever ever regret it. Ever.

Promise. Pure guarantee. 100% sure.
posted by dirtdirt at 1:24 PM on June 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

As long as you don't have expectations of being a rock star, it's never too late to learn to play an instrument. Or learn to do anything, really. I started learning the guitar at 20, banjo at 29 and recently mandolin, age 39! It's been fun -- just as fun as when I learned to ride a skateboard at age 38.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 1:31 PM on June 6, 2011

I don't have first-hand experience with this, but you might be interested in this thread, where you can see, in real time, the OP going through the process of deciding not to pursue guitar. Of course, I'm not saying you should reach the same conclusion!

If you do learn, I recommend guitar. Guitar and piano (and any keyboard or guitar-like instruments) stand out as "complete" instruments, meaning you can play chords or single-note melodies on them, or both at the same time. But guitar is easier than piano to start sounding really good on (as in, "Hey, I'm actually making music that sounds like it could be on a record!") after just a few lessons. Piano makes the theoretical basis of what you're playing more clearly visible, which has its pros and cons. Since the guitar's fretboard is less theory-based and more arbitrary, it's easier to forget about theory and play unexpectedly weird notes or chords without being too self-conscious about it.

As I said, I can't speak from experience (I started learning guitar when I was 13), but I don't see why you couldn't do this. As long as you have a couple hundred dollars to spare on a hobby that you might or might not stick with, why not? As far as I can tell from your question, the stakes just aren't that high. As you said, you can easily get a used guitar for $100. Take a few lessons, and see how it goes.
posted by John Cohen at 1:37 PM on June 6, 2011

I have a friend who will be 46 in a couple of weeks, and she started taking piano lessons a few months ago. She is really enjoying it.

You might in fact spend years learning and still be terrible. Like someone up-thread, I played piano as a kid, and my skill peaked right around the ages of 18-20; since then I haven't had a teacher, or the time or incentive to practice regularly. So I'm pretty terrible now, and I play rarely. But I tell you the piano has given me many many hours of pleasure in my life, and will have been worth it even if I never play again. You may find yourself at 30, comparable in skill to people who took lessons as young people and aren't as good as they used to be. Which is to say, good enough to have a lot of fun with it.
posted by not that girl at 1:40 PM on June 6, 2011

What instrument would you like to learn?

If you learn piano you'll probably learn alot more about reading music that most. But it's also probably harder than some instruments.

Of all the instruments I've ever tried guitar seemed to be the easiest.

Whichever instrument you choose, take lessons. There are plenty of gifted musicians who make their living and/or supplment their income teaching others.
posted by dgeiser13 at 1:41 PM on June 6, 2011

Learning the basics on a steel string guitar is very simple - armed with a handful of chords and a couple of picking patterns you can have a stab at playing most pop songs ever written within a couple of months. Guitar is a real fun and accessible instrument, and there is masses and masses of instructional materials, both score and tab.

The step up to more complex playing, espectially jazz and classical however is quite steep. If you want to play harmonically complex music sooner, then perhaps the piano would be a better bet. Though of course a piano is tricky to carry to the campfire . The guitar is a very portable instrument. If you want to have random jams, you should steer clear from the trombone.
posted by choppyes at 1:44 PM on June 6, 2011

.... and don't neglect scales. They may seem pointless at the start, but mini scales are everywhere in music, and they give you an opportunity to really pay attention to the sound you are producing
posted by choppyes at 1:45 PM on June 6, 2011

I started playing at 28 - bought a mandolin on a whim, now some 15 years later I can play the guitar, drums and just started in on the piano - oh yeah, I bought a violin at some point in the 90's but still haven't learned it. Cello is also on my list. Not trying to be a virtuoso, just want to play at least one song on every instrument. It's been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The real beauty of learning an instrument when you are older is that the time really flies by. You'll look back on a year and you'll at least have something to show for it.
posted by any major dude at 1:46 PM on June 6, 2011

I've been having this conversation with myself for over a year now and I'm getting exactly nowhere.

That's unfortunate because if you started a year earlier, at 22, you would have been able to become quite good. Now you're relegated to hopefully attaining slight mediocrity.

Seriously, stop waiting. Buy a guitar or keyboard or whatever and then take lessons for at least 6 months. Practice everyday and put in the work learning music theory. Practice for at least 15-30 minutes, EVERY DAY. You'll can be a competent player by this time next year.

/framework: I started playing bass at age 15\16 but never really put much work into it. I picked it up for real in October of 2010 at age 25, followed the basic advice I outlined to you above and have landed every gig I've tried out for. I've settled into two bands (a covers band and originals band) and get paid to play for people now.
posted by zephyr_words at 1:49 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Consider taking private lessons. Will you be a world-famous virtuoso of your instrument? Probably not. Will you have fun? Probably! As far as guitar goes, a lot of modern music is accessible even to a beginner. As fun as learning songs can be though, make sure you don't neglect the boring aspects of practice, like learning various scales, chords and basic chord progressions. Those things will hone your ability to play, but also inform your wider understanding of music.
posted by Hylas at 1:55 PM on June 6, 2011

My great uncle started playing dulcimer in his 70s because he felt like it. Cut a record in his 80s. True story!

Kids (in general) are lazy and don't practice. You can override their youthful plasticity with your greater discipline.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:55 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Frankly, I don't think little kids are better at picking up stuff like this.

I mean, I think that if a very young person has an obvious interest or talent, that's something that should be indulged and honed as soon as possible.

But the vast majority of parents don't put their kids in piano lessons because they think they're going to have a career doing that someday. They do it because it's educational, makes you "a well rounded person", gives you something to put down in the extracurricular activities blanks on your college applications, etc. Or, yeah, because the kid is interested and it's a fun activity to do.

I started piano lessons at 6. At that age my hands weren't big enough to do some of the more important chords, and I didn't have the coordination to do one thing with my left hand and another thing with my right in a reliable way. I had a really hard time with music theory and reading music. And I hadn't had enough life experience to understand why I was doing all this.

These are all things that an adult brain, adult body, and adult maturity can do better. It's not like language learning where there's a critical period, and if you don't do it by a certain age you'll never get the hang of it. So if you're interested in playing an instrument, do it!
posted by Sara C. at 2:08 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I started mandolin at 21 and was pretty damn good in a couple of years, though I had plenty of prior musical experience to fall back on. I agree that you've got a bit of advantage as an adult, discipline-wise. If you want it, go for it!
posted by fiercecupcake at 2:14 PM on June 6, 2011

Nthing what everyone else has said. I teach music lessons on clarinet and saxophone. I play those instruments at a strong amateur level, having played them since I was 11. I also have the near-total beginner-as-adult experience on guitar. My checkered history on guitar:

Age 11 - messed around with older brother's guitar. Undoubtedly annoyed the hell out of him. Learned a few chords. Thank God no recordings apparently exist.

Age 30-ish - decided to get back into guitar for whatever reason. Bought a cheap acoustic Alverez and several months later, also got an electric - Fender Mexi-strat. The electric was probably a mistake at this stage - I started losing focus on what I should have really been doing at the time - just learning to pick and strum chords on the acoustic. I think my interest died out mainly because a) I was still on the early "arc" of my woodwind "career" - not that woodwinds are my day job, but I was then practicing like hell to try to get into better gigs and situations (which I did manage, but that's another story). My wife also discouraged me a bit because I was (and still am) interested in singing AND playing, and she used to kind of act like maybe my singing totally sucked. This all lasted about a year or maybe 18 months, but during that time I made pretty good progress.

Sold the electric and gave the Alverez to my nephew when he was about 13-14. I'm really happy that I did, as he has become a hell of a good guitar player (he's now 19).

Last year (age 40-mumble) - my 11 YO son wanted to start playing guitar. Something kinda stirred in my heart about a) having something he and I could actually do together and b) playing an instrument that's actually fun. I'm at another place in my woodwind "career" now. My playing opportunities are about as good as they are gonna get. I could practice for hours and hours to get better, but I've always been (unfortunately) wired to think about the utility of how I spend my time. So I'm in maintenance mode on woodwinds.

So I got us both guitars. Both el-cheapos - he needs a 3/4 scale, and I think his $100 Squier is about as good as a 3/4 really needs to be. I'll get him a great axe when he's a) physically bigger and b) when his playing really needs it.

A year later, I've upgraded my own acoustic to an Epiphone acoustic/electric (probably still a mid-range, or even lower mid-range, guitar, but it plays better than I do. Stupidly, I also went out and got another el-cheapo electric. Something in me can't stop chasing this weird idea of learning to play lead, even though I don't know how or why I would ever actually be in a band. But hey, as I have told myself at the outset of every weird musical experiment I've ever tried - no one has ever died from hearing someone play or sing badly.

(side-note: I'm working on my singing with a recorder, and I make it a point to usually practice when the wife isn't around. I'm slowly making progress)

So - there are some differences between my situation and yours, but contrary to popular belief, knowing one instrument class pretty well does not confer magic powers on you that ooze over and let you pick up other instruments and play them without a ton of work. I'd say I've been about as ignorant on guitar as any other rank beginner, other than knowing concepts like intonation and rhythm. In fact, sometimes the critical listening skills make it harder.

I've taught adult beginners and rusty retreads on clarinet and sax. It's true they have a high drop-out rate, but my observation is that:

- they make GREAT progress as long as they practice. This stuff about how kids learn better than adults is a total MYTH. Kids are idiots, and they can't focus. Adults can follow instructions better and are more adept at learning things. The "kids learn things adults can't" is a total copout.
- the failures (similar to my earlier adult failure on guitar) usually has more to do with self-critical thinking and comparison to others who've been playing longer or, candidly, have more talent that makes it easier for them. I'm now taking lessons on clarinet from a music prof with a PhD who was born when I was in jr. high band and first put a reed on a mouthpiece when I was college age. There's always a reason to beat yourself up.
- I think on woodwinds the opportunities to play are so limited outside of community bands and orchestras, many of which are hard to get into. This is actually a hard stop for a lot of people; most of my more successful adults have had some unique opportunity, like a chance to play in church.

Now, guitar doesn't have that last problem, and at age 23 you have your whole life ahead of you to learn and improve. A friend of mine who teaches guitar says that while many kids start young (age 10 or so), in his experience they often don't start getting really wrapped up in trying to play well until they're 17-19 years old. So you're behind the curve 4-5 years? That is exactly NOTHING.

So, the TL;DR and practical advice:

- get a teacher if you can, but if you can't spend some money on books and videos. Everybody wants to play this instrument, and I wish woodwinds had 1/10th the good instructional material out there. At least find some people who play a bit better than you, even if they don't consider themselves teachers, and jam with them.

- start with an inexpensive axe. Yamaha makes fine basic guitars for <>
- DON'T BE YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC. Don't be intimidated by people who play better than you. There's *always* someone who plays better than you. They should be helpful - if they're not, they're an asshole. Don't walk into the coffee shop and open your case week one, but once you get some songs under your belt PERFORM.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:14 PM on June 6, 2011

edit - Yamaha makes good guitars for about $200 or so. I won't retype the drivel about guitar snobs. Suffice it to say - get a good basic axe and be happy. You can buy the Gipson (or whatever) when you know exactly what direction your playing style has gone .
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:18 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Both the other guitarist and the bass player in my band started to learn to play guitar, their first instrument, in their 20s. They are both very good, in their 30s, and have been gigging at the biggest clubs in L. A. for years now.
posted by The World Famous at 2:36 PM on June 6, 2011

I'm 33 and started learning the guitar in earnest just last year. It's never too late to learn anything. The only thing you're too late for is having relatively more free time for practice. But if you can set aside the time for it, you will do well.
posted by emeiji at 2:39 PM on June 6, 2011

I'm 26, and I started playing somewhat-committedly at ~25, after a 10+ year hiatus. Before that, I had a couple of years of private lessons that my parents were more invested in than I was. I'm not great, I'm not even really that good, but I know I get out of it about what I put into it, and I have fun.

So go for it!
posted by Alterscape at 3:29 PM on June 6, 2011

My mom is a piano teacher with more than 50 years of experience. She occasionally works with adult beginners (and loves them). In general, adult beginners get past the "twinkle twinkle" stage and on to basic but actual music faster than kids.

Kids are hardwired to learn to walk and talk, and they pick those things up better than adults. In contrast, they're not hardwired to learn to paint landscapes or play the piano--these things are expressive, but they're not actually languages, pace Carl Suzuki--and all else being equal, they are slower to learn them.

Probably the hardest part about being an adult learner, though, is not having the time or external discipline source to practice as often. The second hardest part is convincing yourself that you're worth the cost of weekly professional lessons. Those two things sort of go hand-in-hand: if you plunk down the money for lessons, you're more likely to put in a half-hour of practice every day, and you'll see progress in no time!
posted by SomeTrickPony at 3:32 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I started out with a guitar in my 20s, but never really got into it. Then in my late 30s, I got my first ukulele. I now own three of them. I'm still not all that great at playing, but I know a ton of chords and can muddle my way through a lot of songs (seriously, Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" on the uke is really simple and really disturbing).

The key is finding the instrument that makes you happy. I love the uke, so even though I'm not a pro-level rock star, I work at it because it's so much fun for me.
posted by themissy at 3:33 PM on June 6, 2011

I started taking guitar lessons a year ago, at age 45. I've learned a lot more about music (which was my primary goal) in the past year, and have learned a few songs. Doubt I'll ever be a rock-star, but I have fun with it.

I'd recommend giving it a try.
posted by DaveP at 3:34 PM on June 6, 2011

Yeah, you're too old dude - get thee to a nursing home.

I'm late 20s, about to take up piano. Which I will probably suck at but that's more because I'm lazy with homework and not because I'm old. Still going to do it though!
posted by mleigh at 3:57 PM on June 6, 2011

Listen, the next ten years are gonna pass whether you pick up that guitar or not. At 33 you can have anywhere between zero and ten years of guitar experience and that's up to you. One year is enough to get to the campfire. In five years you'll be as good as most people who play in bands. At 43, you could have been playing for 20 years: half your life. Just pick up the damn guitar and start playing.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:02 PM on June 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

The only way to do it is to do it. Here is my story.

I bought Rock Band for the PS3 years ago, so that the people I lived with could play it with me; we all loved Guitar Hero.

Immediately we found that the guitar was defective, so I had to RMA it, which left us with a microphone and drums. But I really wanted to play it, and so did one of the others, so we did. All weekend.

Really, what I wanted to do was play guitar. But there was no guitar to play, so I played drums. I sucked at first. Just absolutely sucked. And at first, I told myself that I was only going to have to power through it long enough to unlock more songs for when the guitar showed up.

But eventually I found myself becoming good at it. Like, actually good at it. Like, I kept at it and though I'm still not at the professional level (mostly because I don't practice as much as I'd like), I wound up being a fairly competent drummer. The fact that drumming in Rock Band actually resembles drumming might have something to do with it, I don't know.

The point is that I honestly believe it's never too late to start. What stops you is not your brain being old and dusty, but how easy it is to get discouraged - especially if you believe that you won't learn. And I will tell you that as I played, I could almost feel new pathways opening and strengthening in my brain as I learned a new skill.

You can do it. Promise.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 4:32 PM on June 6, 2011

I not only didn't start playing music until my 20's, I also had the handicap of starting out at the bottom end of the bell curve for natural talent and not having consistent lessons from a qualified instructor. At this point I'm never going to be a famous rock star, but I'm capable of entertaining people at the occasional gig. (You can hear some of my MeFi Music postings here.)

If you start out with even average natural talent and get yourself some good instruction, you should be able to do better than I have.
posted by tdismukes at 4:52 PM on June 6, 2011

Apparently, this was a decent enough answer to a question similar to yours. The thread is good reading.
posted by plinth at 5:07 PM on June 6, 2011

I started playing the guitar 5 years ago, at 20. I wish I'd done it when I was 15, but hey, it never occurred to me. But it's occurred to you to play something, so do it! The only caveat I'd give is that you should be prepared for it to be very frustrating at first -- when you just can't get your damn fingers to go where they're supposed to, and they hurt after playing for 10 minutes, and you still can't really play any songs. But if you push through that first phase (couple of months at least, depending on how much you practice), it's all good from there. Or heck, maybe you're the type who relishes that kind of frustration and gets motivated by it; I just wasn't.

Remember: it's a steep learning curve, and in general, people who've played stuff for a long time have more or less plateaued since their first few years and only gotten better in fine increments, if they put in the effort. So if you enjoy learning your instrument, in a couple years you'll have pretty much caught up to most everybody else. Do it!
posted by frankly mister at 5:10 PM on June 6, 2011

I am almost twice your age and I've been playing drums for just a couple of years.

I have to practice pretty frequently in order to improve.

I can be a perfectionist and sometimes I can get really frustrated over a perceived lack of progress. I have to remind myself that my hobbies aren't allowed to stress me out.
posted by Sauce Trough at 5:20 PM on June 6, 2011

Like you need another "Do it!"...

Do it.

25 is young. Oddly, it is also old enough that you can't blame things on your parents, since you don't have to ask permission of them ANY MORE! You can just have sex, buy a house, rent a car, go on vacation, learn to play an instrument and they don't even have to be consulted. /snark

kidding aside... go for it. Guitar and piano are kind of intuitive. music theory is relatively simple... just some new words and concepts, but not many. reading music is really simple, but sight reading and getting it to a keyboard/fretboard is a lot slower.

dylan said all you need is three chords and the truth to be a song writer. i could teach you a three chord progression in a day.

if you can't stomach the conventional route (for piano), you might want to look into the Sudnow method.. It's for folks who want to do piano by ear.

Fastest way to learn guitar incorrectly is to play with other people. You come up to their level faster. A group makes mistakes fade and you just get better and better.

Really, you're going to be alive (hopefully) a lot longer. Get started now to maximize your enjoyment. There is a world of difference in listening versus performing music, and your appreciation of listening will even increase.

Good luck. (When you are ready, buy a Taylor guitar. Not that I'm biased or anything.)

posted by FauxScot at 5:41 PM on June 6, 2011

You can totally get to be good. I would suggest some instruments are harder as an adult. Trust me on this. Probably...classical violin and/or fiddle are kind of really darn hard to get good on later in life. Unless your heart is absolutely set on them, I would give them the pass. Same with oboe and french horn.

Guitar, banjo, piano, accordion...hard to go wrong with those.

The other thing is, you start with lessons. Don't be like "I'm going to teach myself and see if I like it, then get lessons". Because...lessons make you like it. And save you from developing bad habits.

And when you go to find a teacher, find a damn GOOD teacher.
posted by sully75 at 10:51 PM on June 6, 2011

Kids are just better at absorbing stuff like this, right?

No. Kids are much better at doing beginner stuff without noticing they don’t sound like the music in their heads, so they're less likely to get dispirited by the early stage, and also better at letting someone else manage their repertoire, so less likely to skip ahead to some unrealistically difficult piece. Oh, and kids tend to have less demands on their time, so they can fit in more lessons and practice.

Practice is key. If you can’t fit it in regularly, you’re unlikely to get your playing to a level you’re happy with, and the more good practice you do, the faster you’ll get there.

Note that I said ‘good’ practice. Good practice is methodical, and geared towards eliminating mistakes and establishing good technique. You can play for hours a day and never practice. Not that there's anything wrong with playing - in fact, it's what you need to do to get the enjoyment out. But you'll enjoy it a lot more (and steer clear of the bad stuff, like RSI) if you practice well too.

My beginners show signs of good progress on an hour a week - that’s under ten minutes a day, or twenty every other day. Should be manageable. More practice = more progress, but don’t practice beyond what you can manage physically; playing uses unfamiliar sets of muscles, and practicing when they're fatigued will encourage and reinforce short cuts and bad habits.

As you get better, you'll need more practice time; but hopefully you'll also be enjoying the playing enough that that’s not a problem.

The muscle thing is important. I gave up on attempts to learn clarinet as an adult, just because I couldn't bear the sound it made in my untrained mouth, despite assurances that it would be fine as soon as the muscles were there. Some instruments (particularly wind & brass, but also strings) just sound bad in the hands of a beginner, and you have to be prepared to get over that hump.
posted by monkey closet at 1:22 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Well if your looking to play an instrument the easiest for people at any age to learn is the guitar. Just learn tab and then the rest you can teach yourself.

Each line represents a string and each number on that string represents what fret to push down on on that string.

Most folk songs and songs from the 60's and 70's are easy to play. You just have to memorize them.

So depending on the instrument 25 is not young at all .you just need the time to be able to memorize the songs.
posted by majortom1981 at 4:37 AM on June 7, 2011

I started learning the oboe 3 years ago. I know several other people who started the oboe as adults. It only takes 5-10 years to be competent enough to be able to play anything you like. As long as you practice.

Music is not like sport. The age at which you've left it too late is more like 80 than 20. And even then, people still make it work.

Don't be self-limiting. You can be as good as if you'd started when you were young.
posted by plonkee at 5:04 AM on June 7, 2011

I can think of exactly zero reasons for you not to pick up an instrument. I started playing drumset at age 21, only started taking it seriously when I was about 26. The 10 years since then have been the best of my life, and I definitely equate that to music's involvement. If you find a variety of outlets and people you can learn/collaborate with, there really is no limit to where you can go with it. I started playing the vibraphone when I was 26 and was taking payed gigs by age 30. You just have to practice, but that is fun! Seriously, if you can find other people to learn with and some goals to work toward (a performance), progress will come much more quickly.

Being 'great' at something is is actually quite vague, at least outside of classical/jazz/bluegrass genres. Also, no matter how technically impressive your skills should become, I can promise there will be plenty of people (musicians, generally) who are not impressed.
posted by palacewalls at 9:34 AM on June 7, 2011

I'm one of those kids that begged to start playing violin as a preschooler and then just kept going. When I was about 10, my teacher had an adult student, about 55 or 60 years old. He performed in every recital as the only adult, surrounded by 9-18 year olds. He wasn't the world's best player, no. But he was good enough that he could put real emotion in to his playing. I really, really admired him.

In fact, as a child, the adults I admired were consistently the ones that weren't afraid to learn new things. I think that as children - particularly very young children - we have the patience to suck at something for many, many years. Did I sound great as an 8-year-old violinist? Nope. Even after 4 years of daily practice. It took me until It's rare for the average adult to practice something EVERY DAY, with heart, and still not be good at it for about 5 years. We're just not used to it any more.

I've recently played (as a substitute player) with a group of older women, between the ages of 50 and 70, in some chamber groups. They all took some lessons as children, but then stopped playing for at least 30 years. Now, they practice and take lessons. They LOVE music and really know the repertoire. They go to loads of concerts, but playing the music themselves lets them appreciate it in a whole new way. And are they great players? Nope. They're not. But with practice they can play a good bit of the standard chamber music repertoire, and they love it.

Although I don't have great evidence to back me up, I suspect that it is indeed true that learning some, if not all, musical instruments IS easier for children, in terms of technical facility. Just like learning languages is easier. But an adult brings maturity and focus to the learning process. And if you are willing to be not-very-good for a couple of years, there's no question that you can learn whatever instrument you choose.
posted by Cygnet at 9:51 AM on June 7, 2011

Oops, I mean *It took me until I was about 10 years old before I started playing real concerti and sounding good/decent.
posted by Cygnet at 9:53 AM on June 7, 2011

I hope you've got the message here: fuck yes learn an instrument.

I started with mandolin when I was 21 about and have since bridged to playing lots of fiddle as well. I'm 24.5 now, and playing (still mostly by myself, not always) and going to concerts is the happiest thing on earth.

I was parentally advised to take piano for two years during middle school, but I fought the power and quit. I now hate myself for that. But the years in between gave me some time to completely change what I listened to and grow a passion for listening which motivated me towards picking. So yes, do it.
posted by kjell at 12:47 PM on June 7, 2011

You absolutely can learn an instrument. It requires practice, lots of practice.
posted by theora55 at 1:10 PM on June 7, 2011

If you pick up an instrument and dedicate yourself to practicing regularly, in five years you will be 28 years old and able to play your instrument.

If you don't, in five years you will be 28 years old and not able to play an instrument.

Either way, in five years you'll be 28 (if you're lucky, that is). And either way, you're going to spend the next five years doing something with your time. So, how do you want to spend that time? Practicing an instrument, or feeling bad that you can't play one as you fritter your time away doing things that don't really call to your heart?

And honestly, if you're in your twenties and saying things like "I'm too old to [x]" you're going to get a lot of people in their forties, like me, rolling our eyes. I picked up one of these last year, thanks to this MeFi post, and have been having a fine old time playing with it. Do I sound great? Hell no. But I'm having fun and getting comfortable with it and slowly building up calluses on my fingering hand. Give it some more time, and I'll even feel comfortable enough to play where somebody else can hear me.

the easiest for people at any age to learn is the guitar

Oh, heavens no. That's why I got a Strumstick. Bill McNally, the inventor of the Strumstick, thinks the problem with encouraging beginners to take up guitar is that the first six months or so are spent learning the most basic things like fingering and strumming, and building up finger strength. So people get six months into it, still can't play much, and get discouraged. With a Strumstick, a beginner can pick it up and start noodling around and get pleasant sounds out of it. Then, once they've gotten comfortable and skillful with it, those skills will make it easier to pick up a guitar and start learning that.
posted by Lexica at 1:15 PM on June 7, 2011

I started to play trumpet in my 30s. No prior musical experience ever, but I've always loved music and wanted to play an instrument but I thought I was too old. Ten years ago a friend encouraged me to just do it, what was I afraid of? So I did and I've never regretted it. Maybe trumpet is not the best instrument for an ab initio adult student, but it's what I wanted to play. I do have to practice twice a day, but I can now play an instrument! And not just any instrument, the most fabulous one of them all, the king of instruments, the trumpet!

That's all it boils down to, just like everyone has said: will you practice? Regularly and often, and not just when you feel like it? If yes, then you can learn any instrument you want.
posted by phliar at 1:48 PM on June 7, 2011

One of the things I really love about playing (and I use the word loosely) my guitar is that I don't have to pressure myself to play it really well, I just really, really love playing it. I started playing it at about 24 knowing I was never going to be brilliant at it, and I mainly just strum or finger-pick along to my favourite songs using tabs on the internet, but even just that brings me tremendous joy. (Maybe I'm just very easily pleased, or maybe it's because I'm a perfectionist about some of my other hobbies and it's just nice to do something for fun without pushing myself all the time.) Maybe you too could entertain the idea that even if you don't get really good at it, there will still be something positive and fun and constructive in your life that wasn't there before, and I think that is definitely worth the cost of a used guitar.
posted by raspberry-ripple at 1:50 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I bought an electric bass at 29, and was playing part-time in a cover band that had monthly gigs at a local bar by the end of the year. I'm not good at all, and that band has since dried up, but I can, if given enough time, learn to play most simple songs.

It's definitely not too late for you. Get your guitar. Start playing. It doesn't matter how good you get, it matters how much fun you have doing it.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:38 PM on June 7, 2011

Would you tell yourself you're too old to learn how to use a drill press, or too old to learn how to navigate your new city's subway system?

As a working musician, I'm always struck by how often people think of learning music as magical and romanticized, fundamentally different from and exalted above other kinds of self-training.

Skill on an instrument is based on repetition, just like any other skill.

(I'll also throw out the idea that if you want to jam with other people, there are plenty of instruments on which you can make a great sound with no training at all -- thumb piano, most hand percussion, most drums. Do you like drum circles...?)
posted by kalapierson at 10:18 AM on June 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

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