What am I up against learning to play an instrument as an adult?
October 3, 2005 12:06 AM   Subscribe

What are your experiences learning to play an instrument as an adult?

I've taken up playing guitar more seriously than I used to, but I wonder about ever actually getting good at it. I'm 31, so not exactly elderly, but I would be keen to hear other people's experiences at learning an instrument as an adult.

Does anyone know how much difference it makes as opposed to learning as a child (which I assume to be a great deal). Should I have lower expectations for what I can achieve?
posted by tomble to Education (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My observation is that if you are dedicated, and really practise (ie two hours a day, every day), you can do it. I have had several friends who learned instruments (guitar, violin, flute, sax) as an adult and achieved professional-level fluency.

I can tell you from personal experience that I learned the violin from the age of seven, and find it utterly natural now. My experience learning other instruments as an adult is that it harder to burn in new motor skills, and it frustrates me no end that I can send the messages but my fingers don't do what they're told. In fact, I'm probably worse as an adult learner than other people are who come to an instrument with no expectations. I feel like I ought to be better than I am, and I'm not. However, regular practice is dissolving all problems, just as it did with the instrument of my youth - just slower.

So my take would be yes, you can achieve as high a level of proficiency as you would if you started when you were eight, but it will take you longer. On the upside, you probably have the mental toughness to practise, and the analytical ability to know what you need to practise, which no young child has.

You should not have lower expectations for what you can achieve. But you should have lower expectations for how long it will take. How much longer is a function of the time you can devote, and the frequency with which you can devote it. My feeling is that if you can practise every day for half an hour, that is more beneficial than longer sessions with less frequency. I don't know of any rule of thumb though. No one can say how long children will take, after all; why should adults be any different? (And there's no upper end to proficiency anyway).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:34 AM on October 3, 2005 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Adults tend to have a better understanding of what it is they're trying to achieve - consequently, they tend to have less patience with the initial learning stages.

You need to build up the right muscles, and make the right movements a matter of habit, before you'll be a good player. That doesn't happen overnight to anyone, regardless of age. The big difference (to me as a teacher, certainly) is that kids have a lot more time for the developmental pieces you find in beginners' books.

i_am_joe's_spleen is dead right - little and often. We don't talk enough about the dangers of overpractising, but you have to be aware that you are learning a whole new set of physical skills, and developing bits that you probably don't use much normally.

Be sensible about your practice. The quality of a practice session is more important than it's duration, particularly if you're practicing frequently (as you should, if you're after results). Warm up, get the environment right, watch your posture.

When you're starting out, and those fingers aren't quite as strong or nimble as you'd like, it won't sound good. Don't let that put you off - everyone goes through it. As I said before, one difference between an adult beginner and a child is the adult's greater musical awareness. I had a much harder time learning instruments once I was already proficient in one, because I realised what a bad sound beginners make. You just have to work through it.
posted by monkey closet at 1:14 AM on October 3, 2005

Followup to money closet's observation on practise length: I mentioned two hours, and half an hour. Half an hour is a good time to aim for to start with. Two hours is what you need to build up to, slowly, if you want to be really, really good. But you can't build up to two hours practise any faster than you can build up to two hours running every day.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:23 AM on October 3, 2005

Little and often is absolutely correct. One advantage of starting when you're younger is that you're more likely to be in some sort of ensemble that rehearses regularly and gives you time on the instrument regularly, even if its easy, unchallenging music. I have an uncle who started guitar in his 30s, and became competent by playing 1/2 an hour a day 4-5 days a week. Don't read anything into those numbers; he's just an example of someone who got to the point that he was comfortable with the instrument and enjoyed playing with a moderate amount of effort well into adulthood.
posted by gsteff at 1:27 AM on October 3, 2005

even if its easy, unchallenging music

Especially. Have a few pieces that are pushing your technique, but if you push all the time without ever consolidating, you'll never get a really firm technical basis, and you'll eventually find a 'brick wall', beyond which you won't be able progress without deliberate (and tough) relearning of your technique.

I've been performing at least semi-professionally since I was 12, and I quickly learned to appreciate the value of playing easier music well.
posted by monkey closet at 2:03 AM on October 3, 2005

Best answer: I started playing banjo at 30 and started piano two years ago. As has been mentioned, the key is dedication. Practice a little every day and don't expect greatness. Soon enough you will be surprised at what you have already accomplished.
posted by captainscared at 8:05 AM on October 3, 2005

Whatever you end up doing, find an online community to support you. I am a music education student and have been playing trombone for about nine years. There is an excellent trombone website and forum that has helped me with many problems and given me much advice. These sorts of places are often VERY supportive of folks who want to get back in the game, or who just want to get in the game in the first place. Do a bit of Googling-- I'm sure that there are places out there that would be happy to help you.
posted by rossination at 8:48 AM on October 3, 2005

Best answer: I took up piano during college, and started taking lessons again nearly four years ago. Having a teacher makes a big difference - it compels you to practice more regularly, for starters. For me, I found that an 1 hour lesson every two weeks is about the right frequency/amount. The right teacher would also know how to tailor the curriculum to better suit an adult student.

Practice tips that I can't often stick to myself: go over the technically difficult passages slowly and repeatedly even when you are tempted to speed up; concentrate, really listen to the sound you are making.

Once you get to a certain level, (and it doesn't have to be that advanced,) you should seek out opportunities to play with other people - it's always such a blast! (With piano, ensembles usually only take very good players, but I've done four-hand pieces with my teacher.)

I didn't enjoy learning an instrument (baritone horn back then) as a child half as much as I do now, because I wasn't self-motivated then. On the other hand, I'm more self-conscious about playing in front of other people now.
posted by of strange foe at 3:13 PM on October 3, 2005

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