by Shannon Price
A friend called me recently and asked, “I’m 35—isn’t that too old to start music lessons?” I told her there is no such thing as too old to start anything, especially music lessons.
She wanted to take piano lessons but was concerned no one would teach a beginner her age. I said I have piano teachers who only want adult students. Then she worried about starting something that requires patience and study, having been out of school so long. After we talked a few more minutes, she became excited about finally playing the piano that had been in her home so long.
Before her brave phone call, she had tinkered on the piano keys, not really knowing what to do, but making music nonetheless. Her mind at ease, we set up lessons, and although nervous, she was quite happy to begin her latest life journey.
Her questions are shared by many adults who want to learn an instrument. They are afraid it’s too late to learn piano or any instrument for that matter, but rest assured, it isn’t. Here is a more detailed list of common concerns among adult beginners, along with my observations about what they can actually expect.
Will my teacher drop me if I make a lot of mistakes?
Most teachers love teaching and are inspired when they see someone who really tries and likes to practice. In fact, good teachers prefer to witness your mistakes so they can help you not only fix the problem but learn how to avoid it in the future. If you have mistakes that you are able to hide during a lesson, the teacher can’t help and the problems will keep occurring. Don’t fear mistakes. That fear will distract you and actually cause the errors you are trying to avoid.
Do I have to study classical music before I can play rock or jazz?
If your goal is to play popular music or jazz, the idea that you have to start with classical music isn’t true. In fact, a good way to begin studying music theory is through popular music! In pop music, chords are presented as symbols (much like a guitar tab for a rock song), so you play without sight reading. Of course, understanding music theory and sight reading eventually will make you better and more able play with others and perform.
We must understand that children are less encumbered by stress and the business of life, which results in better focusing, making it seem as though a child absorbs new material faster. Actually, adults who want to make up for lost time often learn faster than children. Another cause of distraction is self-judgment and impatience. Children usually have never heard the music they’re learning, whereas adults worry too much about sounding like the professional on a record. Relax and give yourself a break, then you’ll improve!
Will I have to practice every day?
Taking two or three days off from practicing during the week will help you progress faster than if you practice every day. The rest periods are when your brain absorbs and organizes your efforts. This time off should be guilt-free so you get the complete benefit from days of rest. If you practice seven days a week and miss a day, don’t practice more the next day to make up. This approach never works, and you make more mistakes and get frustrated because your brain is working overtime.
Should I practice for an hour or more? I just don’t have time
Shorter practice times are perfect! After about 15 minutes of an activity, the average person becomes mentally fatigued, so short bursts repeated frequently are more efficient than one long session. If you only have 10 minutes, go for it. Do another 10 minutes later in the day. By the end of the week, you might have had 15 or 20 mini practice sessions. If you do have lots of time and want to practice for a while, circuit train. Spend 15 or 20 minutes learning a part, then switch to practicing hand and finger techniques. This way, your mind rests while your fingers get a workout.
Improvisation is about creating an intimacy and connection between you, your instrument, and the music. It’s about experimenting with chord combinations, jamming, and making mistakes until music making becomes instinctual. Understanding music theory will not necessarily make you improvise better. I know several talented musicians who have more than one degree in music and cannot improvise at all because they were never encouraged to be OK with that. To improvise you need courage, spontaneity, and freedom to play what you hear in your head.
If I want to play other instruments, DO I have to start with the piano?
This is a myth. Some of the best guitarists, violinists, flute players, and saxophonists never had piano lessons. But since I am a keyboard player first and guitar player second, I know there are certain things that are easier to understand on the piano, but this doesn’t always make learning another instrument easier.
Anxiety about starting anything new is normal, but fear should never stop you from trying. If individual lessons are making you sweat, try group lessons. After some skill is developed, there are community bands and programs such as New Horizons Orchestras and Weekend Warriors for you to hone those skills, have fun, and make music with a group. So what are you waiting for? Go out and play!