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How Old Is Too Old?
By Shannon Price
10/26/2010 11:22:00 AM

Emily H. called me today and her question was this: “I’m 35, and isn’t that too old to start music lessons?” Silly question I thought, because in my mind, 35 isn’t anywhere near “old”. I told her there is no such thing as too old to start ANYTHING, especially music lessons!

She told me she wanted to take piano lessons but was concerned that no one would teach a beginner of her age. Emily was delighted when I told her I had piano teachers available who only want to take adult students. Then, that old anxiety kicked in for Emily of being out of school for so long that she was afraid of starting something that required patience and study.

After we spoke for a few more minutes, it was apparent that she was excited at the prospect of actually being able to play the instrument that had been in her home for so long. Before the brave phone call she had tinkered on the keys not really knowing what to do, but making music nonetheless. Her mind at ease, we set up the lesson time, and although obviously nervous, Emily was quite happy to begin her latest life journey.

This is a common feeling among adults. “Should I even attempt this? Am I too old? Is it silly to think I could start now?” What do YOU think?

Here are some of the common fears adults may have with some little side trips to reality:

  • Will my teacher drop me if I make a lot of mistakes?
    Reality: 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 that problem in the future. The teacher can give you techniques to use during practice. If you have mistakes that you somehow are able to hide during the lesson, the teacher can’t help and the problems will keep happening – and may appear later when you are performing. Also, fear of making mistakes tends to distract you from the music and will actually CAUSE the very mistakes you were trying to avoid!
  • Do I have to study classical music before I can play rock or jazz?
    Reality: If your goal is to play popular music, or jazz - or even to mix those styles with classical music, the idea that you have to start with classical music isn’t exactly true. The best way to study music theory is through POPULAR music! For pop music, chords are presented as symbols, without even having to read music (like guitar chords that are printed above the music staff and tabs). Remember though, theory knowledge can make you a better performer, a better sight-reader, better at improvisation, and a better overall musician, but avoiding popular music until classical music is mastered is not necessary.
  • Don’t children learn faster than adults?
    Realty: It is a false notion that a child’s brain is more receptive. What probably happens is that children are less encumbered by the everyday stress and business of life, so they tend to have less mental clutter. This results in a naturally better focusing ability which might look like the child is able to absorb new material faster. Actually, adults who experience that feeling of wanting to make up “for lost time,” often learn faster than children.

    An adult who is just a dabbler and whose everyday life is typically hectic and frazzled will tend to learn slower — not because they don’t practice enough, but because their energy is so distracted. Another cause of distraction is self-judgment and impatience. Children usually have never even heard most of the music they are learning. Adults have had a lifetime to become familiar with music so they know how it is “supposed” to sound, and they compare their ability to play something with “knowing” what it should sound like.

    It’s this comparison that can cause enough stress and anxiety for them to lose interest or stop playing altogether. Remember, you won’t play like a professional after just three or four weeks. Once you relax and give yourself a break – you’ll improve!
  • Since I didn’t begin lessons as a child it I’ll never be able to play well as an adult.
    Reality: It’s never too late. Neural stimulation as a child DOES help with musical ability as an adult, but it doesn’t necessarily happen from just music lessons. Kids who are great at sports, gymnastics or dance are often the best at piano. That’s not a surprise to most people, but what is surprising is that adults show the same parallel! An adult who was athletic as a child will find it easier to learn piano as an adult, because that neurological stimulation lasts your whole lifetime.
  • I have to practice every day.
    Reality: Taking two or three days off from practicing during the week will help you progress faster than if you practiced everyday. The rest periods are when your brain absorbs and organizes your efforts. It should be guilt-free so you get the complete benefit of the day of rest. If you practice seven days a week and miss a day, you will probably be stressed about it and practice more the next day to make up for the missed day. This approach never works, and you get more mistakes and more frustrated because your poor brain is working overtime. Things come up – our lives are busy, give yourself and your brain a break. Why not practice 4 days a week (and not necessarily in a row) and give yourself some time to absorb it.
  • Shouldn’t I practice for an hour or more - I just don’t have time.
    Reality: Shorter practice times are perfect! After about 15 minutes of an activity, the average person becomes mentally fatigued (where was I? Oh yeah...). Short bursts of concentration repeated frequently are much more effective than one long session. So, even if you only have 10 minutes, DO IT. Do another 10 minutes later in the day or the next day. 

    Sometimes a half-hour or more is just not feasible in a busy day, and the result is that you miss practicing altogether. Another tip: don’t practice if you are tired, angry, distracted, or if you are in a hurry because you may associate these feelings with your practice time. If you do have lots of time and want to practice for a while, make it a sort of circuit training. Spend 15 or 20 minutes learning a part of one piece. Then switch to practicing hand and finger techniques. This way, your mind is resting while your fingers are getting a workout. Then return to the same section of the piece and you will be mentally refreshed. Go on to a new piece, etc. You know – never a dull moment...
  • I won’t EVER be able to improvise because I’m not good enough.
    Reality: Don’t be limited by what is normally thought of as “jazz improvisation” -- use mental improvisation. Use your mind to be aware of chord changes and the various scales and notes that correspond to the chord progression you are playing. There are other types of improvisation too. Emotional improvisation is expressing your emotions through music. Spiritual improvisation is when you are tuning-in to something much bigger than you. Ironically, in order to do these two types of improvisation you need to turn OFF your mind.

    These types of improvisation will create an intimacy and connection between you and your instrument. Knowing theory alone will not make you improvise better. I know several wonderfully talented musicians who have more than one degree in music and performance, and cannot improvise at all – they NEED sheet music, mechanics, and complete structure and can’t seem to just close their eyes and play what they feel, because it was never encouraged as being OK to do that. To improvise, you also need courage, spontaneity, and freedom what you hear in your head.
  • If I want to play other instruments, I have to start with the piano.
    Realty: This is a myth. Some of the best guitarists, violinists and flutists and saxophonists NEVER had piano lessons. Learning any instrument will have its challenges. I must mention here (since I am a keyboard player first and guitar player second) that there ARE certain things that are clearer on the piano because the notes are laid out in a linear order, in front of you, so it is often easier to understand. But that doesn’t necessarily make learning another instrument easier.

Anxiety about starting anything new is normal, but should never stop you from a new beginning. If individual lessons are making you sweat, try some group lessons where everyone is in the same boat. You will find that group lessons are offered on a variety of instruments. After some skill is developed there are programs like New Horizons Orchestra and Weekend Warriors for you to hone those skills and play in organized groups. HEY – what are you waiting for? Go out and play!!!

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Tags: adult students, beginning adult students, conservatory, lessons
Categories: Conservatory
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