Learn Now Music, Inc.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The conundrum of the ‘Adult Student’ - Part 2 of 3

There are three main hurdles that adult students face when embarking on their musical journey. We laid these out in the previous post, and now we’ll go through some analogies and discuss ideas for mentally dealing with these issues in a healthy way.

Let’s start with difficulty. While listening to a guitarist rock out on his solo, or watching a concert pianist float her fingers effortlessly over the keys, the layperson might be fooled into thinking that music is simple, and as effortless to perform as it can be to watch. When Roger Federer gracefully swings a tennis racket, no one says to themselves, ‘yeah, I could probably do that’. It would be silly to make that kind of assumption, and music is much the same. All of those physical, musical actions have been performed hundreds of thousands of times, which is why they look so simple even when they are incredibly complex.

Those hundreds of thousands of repetitions take TIME. Of course they do! Making anything appear effortless and easy is the result of a ‘rinse and repeat’ model, and the more complex the task, the more repetitions are needed. Adults do have responsibilities that take up much of their time, and often hobbies are lucky to get half an hour a day. That is all right – music is not an all-or-nothing game. Learning slowly is better than not learning at all, because this is not a race. Music is a journey. There is no finish line. Just ask Pierre Boulez, who is still conducting at 88!

Finally, we come to the toughest challenge of all: expectations. It is relatively easy to wrap our heads around the idea that music is difficult – it’s demanding mentally, emotionally, and physically (if I gave you a trombone, do you think you could comfortably hold it upright for six hours a day, much less operate it dextrously?). It makes sense that time would be a factor in learning to play an instrument. But expectations are the trickiest, simply because we are adults, and that means we have been listening to music for a long, long time. We understand music – we sense how sounds are put together in complex, intricate ways that school-age kids mostly do not. We know when a song is good and when it’s bad. We know when a song makes sense and when it doesn’t. We might not be able to analyze what we are hearing in technical terms, but our impressions still inform the way we approach learning to play a piece of music that we have heard before (or even pieces we haven’t heard, but still share a set of familiar musical elements).

When we try to learn a new piece of music, we try to recreate the sounds that we have already heard. Even with a piece that we haven’t listened to before, we have expectations that the sounds coming from our piano or guitar (or what have you) will be as rich and full and impressive as that recording we just heard on the stereo. It is very difficult to reconcile the huge distance between what we hear and what our amateur technical skills are able to produce; usually the only thing that fills the void is frustration, and frustration is the number-one vanquisher of well-meaning adult students.

Understanding the serious time involvement, the technical and mental challenges, and seeing our expectations for what they are is a great step towards being devoted, happy amateur musicians. In the next post, we’ll look at some ‘best practices’ for the adult student, and how these can help put into context the great adventure of musical learning for a lifetime!

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Thursday, January 9, 2014

The conundrum of the ‘Adult Student’

Part 1 of 3

I have had a number of exceptional adult students over the years. They have been thoughtful, engaging, dedicated people who took music and learning seriously, and made incredible progress towards their artistic goals. What makes this group of successful ‘adult students’ all the more special is that they either did not fall into, or worked their way out of, challenging traps that many of our adults encounter when they try and pick up an instrument as an adult, either for the first time or as a way to hearken back to their elementary school days of musical exploration.

This first installment will address the main pitfalls associated with learning music as an adult.

Time: adults do not have the flexible schedules that children do (although, these days, children don’t even have the flexible schedules that children do!) Learning an instrument takes time, and adults don’t often have a lot of that laying around.

Difficulty: learning an instrument is challenging, and it’s not guaranteed that the skills learned on the way to adulthood will in any way transfer to easily and quickly learning music. Every instrument has its own unique physical requirements, and these skills can take a while to develop.

Expectations: if an adult hasn’t been a musician before, or maybe only played a few years as a youngster, we need to be clear: the life of a professional musician is probably not on the horizon. No one deciding to pick up chess in their thirties or forties expects to become a grandmaster in 18 months – dusting off that cello and rosin-ing up a new bow is not going to put anyone in league with Yo-Yo Ma by their next birthday, as nice as that idea might be. A fair level of musical proficiency is always possible, but it is important to realize that the greatest musicians not only play for hours a day now, they have done so for most of their lives. Read: they have a 20,000 hour (that’s a really low estimate) ‘head start’ on the aspiring amateur beginning in adulthood.

That was all the sobering, ‘bad’ news. The good news is this: each of these issues can be dealt with once they are understood, and adult students can gain a true love and enjoyment out of their musical experiences, just as much (and maybe more!) than any youngster. We’ll address these in the next post!

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