Can You Learn an Instrument As a Grown-Up?

One of the things we discover as we get older is that we are never “done.” There is always something new to learn. There are always ways to improve ourselves so that we keep growing, at least in a figurative sense.

There are plenty of ways for us to improve or polish our skills whether we’re 20, 30, or over 40. One of the most popular ways this manifests itself is when you learn to play a new instrument (or when you pick up an instrument you dropped as a kid).

Learning an Instrument: Never “Too Old”

Whether you’ve decided to try the piano or the ukulele (it’s cool, I’m impressed by Amanda Palmer’s Ukulele Anthem, too), it’s never too late and you’re never too old. Here are some things that you need to consider if you want to be able to master your chosen instrument.

1. Everybody Learns Differently

Some people learn best in a classroom environment. They make it into a competition trying to master scales and simple melodies before the other students master theirs. Others learn best on their own, choosing to use videos and books to master technique and then learning primarily by ear. Maybe you learn best in a one-on-one environment where you have the undivided attention of a teacher.

Whatever your learning style, play to that. Use YouTube, take a class at your local community college or community center or look up a local teacher on TakeLessons and get to work. Embracing your learning style is going to improve your chances of success considerably.

2. Don’t Compare

It’s hard not to compare yourself to younger students who seem to master their scales and techniques years before you do. It’s easy to look at their quick success and think, “It’s true, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” and get discouraged.

Stop it. Stop it right now.

The reason it’s taking you longer isn’t because you can’t learn. It is taking you longer to learn because first, you have to unlearn some bad habits you picked up as you were air banding and plinking around on your own before you decided to get serious.

Younger students don’t have all of that stuff to unlearn. Instead, according to this great piece on NPR, a child’s brain simply makes some of the new cells it is developing into “music” cells and those cells retain the information the child needs to play well. As an adult, you’re using cells that have already been trained to do other things and it takes your brain longer to figure out how to do the new mapping.

3. Slow Down

As an adult - unlike a child who is discovering music and often learning to play something after only hearing it a few times - you have definite opinions about how music is supposed to sound. This can make you rush through the beginning and look for shortcuts.

Slow down and, as boring as it might be, master the basics and take the time to really learn each measure of the music. In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Diane Cole writes about having to force herself to slow down, play through pieces with one hand and then the other (she was learning piano), and really focus on the music and technique.

Most of all, don’t give up. It’s easy to get discouraged but when you can finally play whatever you want to, you’ll be glad you took the time to learn!


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