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April 2004

The Adult Beginner

by Julie Tebbs

I've been surprised and impressed by the number of adults who will begin the challenge to learn to play the violin. In preparing for this article I've requested email input from the adult beginners that I've had contact with and will be using their suggestions as well as giving you my own thoughts.

I've come to believe there is one great myth out there regarding the adult who takes up a new instrument: "It is harder for an adult than it is for a child." There are many versions of this: "Children are more flexible;" "You can't teach an old dog new tricks!" Well I don't believe this is true at all. I believe the reason this myth persists is due to different expectations between adults and children.

Children want to play because they heard a violin somewhere; or a parent or grandparent plays and they want to be like them, or for many other reasons. But children are used to being on the beginning end of things, and are used to people teaching them and telling them how to do things. They go to their lesson every week, Mom or Dad helps them practice every day, and before they know it they've been at it for a couple of years and are sounding pretty good!

The adult on the other hand is by now very proficient at their chosen profession and in many cases is the teacher and not the student in their field. It is uncomfortable therefore, to be a beginning violinist and to play at a beginner level in front of someone who is proficient (his or her teacher). They look constantly for progress and measure themselves against a standard that they have chosen -- often an unrealistic standard.

I had one student who said he'd always wanted to play violin. His wife gave him a violin and a month of lessons for his birthday, and he was very excited and very nervous. At work he was used to being in front of a boardroom full of executives and this is where he was most comfortable. When he came to lessons he was sweating and nervous and nothing I could do really calmed him down. I'm really not that intimidating! It was just too hard for him to be the beginner again. He lasted about a month and then was too busy with work to continue with violin.

The adult students who stick with it have no pre-set expectations other than to play as well as they can. I asked adult beginners what their expectations were when they began lessons. Heather, who began viola lessons in her 40's said she expected it to be difficult and expected to take as long as two years before she'd want to play for anyone. Bill, who began in his 60's said he had no real expectations, he just wanted to do as well as he could. Melody, who began lessons in her 30's, said she just wanted to be able to share music with her son and husband. All of these students have been playing for more than a year now and are seeing great improvements in their tone and in their overall playing.

Staying motivated is particularly challenging for the adult student. I advise all my students to continue to play passed-off songs in their practice sessions. When you've finished a song and moved on to the next one, play the old songs in your practice sessions often. They can be good warm-up, and they are great encouragement. They get gradually easier and easier which lets you realize that this song that was once so hard is now easy! You have visible progress!

Bill stays motivated by listening to good players. He says it's all difficult, but also fun "when sometimes I make real music." A big help for Heather has been keeping a violin journal. "About once a month I write in it," she says. "It helps me sort out motivation hurdles. I try to make a record of it any time I have an A-ha moment. It helps me keep the bigger picture in mind." Listening to really lovely music also motivates her. Having a goal she wants to meet by a specific time and preparing to play for others is a great motivator. "Because it is so difficult, the sense of accomplishment on mastering a new skill is absolutely thrilling" says Heather.

Melody says, "Having the common interest [with my husband and son who both play violin] bonds us together in a very sweet way. This gives me lots of motivation to keep learning even though I improve very slowly. And as a role model, I want to show [my son] that I won't quit even though it is not easy."

I asked the adult students if they had advice for someone considering violin lessons as an adult. Bill said, "Go for it!" Heather advises, "Be very honest with yourself about your reasons for wanting to begin playing, and about the time and energy you will have available to invest. Having said that, I would still encourage almost anyone to at least give it a try. Learning something new, especially something as challenging as violin, has been shown in scientific studies to be one of the best protectors against dementia in older age!"

Now a few words for the teachers. Teachers need to be aware of the different motivations and teaching approaches for adults versus children. Heather mentioned that it is important not to demand performance in recitals from adult students. I agree with this and always encourage my adult students to play, but let them have the final say. If they choose not to play in the recital, then they can come listen and support the other students. "Also," says Heather, "Practice rules will be different. Stickers might make an adult feel kind of silly. Instead tell students about new skills presented in each song. Validate their sense of accomplishment by mentioning each thing they learned when they pass off each piece.

"Teachers can help [their adult students] best by tuning in to each student personally. Maybe even keep some notes on file, review them right before the lesson or once a month, especially if you have a large studio or an otherwise hectic schedule. Keep reminding us of the benefits of learning violin, tell us how courageous we are, (we are courageous, you know!) and help us to be reasonable in our expectations."

Here are some further suggestions for other adult beginners:

Bill: "I have new questions every week and we deal with them. There is no substitute for a real live teacher."

Heather: "A news story on TV talked about recent research showing that our brains record almost exclusively the last frame of mind or emotion associated with any experience. Here's how this works: you could spend 30 minutes at the dentist getting your teeth drilled without anesthesia, and if you won a million dollars on the way out the door, you would look forward to returning to the dentist!

"Ok maybe that's a bit exaggerated, but I decided to try it. For about a week, I ignored the timer and made sure to stop playing on a 'high'. It worked, creating almost uncontrollable urges to play! Thoughts bordering on insanity would enter my mind that went something like this: 'If I get up 20 minutes early tomorrow, I can play for 15 minutes before work.'

"I also remember clearly periods of time when I was working specifically on extending my stamina, and would be thoroughly worn out every day when I put down the violin. Soon I would begin thinking of a time to practice and think: 'I'm too tired to practice!' And I really felt tired too. So with all the other things we have to think of and remember while practicing, we need to figure out how to end on a high note almost all of the time. For myself, playing violin is a treat and a pleasure. In my heart of hearts, I feel it is a sacred privilege.

"Teachers who are on their toes can help students feel this way too and send students out the door with a million dollars every week."

Geanellen: "I have found out that my dear very old fashion tape recorder, (probably the 1st kind ever made way back when in my much "younger" years) :-) [is very useful]. I take that to class with me and I tape what the teacher says, and have her play the pieces she wants me to work on. If the piece is a fast Irish jig, she'll play it the way it is suppose to sound up to tempo, but then she'll slow it down. Sometimes she breaks it down into measurers. Then all week at home during my practice sessions I turn on the tape recorder and play along with it. It also has helped me to learn where to place my fingers, so I'll stay in tune with the music.

"I feel that this out of any suggestions is probably the best one for me. As a very active senior citizen, I have a gazillion things going on in my head, including helping my 90-year-old mother who is legally blind and still lives at home on a 10-acre farm with cattle. By the time I get home from a lesson, I don't always, (well, OK hardly ever) remember whether the teacher said, 'bow up' or 'bow down' etc., so by having the tape recorder, she talks to me every time I practice, and we practice together. :-)"

All these adult students have mentioned that playing the violin is quite a challenge. It reminds me of the movie "A League of Their Own." Dotty tells her coach Jimmy that she's quitting baseball because it just got too hard. He very wisely replies, "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard everyone would do it. It's the hard that makes it great!" All these adult students have tackled the challenge of the violin and are practicing right through the hard times. You inspire me!

Many thanks to the students who bravely helped me with this article. To talk to other beginning violinists, we suggest subscribing to the Yahoo Group called "Beginning Adult Violinists"!

Reader comments:

From Tracy in Canada:
"I began violin lessons at the age of 34 with a private instructor. Unfortunately, the biggest challenge for an adult student is finding adequate practice time (and practicing intelligently). I have been unable to study violin as much as I would like because of other responsibilities. It is imperative to find good instructor who understands the needs of adult students, with regard to their time and how to make the most of it.

"There is a wonderful book I would recommend to anyone beginning a musical instrument. It's called: "Never Too Late" by educator/motivational speaker, John Holt. [Editor's note: It is available from Amazon HERE.] He took up the cello in his forties and became proficient enough to join chamber groups and community orchestras. One may never reach a concert violinist's abilities, but I believe an adult who puts enough passion into their instrument will be able one day, (at least 10 years) to play some pretty wonderful music. Maybe not the Mendelssohen or Brahm's concertos, but enough stuff to fulfill and enrich their lives for years to come.

"It's the whole musical journey and growth involved that make it such a worthwhile pursuit. Anything worthwhile is difficult. I would encourage any adult with a passion for music, to continue and perservere. The rewards are infinitely satisfying."

From Mark in Charleston, SC:
"I'm turning 49 this May and I just starting to play the fiddle this past month. I felt no intimidation starting to learn and I refuse to see it as barrier that is 'very difficult to learn.' Of course there's lots to learn - life is full of challenges and greatfully so.

"I started playing soccer at 30 and within 5 years played on a team with premier players that represented our city. The ultimate reward was getting to play against a team from Scotland that had 3 players from my grandfather's hometown. He came to the U.S. to play football (soccer). All I have to do to find motivation to play the fiddle is to remember this story.

"I had years of formal piano lessons and learned to play the guitar by myself and with others. I grew up hearing the music of New Breton, Prince Edward Island (PEI). My family is Scot/Irish/French Canadian and my wife's family is from Ireland. The music I feel in my soul is what I want to play. It's not going to be 'hard to learn' I just have to let it come out.

"I listen to A LOT of fiddle music all day long; Irish, Scot, New Breton, Quebec, etc. This is the music I heard in our kitchen as a child and on neighbors front steps each Sunday after church. I can remember playing the spoons and feeling the music fill me. Now I just have to let it come back out. It's interesting that as I listen to the music and play the fiddle, I have visions of years ago that I hadn't remembered in years.

"I initially bought an inexpensive ($70) violin outfit and instructional book/CD. It was enough for me to get out a few tunes but I wanted to take it further. I visited a local music shop this week, met the violin instructor and staff, and made the decision to rent a fiddle and start taking lessons. We agreed that an adult with limited time to practice must get as much as they can out of professional instruction. An instructor can answer many of the questions I have, help with technique, and so much more.

"I decided to rent a very nice outfit from the store because the cost of owning an expensive fiddle just doesn't make sense to me. As with most music stores, the cost is quite low and the options much better as compared to purchasing. I really don’t have the skills at this point to choose the right instrument by myself. The rental charge includes setup, repairs, and new strings. I can also change instruments as needed or purchase it later.

"I sometimes play for only 30 min. or as long as three hours. If I don't have much time, all I work on are scales or just one song. I bought a metal mute – the family is happy again.

"Why start playing the fiddle at 49 - why not!"

From Lupe in Los Angeles, CA:
"I read your article about the adult beginner. I loved how it tells you that it is never too late to start to play the violin. I’m 27 yrs old. I play the piano and I just started to take violin lessons. It was something I’ve always wanted to do. But while I was looking for a violin teacher, one teacher I spoke to kind of disappointed me. She asked if it was for a child and I told her that it was for me and that I was 27 yrs old. She said that if I wanted I could give it a try and see if I would be able since I was kind of old. Because it was better to start as a child because that’s when you’re more flexible. And it would be way to hard for me. I told her that it was ok. That I was no longer interested. I then called several other teachers and explained to them what I had been told. They told me that wasn’t true and that it didn’t matter how young or old you are to start to learn. What mattered was if I liked it and if it was something I wanted to do. Hearing that from them has really motivated me. I recently started and it seems kind of hard but I love it. I practice everyday , the little things that I’ve learned. But I still love it."

From Yasmin in Australia:
"I've heard so many negatives about adults beginning anything at all -- it seems that we must have established ourselves long ago to be looking toward the ends of things. No wonder dementia is such a prevailing issue.

"I felt an illogical urge to play violin at age 36, thought about it for a month, then went ahead and purchased a student package and first lesson. I was terribly shy and awkward, and the lesson was pretty boring and slow, I thought, more for little people.

"So I taught myself for a few months, to read and to play, to transcribe the lovely things I heard and to play them myself. That was fun, but I needed a teacher to iron out my imperfections. I decided to start from the Ideal and see what happened there first -- I applied for lessons at the Conservatorium. I was elated when I was accepted.

"My teacher is a perfectionist; she has very high expectations, but tempers these with patience and warmth. She understands, too, that I am studying elsewhere as well as parenting, and leaves my commitment level up to me. She knows that she doesn't have to motivate me, I have that inside me already. She is my realistic and humane guide!

"I began playing with a community orchestra 6 weeks ago, which is most rewarding. It is now 8 months since my violin and I first met (I think I should probably upgrade) and I am very aware of the climb ahead of me. I do see it as a mountain, but one that has been climbed before, so why not me too? I think it is good to remember that many great musicians have taken 5 years or more to become decent players; it does take time to learn. And those who lived short lives (Purcell, Mozart,..) managed to fit their musical careers in very nicely, thank you. So it doesn't have to take forever to learn, either. Just love for the music.

"Adults have futures too, we need to continue to learn and to grow. When we play a piece, we play to our best right to the end, to the very last note, without dwindling in focus. Life can be played that way too."