If you’re taking music lessons as an adult, you might have memories of the experience as a child.
Even if you didn’t take lessons yourself, you’ve got a mental picture of what that looks like. The student and teacher in a small room with a music stand, the little blue method book, and the gold star when you completed each lesson.
But adult students learn differently, and not just because they aren’t children. Adult students have a completely different relationship with practicing, and a completely different goal structure.
Maybe the reason you’re not reaching your playing goals is that you have the wrong goals.
In traditional music lessons, the student is given an assignment every week to prepare for the next lesson. The assignments unfold in a gradual sequence that becomes a little more challenging each time.
The teacher expects the student will practice enough to learn the music. The student expects that the teacher will choose appropriate music and set benchmarks (for example, completing book one of a method series, or performing a recital). These benchmarks are motivating because of the sense of accomplishment they create. Sounds good so far. Why should an adult’s lessons be any different? Aren’t the expectations the same?
I’ve come to believe they aren’t, nor should they be.
Number one, the average adult student leads a complicated life that doesn’t leave much time for practice to begin with. It’s not a question of dedication or discipline, because most people really do want to learn and are capable of focus. But as a teacher, I can’t reasonably insist that my adult students stick to a practice schedule as if it were as much an obligation as the other things in their life. It sounds good to make grand statements about art and commitment, but most people are still going to put picking up the kids above practicing for their guitar lesson. When you sign your kid up for lessons, though, you DO expect them to put it on the same level as chores and homework.
Number two, music lessons for a child are meant to be foundational. Programs are designed to build a well-rounded skill set that will serve in any musical situation. In some ways, it’s like any other kind of professional training, except that there’s rarely an expectation it will actually become a profession. (Usually, it’s the opposite, if your Dad was anything like mine).
Realistically speaking, though, the average adult doesn’t have time for this, or even the need. Most people have a pretty clear picture of what makes them want to play, and focusing on that specifically is much better for an adult’s motivation than the gold star for finishing book 1. That doesn’t mean we neglect fundamentals, or expect that students don’t need to practice – but means that as a teacher I need to think differently as well.
We absorbed information more quickly as children than adults, but kids don’t have the same processing power yet.
A child learning an instrument can learn to play the notes well, even musically, but only the most exceptional can do so without being instructed on each detail. However, an adult with a lifetime of music listening experience can often be shown what to react to rather than how to react.
In other words, an adult can learn to practice in a conscious, detailed way that addresses both fundamentals AND musical context. Where the fingers need to go, how to use the hand/arm mechanism to get there, and how that particular gesture fits into the whole. An adult mind has a better concept of structure and the bigger picture. So even short practice sessions of 5 and 10 minutes can be very powerful. The detail and precision in that 5 minutes of concentration can easily be integrated back into the whole when you zoom back out to a wider view.
I believe the way to learn most effectively as an adult is to view your practice time as an opportunity to both improve your execution and reinforce your knowledge of the music.
Improvement comes from alternating the detailed, precise work with the broader action of performing the song. Both actions reinforce your familiarity with the song from different perspectives.
There’s a middle stage in most people’s learning process where muscle memory gets ahead of the brain’s ability to keep track and coordinate. That makes it very difficult to make any kind of improvement, because the muscles start working before you can ask them to do something different, and making a change seems practically impossible. But when you slow down – way down – and pay attention to each note, the muscle memory isn’t triggered. Practicing with this kind of increased concentration does more than just move your fingers – it reinforces accuracy and confidence, because the music becomes more familiar every time.
Many people never find their way out of that middle stage, and every song they play remains 75% there.
You’ve been taught that the answer is repetition, but that’s not the whole story. You need to repeat the PROCESS of practicing as problem-solving. Identify the specific passage/challenge, and observe your hands in a detailed way to find the solution. If your fingers miss, there’s likely a reason beyond “I just can’t play”, and when you look closely you will probably see the problem if you think from a mechanical perspective.