Posted on October 9, 2011 by Andy John

Common wisdom seems to dictate that once you reach a certain age your brain simply cannot learn new skills.  I have never found this to be true.  Whereas the young beginner may be doing well (or may be doing poorly) they do not have the self-critical aspect of their playing yet.  This is often what stops adults from succeeding, NOT their age.  Adults are used to success in their daily activities and learning an instrument is very humbling. My advice to my adult students is to take it slowly, practice regularly, and don’t get discouraged.  It takes discipline. If you have always wanted to play an instrument and have a fire in your belly I suggest you stop reading this and contact me now!

Some of my adults tell me they will never be as good as ***.  I point out that most of my students and their teacher aren’t either.  Bill Frisell, a very successful modern jazz guitarist, in an interview, once said his goal was to play like John McLaughlin.  I am so glad he failed at that because he is a much better musician than he would have been if he succeeded.  He is original and inventive.

Music is a very personal experience and it is the journey, not the goal.  I think I have become a better teacher for adults because I have managed to instill in them that they can play if they want to.  I want them to set reasonable goals and I help them achieve.  Notice I said goals.  Goals should change day to day and be very small.  Maybe today, learn that C to G7 you’ve been wanting to get cleaner.  Maybe take a week to get that right.  Next week we’ll do two other chords.  A song has many challenges, each is a separate goal.  Build up small.  Adult students can play open mics, recitals, and play in bands if they want to.  If you want to perform a song in front of a group, it should consist of maybe 25-30 small goals.  It might take you six months, it might take you two years.  It doesn’t matter.

In the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell he introduces the notion that it takes 10,000 hours to be able to do something well.  This was not his idea but he attributes this axiom to why the Beatles got to be the best band in the world and several other success stories.  This idea may not be quantifiable but I like it as a rule of thumb and it puts it in to perspective when I get a student who asks “when will I be ‘good'”.  I can’t tell a student the answer but a full-time job for 5 years will make you an expert (that’s approximately 10,000 hours).  I think that number is pretty close to the time that I put in to get to where I am.

The point is, older beginners have a different set of challenges but they are just as capable as kids.  It just takes commitment.

Am I too old to start an instrument?