Back when I was fifteen, and my best friend Lisa was in my music class at school, we found out that we both liked writing songs. Both of us had learned to read music and play piano formally, but playing by ear and coming up with new songs was the fun stuff.

One of the songs Lisa wrote (and the sentiment of which I concurred with) was called “I Want a Man with a Moustache”.  With great hilarity and teenage enthusiasm we got two pianos together in my parent’s music studio and practised singing it together. Along with that we swapped ideas and other songs we had written. It was a memorable weekend.

I’m grateful that I was raised to read music, but I enjoyed experimenting with playing by ear too. I believe strongly that you need both skills to fully develop as a musician, but you have to manage both skills carefully for it to work to full advantage.

Let me explain. Playing by ear is the development of a natural skill. Reading music notation is a learning process and an acquired skill.

Someone who plays by ear can hear a tune and copy it fairly easily. Such students will want the teacher to play the piece for them so they don’t have to bother to read the music. (You know who you are!) If they have an obliging teacher this works very well at the beginning, and it looks as though the student is off to a terrific start. Then they come across music that is more tricky where they need to have music reading skills to go further. By this stage it is expected that they actually know how to read the notes. But there will be limitations if they have been depending on hearing the music to learn it. This is the brick wall where some very capable people give up because what seemed like an easy skill to develop has become slow and hard.

You see, reading music is an acquired skill and does take time and effort to get into the right habits. Without right habits, learning to read music will be sporadic and difficult to master. If these habits are worked on from the start, though, when enthusiasm is at its peak, anyone can easily develop the reading skills. And playing by ear skills can also be developed along the way as a parallel positive in the learning process.

We all like to start with the familiar, so many people choose books with familiar tunes from which to start learning to read music. I understand this thinking, but it can be helpful to save the familiar ones to play by ear. A system that effectively teaches someone to read music will mostly have unfamiliar music. This encourages the student to actually read the notes.

In my course, Headstart Piano (for beginners) I have composed a number of new pieces. These are to be read by the pupil, as he or she will not quickly recognise them and lapse into playing by ear. But alongside these I have what I call ‘Pattern Pieces’. These are pieces that may be well known or, if not, they at least have an easy pattern to copy. Pattern Pieces don’t have written music to read and so are quick to pick up by ear. Through them I want the pupil to develop an awareness of the sounds they are making without the distraction of the note reading process. These work well for the pupil who wants the quick satisfaction of playing by ear and also for the expert reader who needs more help with the aural side of things.

Blending the acquired skill of reading music with the natural skill of playing by ear is going to be the most balanced, and interesting way to get started at the piano.

It is not a boxing match between the two skills (playing by eye and playing by ear) – we need both on the same team.

Oh, and by the way – I did get my man with a moustache!

(These days, however, I prefer him clean shaven.)


‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ – so goes the old adage. But when it comes to adults learning a musical instrument, no one is a dog!

Read on to learn a bit about the cheers and challenges of learning as an adult. I’ll end with some suggestions as to how best to deal with the challenges.


First a few cheers

I love the outright enthusiasm that adults bring to learning a musical instrument.

  • They are passionate and keen to learn.
  • They ask good questions which helps the tutor know how to address their needs and so foster the learning process.
  • They generally recognise that it takes time and effort to achieve a new skill.
  • When they get it, the delight is real.
  • Without realising it, they can be a true inspiration to others who admire adults taking on a new skill.


But, along with the above, there are a few challenges they face… 

  • They can be impatient and sometimes skip key techniques in a rush to get to the music.
  • They often feel embarrassed at making ‘baby steps’.
  • Initial enthusiasm is good, but they can get busy with work and family. Because this is something they want to do for their own enjoyment, they sometimes don’t find the time for themselves to practice, feeling it to be a treat interrupting the other important things of life.
  • They can be crippled by allowing self doubt to creep in, thinking ‘an old dog can’t learn new tricks’.
  • Seeing other people making faster progress can be discouraging.
  • If they are learning without some sort of accountability, it is easy to give up when the going gets beyond a comfortable self learning level.
  • Picking up bits and pieces without a clear goal becomes unsatisfying, making it easy to just flag the whole idea.


So, with all the above in mind, here are my best 8 keys to succeeding at learning a musical instrument as an adult.

  1. Have a realistically manageable and specific goal, and a checklist to reach it.  Is there a particular piece of music you want to play on an instrument, or a standard you want to reach? It would be helpful to check whether you goal is realistic or not with a music teacher or musician friend.  Having the right goal will be good for making sure you can manage regular practice towards it even when something comes along to threaten your progress.  Have some sort of checklist of what needs to be achieved by particular dates.  For me, progress is a line through a list! Drop me an email if you need some help with this.
  1. Be accountable to someone. This could be your music teacher or musician friend. But maybe it is a family member who can see the goals you are reaching. Maybe it is your child who is learning too. Learning alongside your child it is a fabulous way to be engaged with your child’s learning. There can be times they learn their music better by teaching you what they have learned. And as you learn it raises questions that you discuss with them, sorting it out together. When they see you reaching your goal they see a good example, which in turn keeps you at it.  [Note: My on-line beginner piano course ‘Headstart Piano’ is also suitable for parents to learn alongside their child. If you want to be among the first notified when this is going to be available, let me know and I’ll include you on that waiting list.]
  1. Get over the fact you need to do baby steps at the beginning. Put those baby steps on your checklist and tick them off as done successfully. We all need to do them and just like babies learning to walk, we are handicapped if we skip a stage. 
  1. Don’t ignore technique. You may not know the reason for a particular technique, but don’t skip over it to get to the music. For example, piano players who don’t develop the skill to keep their fingers curved and in place on the keys will struggle to learn to read music, because they will constantly look down to check their fingers. 
  1. Be patient. Some things take time to master. Get over the fact that we all make mistakes in the learning process. Go as slowly as you need to progress accurately. 
  1. Don’t compare with others. Compare your successes with how much better it is after today’s practice than yesterday’s. If your practice is regular, this kind of comparison will be much more positive.
  1. Look for an opportunity to play with others in a group. If you can find other musicians at a similar learning stage, you can really enjoy the social side of playing a musical instrument. If there isn’t such a group, start your own and encourage others in a similar place of learning. 
  1. Celebrate all achievements! Every technique you get your head around, every melody you get right, however small, is through your hard work and it is worth celebrating. You could celebrate by having an informal concert at home with a few friends or family around.


In life, in love and in music, you are never too old to learn!

Many years ago Robin and I were attending a concert by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. After the concert I remember him commenting on how beautiful the oboe part was in the second movement and the way it blended with the other woodwind instruments.  I didn’t notice what he was referring to because my focus was only on the technical expertise of the double bass section, instead of simply enjoying what I was hearing!

We were both hearing the music but listening for different things. It is a bit like the times when we are guilty of selective listening to a conversation with someone, hearing the words but not really listening to their heart.

What do you listen for in music?                                                                                             

Maybe it is the beat that gives a sense of get up and go in the morning. Maybe you like it because it makes you feel happy or stirs other emotions. Maybe it is the tone quality of a certain instrument, or how well the instruments blend together.

Maybe it is a singer you enjoy and you hardly notice the instruments. It may be that the words of the song touch your heart and the music enhances the message. Or perhaps the talent of the musicians impress you. It could be that your children are doing their practice and you are helping them get it right.

Maybe you simply like the overall sound of the piece without really knowing why it makes you feel a certain way. Perhaps you just need some sound in the background. Here’s an interesting one: maybe the music reminds you of a particular time in your life, a time which raises particular emotions because of the association of the time you first heard it.

If you are a musician, have you noticed that when you are learning to play a given piece on a musical instrument, the enjoyment of listening can be usurped by the process of working to get it to sound right? There has to come a time when you have it sorted and you can sit back and simply enjoy what you have learned before charging on to learn the next piece.

Listening to someone else playing well the piece you are learning can be an important part of inspiring you to keep learning it too. The main thing I appreciate about the Suzuki method of teaching is the huge focus on really listening to the music. I’ve observed that those who do this well instinctively play with lovely expression. From repeated listening to the same piece the listener simply absorbs how to play it beautifully.

I’ve learned that in order to play a stringed instrument well you have to give special attention to listening – I mean really listening – to be sure the pitch is accurate. Once that is sorted you can start to focus on the tone quality. The position and pressure of the bow, along with varied vibrato can change the sound significantly. Other instruments achieve these qualities in ways particular to them.

As I was pondering all this I felt challenged to ‘stop and smell the roses’ as it were and have a listen to some music I like without my music teacher hat on (when I use a different kind of listening). Often I would rather play music myself than listen to recorded music. But there is so much to be learned by chilling for a while, really listening to someone else’s presentation of music and absorbing it for simple pleasure in the beauty of sound.

 Besides anything else, it’s a life skill to learn to listen.

If you would like some music to chill to, here is a simple improvisation I did on piano based on the theme song from our musical “Father’s Heart”. For those who are familiar with this musical you will recognise the main melody coming in around the 4 minute mark. Hope you enjoy it!  

There has been a lot of talk in our home recently about the benefits of mulch in the garden, and the impact of putting wood chips and compost down around certain plants so that moisture is regulated and the plant gradually fed.  There are parallels in providing ideal conditions when learning an instrument.

If you do not keep a plant’s irrigation and nutrition needs met, its growth will suffer. Similarly, it is not enough to rely on just the weekly lesson with the tutor to foster the growth in musical proficiency on the instrument. The surrounding home environment is key, but a healthy musical environment extends beyond the home as well. If you are a parent without a background in music, or one who doesn’t play an instrument, these tips are for you. Even though you are not playing yourself, there are still really good things you can do to help provide a good learning space for your child.

Here are 9 tips to fostering a healthy music environment, whether you are an adult learner or helping a child learner.

Child learner                                                                

  1. Show interest in your child’s playing especially the day of the lesson. Be eager about hearing what was covered in the lesson.
  1. A regular time to practice and an expected length of time too helps learning become a natural part of life’s routine rather than a random thing you do just before the next lesson.
  2. Encourage them to take part in school music activities such as talent quests, dance groups, junior orchestra, percussion ensembles and choirs.
  1. If your tutor provides concert opportunities, don’t miss them. It is a good opportunity for your child to hear where other pupils are at. I have often seen great leaps in progress and enthusiasm to practice after these concerts.
  1. Look for opportunities to play at your local church. So much wonderful music from great musicians came out of their expression of worshiping God. Some children get involved with youth bands this way. I know for me this was a safe, caring place to grow as a musician.
  1. If more than one child is learning, it provides an environment for younger siblings to want to do it too.
  1. Play recordings at children’s bedtime which include a range of classical styles. Our children got very used to hearing their Suzuki Piano music recordings to go to sleep to. It was a great way to help them learn to really hear what was happening in the music.
  2. Send a video of your child playing their latest piece to your tutor, family or friends.


Adult learner

  1. Play your new piece to another family member or a sympathetic friend. This does take courage and effort but they will be proud of you and give you an encouraging boost.
  2. Some adult learners struggle to make practice times regular even with bags of enthusiasm. Check out my blog on the power of 5 mins if this is you.
  1. Find somewhere you can be accountable to others on a regular basis. If you’d rather not do it with your instrument, at the very least join a local choir. There are many musical skills you learn in a choir.
  2. It can be really hard for an adult learner to play at a basic level in front of children or other adults who are musical, but if you can swallow your pride and do it – it is worth it. Just make sure you are as practiced as you can be.
  3. Being involved in a church choir or music group can be a stepping stone to building relationships with musicians you can trust to share your experiences with. It’s a great place to learn how musicians can work together. Depending on the context it could also be a place to explore improvising and use of chord charts in the absence of written music.
  4. If you are learning an instrument maybe it could be fun to do it with another member of the family so you can encourage each other.
  5. You will know the best time for you to listen to music – often driving in the car is a great opportunity. But along with that, a time to just pause and listen to music before bed could be better than screen time for a good night’s sleep.
  6. By actually recording yourself playing you will hear the playback differently than when you are actually playing. It’s a fun thing to do and it makes you practice the piece to a better level than you might have.
  1. For either adult or child: Look for opportunities to hear music from different cultures. It may be harder to make the effort on this if the music seems strange to you. This is only because the sound patterns may have a different meaning to you because the meaning of the sounds is assigned according to the culture it comes from. But you can feel the enthusiasm that comes with music when people play what is their own.


Have I missed something that you do? Add your comment below so we can try your suggestions too.                 

One of my earliest memories was my sisters singing: “Delwyn Mary, quite contrary. How does your garden grow?”

Well, the answer now is: “Quite nicely, but no thanks to me!”

In the last few years my husband Robin has been developing our garden and I’ve experienced that amazing delight of vegetables grown in a hothouse. Picking fresh tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and cucumbers as needed is a delight through the summer. Those grown outside the hothouse often don’t do quite as well. The plants are the same but the environment hugely impacts their growth.

What is your musical environment like? Let me tell you a bit about the impact of mine during that growth time.  

I was blessed to be raised in a musical family. I had four siblings before me who had all progressed in their music on various instruments, so it was expected that I would do the same.

I can’t say I loved the discipline of practice expected of me. It even annoyed me at times that an earlier sibling’s amazing work ethic was often cited as a shining example. But there were advantages to having music teachers as parents. I enjoyed exploring the different instruments we had in the house. These were periodically hired out. (Hmm – I don’t remember the piano accordion ever leaving the house, though.) I’m grateful too that my parents were happy for me to explore playing by ear through certain “modern” books they had to help with this.

At all different times of the day there was the sound of music from pupils who came to the house for lessons, or from my parents practicing music for the latest show when they were musical directors for the local theatre society.  There were recorder and violin classes that I participated in on Saturday morning – again because my parents were teaching them. 

I remember the detailed work I had to put in for piano competitions and exams. Along with this came the struggles I had with nerves before performances.  I have huge sympathy for my own pupils now, because if it doesn’t come naturally it takes time and perseverance to learn how to perform.

My sister Marilyn and I would catch a rural bus sometimes after school so we could go to whichever small town my parents were teaching in. They would have travelled there earlier in the day with the caravan as a mobile teaching studio. We had a real piano in the back. No getting out of piano practice when our family went on holiday!

As I got older I was eager to play the current songs we sang in church and would spend hours at the piano working out ways to play them. They often did not have full music.  I have a strong memory of my Dad coming to join me on the double bass and he would pick out a tenor part too.  He loved music and would go to sleep at night listening to the classical concert program.

Back when I was about 10, my Mother was working through her teaching qualifications as an organist, so I often went with her to the local church where she could practice. I ended up doing some practice of my own before completing some organ exams too. It was a strange thing at first to play scales with heels and toes and then learn to play with 2 keyboard manuals and feet as well.  There as a lovely Bach fugue she used to play that I enjoyed hearing:  the theme coming in at staggered times and registers then blending together with clever counterpoint.

So, like a fugue in counterpoint, all my early experiences layered up, weaving together, to become the foundation for my current experiences as a musician, composer and teacher. My musical environment shaped my whole approach to music. I’m so grateful for all of it – even songs about the garden from big sisters!

How is your musical environment? It may not be the full hothouse experience, but there is a lot you can do as a parent to make your children’s environment a good place for them to learn as a musician, even if you are not one yourself.

Next time I’ll pass on some suggestions to help you.