‘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!

4 thoughts on “Adult Beginners at an Instrument: 8 keys to success

  1. I just joined a handbell choir! Help – they all know what they’re doing, and I’m just starting. Baby steps – thanks for that reminder. Our leader is very patient and encouraging, but I’m expected to keep up! It’s great to be with a group again, though. Remember orchestra in Davao?! : ) Love, Nancy

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