Difficulties of the Adult Learner

It is generally thought that adults will have more difficulty learning to play the piano than children. It is about time that we looked explicitly at some of the reasons for that view, and to disentangle fact from fancy.

Few fields of endeavour are more unjustifiably ageist than classical music, yet most of the beliefs about the need to start early and be “talented” are based on anecdotes, or on limited personal experience, or are self-fulfilling.

Let us look first at some things that are commonly thought to place limits on what we can do as adults, but are probably not serious limitations, except insofar as they make many adult learners doubt their ability:

Few gymnasts are as good in their 20’s as in their early teens. It is just physics. The different physique of a mature person, especially a woman is not so well suited to the sport as the body of a young teenager.

This problem is irrelevant to piano playing

No doubt it happens. In some fields it prevents top-level performance. Few soccer players, swimmers, or runners go on beyond their mid thirties, and most peak in their mid to late twenties. And in purely mental activities like Maths and Chess the creative and competitive peak is at similar ages. It is undoubtedly true that with increasing age it takes progressively longer to learn musical skills too and that some well learned skills start to decline. Fortunately this is not enough to prevent you from reaching extremely high levels of performance.

We don’t understand the physiology of ageing very well, but we do know how to reduce the effects of age: A healthy Diet, Adequate Sleep, Moderate Exercise, staying Inquisitive in general, and pursuing a strong interest.

The jury is out on this. It is believed that some basic sensory processes have to be learned very early or they will never develop, so you can prevent a baby from learning to co-ordinate their eyes by putting a patch over one eye at a critical stage. It was once thought that such problems were permanent. Now we are more optimistic about remedying the effects of early deprivation but it is an uphill struggle and the result is never (as yet) so good as when the adaptation takes place at the normal time.  But it is far from clear that similar problems exist with high level skills like piano playing.

There is some evidence, not especially strong, that there are cut-off points in development at about 8 years old, and again at about 15, and that some kinds of learning must be achieved before then. An example is learning to recognize the specific sounds of your native language. [Or , more accurately, forgetting the sounds that are NOT part of your native language]. In piano playing there is some evidence that the highest levels of co-ordination require extensive development of the myelin sheaths of nerve fibres, and that work done in the early teens (and even more so in childhood) promotes a level of development that is unattainable in later years.

The psychology of Piaget has been very influential in education, and Piaget was a strong believer in particular developmental stages. But the evidence is nowhere near so conclusive as the educational text books make out. In any case there have been successful classical pianists that did not take up music until their late teens, and in the worlds of popular music and especially jazz, which is much more free from age prejudice, late starters are far more common.

Living is bad for you! In the long run we are all dead. There is little doubt about that. So reduce the damage, and get any injuries attended to promptly and correctly.

Start using it!!

Now let’s look at some of the problems adults face that really can impose limits:

This is serious. If you have already learned to play you might have a deeply ingrained incorrect technique. It is next to impossible to “unlearn” something. So you have to independently learn correct technique, then reinforce it to such an extent that it takes precedence over what you had learned incorrectly before. But to do this might take five, six or more times the effort (and time) that it would have taken to learn to do it right in the first place. And worse, the old habits have a habit of re-surfacing in times of stress … like playing a recital.

There is no point in pretending otherwise, many of us are just plain lazy. Children work very hard and persistently to learn new skills. Many adults have forgotten what it is like to generate such an intensity of focus, and to sustain it for so long.

This is a biggie. As you get older you accumulate “responsibilities”. You also get into the habit of spending time in certain ways. If you are to learn an instrument to a high standard you’ll need to work up to putting in several hours on several days each week. You might need more time than a younger person, for reasons already discussed. The general consensus of teachers in conservatoires and of top-class pianists is that for a young student in the process of acquiring their skills, about 4 hours per day is best for most people. Some do more, up to eight hours daily, but few do more than that. Some get by on less, but very few on less than two hours a day. The case of a mature artist who already has all the skills, and has a large memorised repertoire, is quite different from that of someone who is developing technique and building up their repertoire. They may need only an hour or two a day to keep up their level.

As you could be a little slower on the uptake than a younger person AND have some bad habits to obliterate, you’ll be looking at investing more time and not less. Most adults will say “Impossible! I have a job to go to, and a family to look after, not to mention the daily commute”, to which I say, “In that case you will never realise your potential, or your dreams. In fact you will never get close”.

Finding three or four hours each day is asking a lot, but if you can do it you can go a long way. And you do not need to start at that level of work. You should work up to it over a couple of years, so as not to get injured, or develop chronic aches and pains. And in that couple of years you could do some radical re-organisation of your life. Drop everything unnecessary, reduce the hours you spend at work, get rid of the daily commute, and figure out the fastest most efficient ways to dispose of essential chores.

If the best you can manage is an hour or two on 5 or six days per week all is not lost.  You are unlikely to become an international virtuoso on that amount of practice, but you can still become very, very capable.  But you will need to be exceptionally disciplined about using what time you have effectively.

What a double whammy. Not only will you need to devote more practice hours than a youngster to achieve the same results, but you will not live as long. It can take as many as 20 years for the child that takes up the piano at the age of five to become a fully fledged concert artist. As an adult you already know many things that the youngster still has to learn. But still, reckon on as long as 15 years to reach a professional standard  if you are taking up an instrument late in life. Less if you are a returner and not a beginner, so long as you do not have too many bad habits to un-learn.

So if you are 40 now, you could be 55 by the time you reach the standard of a 25-year-old debutant. No worries – you can still play at a high level for 20 years or more!

Basically you have to overcompensate for your late start by:

– Simplifying the rest of your life to make your musical studies possible
– Omitting all that is unessential
– Doing what is left as efficiently as possible
– Minimising your mistakes
– Avoid heading off in false directions
– Making greater intensity of effort
– Investing more time if at all possible

This is more of a problem for adults because we are generally more considerate than children. The brain does not mature completely until the early 20’s and until then the ability to empathise is not completely developed. So a child or young person will happily practice without worrying about the effect on the neighbours.

The terraced houses, semis and flats that most of us live in are far from ideal for learning to make music. Will the noise upset the neighbours? Do you need to consider other family members to consider? Even if you have four hours available for practice can you actually use them. What are the options?

Here are a few:

  • Do a run-through of known repertoire (not too bad to listen to) when neighbours and family are about
  • Do repetitive practice when no-one is around
  • Have a separate outbuilding for music practice
  • Sound-proof a room (or get an acoustic box – a room inside a room)
  • Use an electric piano with headphones (at least for some of the time). But it is not a full solution. The clatter of the fingers on the keys, and the noise of the piano mechanism are still loud enough to hear throughout a small house.
  • Practice outside the home (Church halls, schools, professional practice rooms)

5 responses to “Difficulties of the Adult Learner

  1. Your points about practice with people around are so true! A lot of people are willing to tolerate noises generated by kids but not by adults, which I think is a real pity. Live and let live I say, but as a music teacher I guess I’m biased!

  2. You have a lot of great points. I’ve been playing since I was a little kid, but when I went off to college I didn’t have access to a piano and now I am working to pick it back up again. Most of the basics came back pretty quick, but I’m definitely rusty. It’s amazing to think how quickly you can loose the skill if you don’t continue practicing.

    • It is true that skills can be lost quickly through lack of practice, but there seems to be a threshold level, and when the skill reaches it it becomes much more resilient to being lost quickly. Most learners of the piano simply do not do enough work to reach that level.

  3. Great article. There’s a lot of common sense in the things you say. Indeed, there is a developmental window in which you can accumulate a lot more information. This window is larger than previously thought. But still, the best advice is to start early, when the goal is to reach a proficiency level.

  4. This is a very insightful article, because many of us adults neglect to understand the relevance of the points you listed. As a Special Educator, I am curious about your take on learning difficulties that adults might have, such as dyslexia, adult ADD, and I might even categorize excessive anxiety/perfectionism as a learning challenge. Look forward to your response. Thank you.