Adult students have typically comprised about a third of my teaching studio and I've always enjoyed my connection with them. While some are semi-professionals or teachers looking to brush up on their technical skills, many are beginners who always wanted to play, but for one reason or another didn't get the opportunity as children. Others were forced to play other instruments "already in the house," often the hand-me-downs of older siblings, but always longed for the sound of strings. And many did get a chance to play and take lessons growing up, but stopped playing in high school or when they went away to college. Other aspects of life, quite understandable, took over. Coming back after having a career, raising a family, and perhaps now on the verge of retirement, they are excited to pick up where they left off, yet fear they might not have enough time left to get as good as they once dreamed of being.
I love how we can "geek out" together, on topics ranging from the subtleties of the bow hold, to Baroque interpretation, to a comparison of vibrato styles over the last hundred years, to Bluegrass versus Celtic fiddle ornamentation. Don't get me wrong, kids and teens are often game to explore as well, but the questions that spark such deep dives unfortunately don't always come as readily. I find my adult students to also be typically quite self-motivated, to practice consistently, and to seek out and take advantage of supplemental resources.
So what holds them back? In many ways, it may be the fact that they are too aware...
I don't know about you, but I think I lived in my imagination most of the time when I was a child. From pictures I'd drawn at 3 years old, that looking back were probably not much more than scribbles, but that in my mind were completely realistic representations, to the games I'd play on the playground, completely absorbed in the characters or creatures my friends and I were pretending to be, reality as a child was quite different then it is as an adult! The evidence is anecdotal, but overhearing children play and having been the recipient of many kids' proud attempts at art and music, I think most kids have a similar experience.
Then, sometime around adolescence the perception changes. Suddenly, reality and an acute awareness of their shortcomings seems to weigh on many adult students, and often teens, at least from time to time. They now know exactly how their pieces "should" sound and whether or not they can make them sound that way, so when mistakes happen and are held under the microscope, discouragement sets in. The mistakes that used to be just part of the learning process now seem to support a belief that to get "good" on the violin we must start when we're 3 or 4 years old. Unfortunately, many teachers seem to subscribe to this belief as well and might even refuse to give adult students a shot.
But is age as much of a factor as our society seems to think it is? Sure, it takes time to just sound decent on a violin, viola, or cello, but with most violin soloists making their debut after not even 10 years of study (Hilary Hahn at age 11, Joshua Bell at 14, Midori at 11, Issac Stern at 15, Yehudi Menuhin at 11, etc.), is it so far fetched for an adult student to anticipate being able to enjoy music making with family and friends, in a local orchestra or chamber group, at a summer camp, or in a band? I think they should absolutely expect it and look forward to it!
Sure, the lives of kids groomed to be soloists center around music and practice. They have the encouragement and support of their parents, teachers, and communities. Many are home-schooled to make scheduling lessons, rehearsals, and practice much easier. Most also come with considerable natural ability. And not to be overlooked, someone else is paying the bills!
But beyond the freedom and the physical and emotional support to pursue music, for kids, the world is new and they're just finding their place in it. It's ok to be a beginner. It's ok to try again. It might not be particularly enjoyable to make mistakes, but we know it's part of the process. Just like learning to walk, we fall, we get up, we try again, we get stronger and find our balance.
It's hard to imagine a mistake made by a six year old sparking the kinds of thoughts that all too commonly run around in adult minds, like "who am I kidding" and "I'll never be able to do this. Why am I even bothering?" Kids might get tired or bored with practice and repetition, but a mistake is often not so personal. As kids, we just try again. We refine our approach. We might get even more determined. Our parents and teachers applaud our efforts. We learn to enjoy the process because the "ah ha" moment is so rewarding. Success comes because we haven't yet learned to expect anything less.
So how can an adult student approach the learning process like a child again? Here are some common situations we may encounter along our musical journey and the different ways we could interpret our experience, for better or worse.
The student makes a mistake while practicing.
- Harmful response: "I knew I was going to mess that up. E-V-E-R-Y T-I-M-E."
- Helpful response: Tries again.
The student makes the same mistake again.
- Harmful response: "$#&%, I'll never get this right."
- Helpful response: Tries again, with a slightly different approach.
The student attends a concert.
- Harmful response: "I'll never be that good. Why do I even bother?"
- Helpful response: "That was amazing! I can't wait to go home and practice."
The student's teacher makes a correction to something fundamental, like the bow or instrument hold.
- Harmful response: "Really, I'm still messing up the basics!? Obviously I'm just not cut out for this."
- Helpful response: Makes the adjustment and keeps going.
The student sees a five year old performing a Mozart Concerto on YouTube.
- Harmful response: "They're five and already better then I'll ever be!? Who am I fooling!?"
- Helpful response: "What a tiny violin! How adorable! I can't wait to play that piece."
The student fumbles during an orchestra concert.
- Harmful response: "I did it again! I really can't get through a piece without messing up can I? I'm the worst player in this group."
- Helpful response: Keeps playing.
The student feels stuck on a plateau.
- Harmful response: "I guess maybe that's it. That's as good as I'm ever going to get."
- Helpful response: "I'm getting kind of bored with this piece, but it's not 100% yet... I wonder what other pieces or exercises I could tackle that might have these same challenges?"
The student sees a virtuoso performing an interesting technique.
- Harmful response: "Oh yeah, like I'll ever be able to do that. Maybe once I learn to just stay in tune!"
- Helpful response: "That was sooo cool! How did he/she do that! I want to try it!! I wonder if my teacher can show me!?"
The student is passed over for a summer music program.
- Harmful response: "Wow, I couldn't even get into summer camp. I obviously don't have what it takes."
- Helpful response: "I wonder if I should have auditioned with the third movement rather than the first? I heard one person warming up with Der Erlkönig..."
The student is passed over for an orchestra audition.
- Harmful response: "What was I thinking trying out for that anyway?!"
- Helpful response: "I'll make it in next year. Or maybe I'll even see if I can re-audition in the Spring? I need more experience with position work and I really should have worked with the metronome more and practiced more sight reading."
Did you recognize yourself in any of these reactions? I think we've all experienced most of them at some point.
With both the harmful and helpful, we see clear themes emerge. The harmful responses are self-defeating and immediately seek to prove to the student that they are wasting their time or lack ability. They are frustrated and emotional. Just reading these responses brings our energy down. We feel hopeless.
On the other hand, the helpful responses lift us up. We have energy again. We feel possibility and excitement. They are also thoughtful and curious rather than reactionary. They focus on figuring out what went wrong and recalibrating. It's not so personal. Yes, we recognize the need to do the work, but there isn't the overwhelming focus on something being inherently wrong with us. Instead, we direct our energy towards making a plan for our success.
Though it might take a lot of effort at first, anyone can learn to flip their thinking around and retrain their brain for more helpful thinking processes. Here's a step-by-step list of suggestions drawn from my training in Clinical Hypnotherapy and Neural-Linguistic Programming (NLP):
Notice a negative thought as soon as it occurs. This can take considerable practice. The mind chatters at us continually and loves to run with anything that will keep us engaged with it instead of in the present. The longer we let the mind spin out, the harder it will be to get back to reality. Devise a simple label to use when a harmful thought comes up. Something that doesn't have any charge is good - for instance, "bad thought" might not be ideal as it adds negativity about being negative. Since the goal is to eventually flip the thought around to one that will help you mature and be successful in your playing, perhaps try something that encourages the idea of value, like "treasure," "gold," "rainbow," etc. For example, the thought "I can't get anything right" pops up and we catch it in the moment and label it "treasure" instead. Notice how suddenly the thought train stops and we can see the thought for what it actually is, just a thought. It's lost its charge and power over us. As silly as this all might seem, just noticing the moment when a thought pops up can make all the difference.
Consider what you really want that's behind the thought. If the thought is "I'll never be that good," we actually just want to play better, or we want to feel like possibilities are open to us again. If the thought is "I obviously don't have what it takes," we'd really like to feel more confident in our playing. Notice how the desire behind the negative thought is actually quite positive!
Imagine that your goal or dream is a reality. Maybe you imagine what it would feel or look like to be more confident in your playing. Or you imagine playing a beautiful rendition of a piece you love, or with a group you'd be excited to join. If this spawns more negativity ("yeah, nice to dream and all, but that's never going to happen!"), notice the thought and go through steps 2 and 3 again with the new thought. Quite often, all the negative thoughts will trace back to the exact same goals and dreams.
With the version of yourself that's living in your dream picture still vividly in mind, reconsider the situation that first sparked the harmful thought, for instance, making a mistake during practice. From that confident place, how would you react this time? Hopefully, something more in line with one of the helpful responses above pops up. Maybe you just try again without any emotion attached to the mistake or the outcome of the next attempt, or you think about a different way to practice the passage which isolates the specific trouble area or technique. Imagine following through with this new approach and feeling more confident.
As a final thought, the students I've seen struggle the most are the ones who believe that playing their instrument will become enjoyable once they reach a certain ability level. Until they can learn to play with vibrato, or master a certain piece, or not have to think about their bowing any more, they seem to feel like they are destined to be frustrated and sound terrible. The ones with considerable determination keep going, but it's hard for them to notice their improvements because their focus is on the number of problems.
In contrast, like a person exploring a new country for the first time, students that tend to have an easier time learning and enjoying the process, are curious and excited about every new step along the way. These students naturally, or through practice, understand that mistakes are necessary and frequently look back with pride at how far they've come.
I hope this has been helpful! Retraining takes time. Be patient with yourself and feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions about the process above, or if you'd like some one-on-one coaching around such concerns.