‘I wish I had learned an instrument’. So, what’s stopping you?

I’m at a social gathering. I’m speaking to someone who discovers my job involves music. The person in question has no ‘official’ background in music (i.e. never took lessons) but expresses huge interest in it. No matter how many times I have found myself in this situation, the response is always the same: ‘I wish I had learned an instrument growing up’. And in return, I ask ‘so, what’s stopping you now?’

In a recent blog post I referred to my taking up the cello four years ago. I took it up because I wanted to, I take exams because I want to. When I tell people about my playing the cello though, I am always amazed at their reaction: inspirational, fascinating, infectious, admirable, motivational etc. It’s such a pleasant response but it always surprises me because from my perspective I’m just learning an instrument that I want to be able to play and about which I am curious.

Of course, the subtext to all of this is that I am an adult learning the cello; learning an instrument is not particularly unusual, but an adult learning one seems to be noteworthy. Fortunately, my age  (I’m 35) has never deterred me from doing anything, even outside of music (I took up the Russian language as an adult too), but people’s responses to my learning an instrument as an adult (and even Russian, and let me be clear, I’m far from a gifted linguist, I’m just interested in languages) has made it evident to me that age is a deterrent to others. Let’s change this perception.

You must be joking, at my age?

Recently, at a friend’s party, I was talking to a most fascinating person who may have been over 50. His knowledge about and interest in music (and most topics actually) were impressive. And so, I asked him did he play an instrument? ‘No, but I think if I were to play one it would be the clarinet’. We then talked a little about the clarinet. Wow! Not only does he listen to so much music, is clearly moved by music, loves learning about the context of music, he knows exactly what instrument he would play and why he likes it. And enter Majella: ‘so, what’s stopping you?’

I think he is taken aback but he quickly finds his feet: ‘well, at my age…’ the sentence petering off, the implication being that his age as a reason was self-explanatory. Nope, I’m not letting this go. We talk some more and he seems to be relieved, or might it be too strong to say that he has been given permission to entertain the idea? (he’s a friend of a friend and he mentioned he had had similar conversations with her, and now that I was saying the same thing, he feels that maybe it isn’t out of the question). When I was leaving the party, I said: ‘please learn the clarinet, you’ll get so much enjoyment from it’. I really believe he will.

His reaction was not new to me however, and it was hardly surprising: reference to age when learning an instrument seems to be everywhere, with the general consensus being that you need to learn it when you are young. While I understand how this perception has emerged (you’re less malleable after a certain age) its pervasiveness has escalated to the point that it appears to be assumed that unless you learn to play an instrument while you are a child, teenager at most, forget about it. Okay, you more than likely won’t become professional or win professional competitions (this is where taking it up when you’re younger comes in), but people take up running at 40 say, and don’t seem to be concerned about their age or looking to run in the Olympics. So why not take up an instrument (or a language for that matter) when you’re 40+ too?

Yet, there are adults who do learn instruments. What about them? I have met numerous adults learning an instrument who seem to be fighting an internal battle. I want to share my experience as an onlooker of such battles to show how common they are, how unnecessary they are, and how you aren’t the only one. I want to tease out perceptions about both music and taking up an instrument as an adult, or even just learning as an adult in general. In doing so, it is my hope that as an adult learner, you will be easier on yourself and cherish the journey, or if you have always wanted to learn an instrument, that you’ll feel empowered to do so.

The apology

The context in which I have met most adult learners is in an exam room. Overall, it’s a mixed category: there are adults who have taken up an instrument in their retirement, adults who have an extremely stressful job with a lot of responsibility where learning an instrument is their distraction, adults who never got around to it when they were younger and don’t want any regrets, and adults who take lessons alongside their children as an opportunity to play, to share the learning experience, as well as to motivate each other.

Seeing an adult walk into my exam room warms my heart so much for two reasons: first, I am learning as an adult too and take exams; second, I have encountered so many adults who wish they had learned an instrument (like the guy at the party) but feel it is too late.  As an examiner, what I’m thinking is, ‘yes, someone learning an instrument because they want to and nothing is going to get in their way’. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm is frequently shrouded by a sense of uncertainty and anxiety from the adult candidate; they have already set the exam up to be a harrowing experience.  

It is not unusual for such candidates’ first words to be words of apology and embarrassment: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m doing this’, ‘I’m the only adult in the waiting room, I feel so silly’, ‘I’m really nervous, I’m sorry for what you are going to have to listen to’, ‘I decided to take up an instrument and I’m not sure what possessed me’, ‘I used to play when I was younger, I just wanted to go back to it’, ‘I can’t wait until the exam is over’. In some ways, it has an air of confession about it: ‘dear examiner, it’s been twenty years since my last exam’, ‘dear examiner, I feel like an impostor’. From my perspective however, there is no difference between a child, teenager, or adult in my exam room: age is irrelevant to my assessment.

This is not a story about exams; it is a story about how people perceive themselves as an adult learning an instrument, the exam itself possibly acting as a stimulus to their insecurities. Yet, I have observed that adults who take exams with their children seem to be less conscious. Is it because they have a ‘legitimate’ reason for being in the exam room? Or is it that their ‘apology’ is presented in a different guise, wrapped up in ‘I’m taking lessons to motivate my child’? Either way, where do all these insecurities when learning an instrument as an adult come from?

Expectations

To put this in perspective, consider the following: you are in a class or at a talk where the teacher/speaker encourages you to ask a question, reassuring you that if you are thinking it the chances are so are other people. Silence. Rarely do people ask a question, or at least very few, afraid that they might sound ridiculous, or that the information really is so obvious. I certainly have experienced this and when it happens in my lectures, it’s not that there are no questions, but rather, many wait until after the lecture to ask me something or they choose to email their query instead.

When I do receive an email or a visit from a student, it tends to be linked to some sort of concern regarding their performance on their degree programme. Yet, the students who are worrying the most about how they are doing are the students who are generally doing well. They look around and see that everyone else seems to be getting on with life with such ease, college seems to be a breeze to these people, but why is this not the case for them? The thing is, everyone else is not necessarily getting on better or doing better than the students who come to me worrying. They just seem to have a different strategy, different expectations, or perhaps they worry as the deadline approaches. Moreover, from experience, it is not unusual for mature students to be among the students who email me concerned and doubting themselves.

It’s the same with instruments. People who are younger might be getting lessons and seem to be taking it in their stride, but youth doesn’t always ensure that they are learning more, or that there isn’t a flurry of activity coming up to the exam. In content of university, students generally go directly to third-level from second-level whereas mature students have taken time out between; they are not in the majority. Similarly, adults taking up an instrument are not in the majority and because they haven’t followed the usual route, doubts start to creep in.  

The other possibility is that we all suffer a little bit from imposter syndrome. We never imagined ourselves in that situation, but somehow have found ourselves in it, and wonder at what point will we be ‘found out’. Is this because we all have different expectations and definitions of what doing well is? Or different levels of confidence? Or did we somehow just expect the experience to be different? More difficult perhaps? As an adult learner of an instrument, consider what is it that you want from lessons, forget about what everyone else is doing, including exams. For adults who are thinking of doing exams, do them if you want to, not because you feel you have to. There is a tendency in Ireland for progress to be measured against exams, including music, but exams reveal only part of the picture.

Social ‘norms’

What becomes a social norm is based on popularity. Inevitably, this can start a cycle that is often difficult to break. Popularity doesn’t mean it’s correct, or better, or even relevant, but when we see people taking a certain route, it starts to become an automatic response . . . ‘oh, so that’s how you do it’.  In music this translates as the following: you take up an instrument when you are a child and you will probably do exams. You’re now an adult, you have missed the boat.

Last week I was listening to Lyric FM when a listener had texted in to say how important the radio station was to him because he never got to learn an instrument growing up, the station therefore acting as an educational tool. The story continued about how he made sure his children had learned an instrument. He’s not wrong about Lyric FM and how it can serve as an educational resource for all types of listeners, but what I was more tuned into was, ‘I didn’t get to learn an instrument growing up, I gave my children the chance though’ (a point of caution I raised in my last blog post about the reasons behind why your child might be getting lessons). There I heard it again, age was the deterrent. He didn’t do it when he was younger so now he never will? Even though he really wishes he had learned an instrument? Notwithstanding his passion for music?

I do acknowledge of course, that you don’t have to learn an instrument to appreciate music, or just because you appreciate music that you should be learning an instrument. And perhaps when people say ‘I wish I had learned an instrument growing up’ it’s just a stock phrase or a glorified image of what learning it must be like. Of course, there is a lot of music-making happening among adults that doesn’t require buying an instrument or taking lessons; as last week was ‘Sing Ireland National Singing Week’, choirs immediately spring to my mind.

There is an increasing number of choirs emerging on the Irish music scene which adults of all ages are joining. The opportunity afforded to these choir members is great and the benefits wonderful; a parent of a child I teach tells me that they are completely rejuvenated after their weekly choir session, while friends of mine who take choir as a musical challenge, can’t wait to get home to go through their music and learn their parts. So why is it that people don’t shy away from choirs? Is it because of its nature and it not being the traditional way of learning an instrument? While it may be an individual pursuit, is there safety in numbers? Or is it that the choirs (unless specified as a children’s choir) are mostly for adults? In which case there isn’t the same feeling of having ‘missed the boat’ that comes with individually learning an instrument, or the same self-consciousness? Or do people join choirs primarily to socialise?

Learning as an adult

Whether you are an avid concertgoer, love listening to music, are a member of a choir, it’s clear that there is a lot of engagement with music among adults. Also, learning as an adult is different to learning as a child. My personal experience is that it is much more rewarding, or at least this is how I am comparing the memories; admittedly, maybe not having to learn the rudiments of music helps this time around. Yet, because of my background, I now truly realise and appreciate the benefits of learning an instrument and the challenge that comes with it: I need patience, I need focus, I need persistence, I need discipline, dedication, commitment. It’s like constantly doing a puzzle and figuring out the hidden meanings. It’s so rewarding.

At the same time, it’s not all plain sailing: learning as an adult can also be difficult if only because you may be trying to balance life, work, family, and finances. Adults also tend to jump ahead theoretically, but find it difficult when their hands need to complete a different task and may not be as quick, which can lead to frustration. Overall though, the positives outweigh the negatives and you are more likely to do something as an adult because you want to, not because your classmate is doing it. Similarly, mature students choose a degree they know they want to do rather than going to university because that is the usual progression from secondary school. As an adult, you may be more committed, more engaged, more enthusiastic about your new hobby, while meeting your own personal goals. There are no guarantees about the outcome of a hobby even if you are an adult, but generally, there is a lot in your favour.

So, what’s stopping you now?

There is so much discussion about every child having an opportunity to learn music but less discussion about every adult having the same opportunity. Do we just assume that adults will always do something if they want to? Or that they already have had the opportunity? And why is there such a push for children to take up lessons instead of adults, in particular when it would seem that a lot of children do not continue the instrument into adulthood. Or, put another way, what is going wrong that so many children do give up their instrument especially when this blog post has been about adults who wish they had had the opportunity growing up? And why do they wish they had the opportunity, because they imagine that they would still be playing it? Or is learning an instrument mostly a childhood pursuit and what adults are really referring to is that they wish they had it as part of their childhood memory? Yet, in my last blog post, I mentioned how common it is to hear adults refer to music lessons growing up in a negative manner. Why is there such disparity between the two perspectives?

Personally, I don’t see it as a childhood pursuit, but there are a lot of myths about music-making and the best time to learn an instrument. If you have read this far, remember, if you have always wanted to play an instrument, ask yourself what’s stopping you now? If it is something you’d like to have done as a child, but you don’t really want the effort of learning one now, that’s okay. If age is the only thing stopping you, park it because it really doesn’t matter. Explore your options, who knows, you may love it, or you may not. If you feel it isn’t for you, then at least you won’t have to regret not having tried. If it’s not as great as you expected, it’s doubtful that this is because of your age.

You still want to learn an instrument, what steps should you take? Try out an instrument in your local music school; ask if they do one-off lessons, or open days. Ask a friend or family member who might play an instrument if they would mind letting you have a feel for it or talk to them about what is involved. Talk to a music teacher and see what your options are and explain your expectations to them. If you are not choosy about which instrument you want to play, you can buy a variety of beginner instruments that are under 50e; ukulele is very popular now and it’s not difficult to find groups of people meeting up regularly to play it. If you are interested in traditional Irish music, there are sessions around the country and local Comhaltas groups would be able to advise you best. Perhaps there is a marching band in your area that might be able to open up an avenue for learning music. See if there is a choir in the locality or use social media to find out if there are other adults who would like to start learning with you. Remember, learning an instrument does not have to mean taking exams.

‘I wish I had learned an instrument’, so what’s stopping you? Hopefully not your age.

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