Every adult is good at something. As people get older, they often build their sense of self-worth on the skills they’re good at. So when an older adult decides to learn an instrument from scratch or after many years of not playing, they can feel pretty vulnerable. The teacher’s agenda may therefore need to be flexible.
There are no sure-fire devices or formulas for teaching anything to anybody, but the more you understand a student’s goals and personality, the more adaptable and helpful you can be as a teacher.
I should probably explain what I mean by “older”. Mostly I’m thinking of seniors, people who are retirement age picking up an instrument or revisiting one they used to play. But much of this article could also apply to students in their 40s and 50s — it all depends on the student’s self image.
Some older beginners set a time limit for themselves, figuring that they’ll invest in learning the instrument for, say, two years, and if they’re not good enough by then, move on to another project. While it can be fun for people to try out new things for a few years each, aiming to “get good” at something within a time limit is a false goal. Part of a teacher’s job is to set expectations. In that vein, I like to make it clear that “getting good” at an instrument is purely in the eyes of whoever happens to listening at any given time. The only thing a student can truly aim for, week to week, and year to year, is to get better. Of course, another part of a teacher’s job is to set no limits and allow a student to go as far as possible, hopefully defying all expectations!
Some older students take on a new instrument because they have always loved music and are thrilled to participate in making it. They need to learn to make a good sound so they can enjoy working on any melodies they may attempt. Criticism needs to be always constructive. Older players know quite well when something doesn’t sound good; what they need most are specific goals for improving each element of their playing.
I mentioned the improvement of “each element of their playing” — this is probably the key point. Many students, of any age, are discouraged by the slightest bad sound or “mistake”. It’s the teacher’s job to help them maintain perspective, and balance intonation vs continuity, timing vs sound quality, expression vs precision. If they succeed in playing a phrase of music in time, for example, they should be made aware of the importance of that accomplishment. Playing a note out of tune could be quite a minor flaw by comparison, and yet that’s the kind of mistake older players often focus on, sometimes to the point of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are some adults who are very quick to say they “can’t play” something, but it may well be that they simply missed a few obvious elements while doing very well with basic music and technique of it. To such students I joke that if I ever hear them say they “can’t” do something, they’ll have to do 5 pushups!
Learning an instrument is often quite different than anything some people have ever done. Whereas much of an office job is about checking off tasks on a to-do list, music is never about that; it’s more of an appointment calendar, where you have to get to your next measure on time regardless of whether you finished the previous one. People have to accept that playing a beautiful sound in time is worth more than playing a string of correct notes out of time.
Above all, older adults have to come to understand that music is not played by the eyes or brain, but by the hands and ears. Their eyes and brain can’t control everything. Knowing how to do something is not equivalent to doing it. Practicing involves giving the muscle memory a chance to sink in.
Much of this is true of all students, but particularly older students can be self-conscious about memory gaps, and may fear seeing their hands be uncooperative or fear not being able to remember some of the music or finger patterns. It’s essential that the teacher point out that these problems are no different for students of any age. Memorizing strings of individual notes instead of learning patterns and phrases of music is no more effective for young students as old; it’s just that the older ones might fear that it’s their age that’s keeping them from remembering everything.
In the end, learning music as an older adult is beneficial for people’s mental abilities, expands people’s understanding of themselves and how they learn, and is a pleasure in and of itself. It’s great to give older students a chance to play with others in a class or in a music party, and while pursuing your own agenda to help them improve musically and technically, it’s an excellent idea to allow them to learn their favorite music, even if you have to work on one measure or two a week on top of their other work. You may need to simplify the music to make it easier to learn, but they’ll love making progress on it. Even the most difficult music can be broken into manageable pieces.
There are many retired people who wish they had taken up music, or wish they had continued it instead of quitting as kids. It’s a pleasure and a life skill that they should not deny themselves, and neither should any teacher!