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Beating Those Music Beginner’s Blues

Six tips for bringing music-making into your life


Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report

Excerpted and adapted from Making Time for Making Music: How to Bring Music into Your Busy Life  (Oxford University Press, 2018).

“During my entire adult life, I have been enchanted by the rich, mellow sound of the cello,” said Helen Heeren, a Pennsylvania psychotherapist. She has also been a regular audience member at symphony orchestra concerts all her adult life.

In her mid-60s, those two passions came together when Heeren says she decided “to become a maker of music, in addition to enjoying it as an audience member. I thought, ‘If not now, when?’”

She had done no music-making during her earlier adult years,and hadn’t done much as a child either — just two years of piano lessons, plus church choir and school musicals. Undaunted, she bought a cello, found a strings teacher who liked working with adults, began taking lessons and after a few years, became skilled enough to play in a community orchestra. She has since joined another local orchestra and an informal cello chamber music group, too.

“It is a glorious experience to be part of a larger whole and hear us playing music that I have enjoyed listening to others play. A dream come true. Music-making touches my deepest soul,” says Heeren.

The Challenge of Beginner Status

It is definitely possible for adults — even older adults — to learn to play an instrument they had never tried before or to sing for the first time in a chorus. But adjusting to beginner status can be a challenge.

“I would get so frustrated that I wasn’t picking it up as fast as I wanted. I kept thinking, ‘I should know how to do this,’” said Michelle Billingsley, a Chicago executive assistant who decided to learn to play guitar in her early 30s. A lifelong pianist and accomplished singer, Billingsley learned that “it takes time for your muscles to adapt and your brain to start making connections.”

“Adults are used to feeling competent,” observed Kathy Fleming, a Baltimore arts administrator who plays recorder and viola da gamba. “The hardest thing to overcome as an adult playing a new instrument is getting over how bad you sound at first. That fear of sounding subpar makes it hard to even start. We all just have to get over that.”

Here are six suggestions for new instrumentalists on how to “get over” those music beginner’s blues:

Encouragement is required: “Five-year-olds usually come to a first lesson with no sense of what a violin sounds like. So when it sounds pretty horrible, they’re not that bothered,” explained Louise Hildreth- Grasso, who teaches violin to kids and adults at Peabody Preparatory in Baltimore. “But adults come for lessons because they really like how a violin sounds and are upset when it doesn’t sound like Itzhak Perlman. ‘Well, he has a few years on you,’ I tell them. Adult students require way more encouragement than my younger students. Adults need to realize that it takes time, that it’s not quick, but if they keep working at it, it will get better. Those who really want to learn violin, do learn violin.”

No negative self-talk: “Many adults have misconceptions when they start. They have seen musicians and think it looks so easy. Then they try and find it’s not so easy. They think maybe it’s not the right instrument for them or maybe they’re not meant to do music. Sometimes it’s related to childhood issues, from a teacher who told them, ‘Don’t play because you don’t have it.’ Getting rid of these preconceived ideas takes time,” said Audrey- Kristel Barbeau, director of a New Horizons International Music Association (NHIMA) ensemble for older adults in Montreal.

Do-it-yourself — or not: Some musical newcomers featured in Making Time for Making Music tried to learn a new instrument on their own, using methods books or watching instructional videos on YouTube. Most eventually found a teacher.

“I just strummed chords from a John Denver songbook or got chords from the internet,” said Ted Dawson, an Arizona resource room teacher, describing his first efforts on guitar. “I didn’t learn much.” So he started taking group classes and private lessons, and attended jam sessions, too.

David Inverso reached the same conclusion after trying to teach himself to play tenor saxophone. “I had lousy timing and tone and had no idea how to fix it,” said the Seattle software developer. “I tried sitting in on a jazz ensemble and a woman sitting next to me bolted from her chair and moved across the room. Humbled and frustrated, I took lessons for quite a few years and played in a sax quartet while taking lessons.”

Group support helps: Many newcomers have taken private lessons; others prefer group lessons. “Group lessons are a low-stress, friendly way to learn. We joke that it’s cheaper than therapy,” said Lydia Zieglar, a Maryland mathematician, who is learning in a group class with other cello beginners.

Hildreth-Grasso points out that “some adults want a group class because they feel more comfortable when everyone is having as hard a time as they are. The group class is also a good ‘taster.’ It’s less expensive than private lessons. They can rent an instrument so that the outlay is not particularly high and then figure out whether they actually want to do this.”

Ease into it: Some newcomers ease into lessons gradually, not making a commitment until they’re sure this is something they are ready to tackle. “I started small, signing up for a summer Piano Boot Camp,” said Rena Johnson, a choral singer and Washington, D.C., physician who inherited a piano and decided to learn how to play it “to keep the brain healthy.” When the summer lessons went well, Johnson signed up for the fall semester with the same teacher and has kept going.

Consider beginner-friendly ensembles: Instruction is built into some ensembles (such as those for older adults sponsored by  NHIMA). But even ensembles that don’t offer coaching can help newcomers, if the conductor is willing to make allowances. One violin newcomer found such a conductor in a community orchestra: “The conductor told us newbies that we can play every third or fourth note in hard passages, just stay with the rhythm.”

“Allow yourself to sound bad at first. All that hard work turns into something truly beautiful,” said Inverso.

Reprinted and adapted from Making Time for Making Music: How to Bring Music into Your Busy Life by Amy Nathan with permission from Oxford University Press.  © Oxford University Press 2018.

By Amy Nathan
Amy Nathan is the author of Making Time for Making Music: How to Bring Music Into Your Busy Life  which presents music-making experiences and advice from more than 300 avocational musicians, and also from dozens of music educators, researchers, and health-care professionals, who point out that making music is good for your health. She is the author of several other books, for adults, teens and young readers, on topics including women's history, civil rights, dance and music.  

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