Music Education Is Not Just For Children: A Letter to Adult Learners

I’ll admit it: I have a huge Peter Pan complex. I don’t want to grow up. I never have. The phrase “adulting is hard” has left my mouth at least once a day since I graduated college. Pixie dust and Neverland sounds like a much better alternative to death and taxes, but hey, I don’t have much choice in the matter.

I’m certain I’m not living alone with this complex. I doubt anyone wants to be an adult, simply because it tends to be tedious and frustrating much of the time. There’s traffic, there’s laundry, there’s work, there’s bills, and I have to eat right, get eight hours of sleep, maintain friendships, and oh my god I have to make some attempt to exercise, too?! HOW DO PEOPLE LIVE LIKE THIS?!

We’d all rather be children watching cartoons and taking naps when we feel like it, but as we age our list of responsibilities snowballs to the teetering edge of insanity and we feel steamrolled by the never-ending wheel of daily tasks, so entrenched in the doldrums that few of us make time in our lives for things that bring us joy, fulfill us, challenge us.

The good news is that there are ways to escape from the tedium that adult life can be. Catching happy hour with a friend is a simple, easy way to decompress from adult life. Other options are more intimidating and time consuming, like learning an instrument.

It’s easy to think that music education is a child’s pursuit. It isn’t exactly heavily advertised as anything other than a child’s pursuit. I think the violin in particular gets a reputation for being an endeavor to be started as a early as possible to yield maximum success. If you see enough videos of prodigious four year olds playing virtuosic concerti with ease, you’ll start to believe that you aren’t equally as capable because your brain has lost its plasticity and you weren’t raised in a musical environment and you think you’re tone deaf and when would you really even have time to practice, and so on and so forth until the naysaying voices in your head tell you it’s impossible and you shouldn’t try. I think that’s a huge disservice. Music is for everyone, and music education should be, too, but that’s not often the message that’s sent to adults who “wish they took the time to learn an instrument as a kid.”

However,  I am the proud teacher of a decent number of adult students, ranging in age from their mid twenties to their early 50’s. Interestingly enough, each of these students seemed to be uncomfortably aware of this unfounded stigma. They showed up to their first lesson looking sheepish, acknowledging the perceived strangeness of teaching the violin to an adult almost immediately: “I always wanted to learn as a kid, but I never had a chance. Now I’m trying something new. No one knows I’m doing it, I’m too embarrassed to tell anyone.”

I want to take a moment to sing my praises for each of these adult learners. They’re doing life 100% right, but they don’t feel that way because they are immersed in the discomfort of a new and vaguely intimidating endeavor (most likely thanks to many viewings of said prodigious toddlers).

I am certainly not the first person to say this, but the best way to build a life that you will look back upon with satisfaction is to spend as much time as you can pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, willingly putting yourself in situations that challenge you. I understand it’s a struggle – we’re all creatures of habit, and introducing a new habit takes a whole lot of work. But I find that people rarely regret trying something new, regardless of how difficult they perceive the endeavor to be. Leaving the comfort zone and propelling yourself into something creative is especially valuable, because everyone needs an outlet and everyone deserves to work with something beautiful everyday.

The violin is a beast. It’s among the most difficult instruments to play. But, you know what else is hard? Running a marathon.

Has anyone felt embarrassed about successfully running a marathon? NO.

So why be embarrassed about choosing to play one of the most difficult instruments to master?

That’s bad ass, and I respect the hell out all of y’all.

“My Kid Won’t Practice”

“It’s always a fight.”

“She just starts crying when I tell her to practice.”

I’m still in the fairly early stages of my career, and yet I’ve heard this from parents more times than I can count, particularly parents of younger children. Practice becomes a battle, rather than an activity in which children are self-motivated to engage.

This is always discouraging for me as the teacher because I know all too well that a power struggle over music practice is one of the least effective ways to motivate a child to play. The longer to power struggle goes on, the higher the likelihood that the child grows to detest the musical endeavor itself, and the higher the likelihood that the parent tires of the tantrums and concedes to just quitting. What could have been a fulfilling activity for the child is now a failed attempt at a hobby. It’s disappointing for everyone involved.

Continued issues with practicing can become a vicious cycle. Force the child to practice and practicing becomes a chore. When practicing becomes a chore, the child is less motivated to practice of their own accord, because no human is intrinsically motivated to complete what they perceive as a menial, daily task (I can’t remember the last time I felt genuinely motivated to do my laundry, and I’m full-blown adult). Then, with less practice, the child grows less and less prepared for their weekly lessons. They come, I observe the child has made little to no progress in the past week, and we have to repeat what happened in the previous lesson rather than building upon it. The child leaves, feeling defeated and ashamed that they were unprepared. The longer this goes on, the more the child grows to view their instrument as the catalyst for their embarrassment, and then the cycle repeats until they ultimately quit.

Fortunately, there are tools to break this cycle.

Part of it is my job: when I observe a student is making little progress due to a lack of practice, I present them with a challenge: “Practice 10 minutes a day between today and your next lesson. Your goal is to be able to play this passage better next week than you did last week. If I can tell you made progress, I owe you a prize.” The prize varies from student to student; it’s been everything from a sticker to Starbucks. If the student holds up their end of the deal, I hold up mine, and then we talk about the progress they made. I have found that this weeklong exercise does wonders in helping a student see that practice really does make a difference, and when they feel more successful they are more motivated to continue the progress.

Breaking the cycle is partially the parent’s job, too. I can say “practice, practice, practice” until the day I die, but reinforcement at home makes a significant difference in the development and retention of practice habits. Here are some strategies I have tried with parents to reinforce practice at home:

  • Keep a practice calendar, set a goal for minutes per day, or number of days per week, and then hold the child accountable for writing their minutes.
  • Turn practicing into a currency. You want to play Fortnite for 30 minutes? Practice your instrument or 15 minutes first. You want a sleepover this weekend? Practice Monday through Friday and you can. By offering the child a tangible, desired reward for their practice, you are offering them an extrinsic motivation that’s not simply “Mom/Dad will stop yelling at me if I just do it.” I find positive reinforcement always wins over “I just want them to stop nagging me.”
  • Build practicing into their daily habits. Kids these days seem to have jam-packed after-school schedules, from sports to clubs to playdates to tutors. Depending on your child’s schedule, find a way to tag 10-15 minutes of practice onto an already existing daily task. Have your child practice right after dinner, right before their shower at night, right after they get home from soccer. Find a way to piggyback practice onto a task they already do, and you’ll spend less time haranguing about the matter.
  • Just leave the instrument out, albeit in a safe place. It seems silly, but it works. This even works on me when I fall into a practice rut, and I’ve been at this for a decade and a half. Remove the hurdle of physically dragging the instrument out, leave it easily accessible, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly the subliminal practice suggestion works.
  • Find a practice buddy. If your child is in school orchestra, ask if they have a friend in class that they’d like to practice with. Find some simple music they can practice together, and arrange for a practice play date. Some of my best memories growing up are playing my violin with my orchestra friends. Make it social, and everything is more fun.

Practice doesn’t have to be a chore! The sooner we can collectively help our young musicians understand that practice is the key to their success, the happier we’ll all be in the long run.

Practicing Smarter

I came across this article today and I figured it would be worth sharing for students and parents alike:

A group of researchers at The University of Texas at Austin did a study on practice habits of top piano majors at the college to determine what habits led to the best results. They were each given the same three measures of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and told the practice for as long as they wanted to. They then came back the next day, after being explicitly told not to practice their excerpt overnight, and were told to play their excerpt 15 times without stopping. They were then ranked based on accuracy as well as musicality (expression, tone, character, etc).

What were the takeaways?

It seemed that practicing longer and increasing the repetitions of the passage had no bearing on the quality of their performance. What did make a difference was:

  1. Thoughtfully identifying and correcting the problem
  2. Varying tempo by starting slowly and then working up to performance tempo
  3. Practicing the passage until an error-free performance can be duplicated multiple times

This is important for young musicians to understand – you can practice 8 hours a day, but if you are not consciously identifying what you’re doing wrong and working to correct errors, it won’t make any difference. Start slowly, work out the problems, then practice, practice, practice it until you can play it without making mistakes. Practicing smarter wins over practicing longer.

Read the full study here.

Happy, thoughtful practicing!