How To Learn An Instrument Later In Life

How To Learn An Instrument Later In Life

Have you ever wished you could play the piano or violin? Learning to play an instrument as an adult might sound like a challenge but, as any musician will tell you, all it takes is time and a little dedication. We asked three professional players for their tips – from choosing the right instrument to finding enough practice time, here’s what they told us…
Photography: iSTOCK/VENERALA

Choose The Right Instrument For You

You might already have an instrument in mind, but if you’re deciding what to take up, start with something you love the sound of, says Jonny Brading, commercial director of Presto Music.  “Whether you love the saxophone solo on Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street or the piano melody of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, find an instrument that you like to hear and can identify with. There’s no point picking something up you’ll get tired of in a few months. Try as many instruments as you can at your local music shop. Most will be happy to discuss the intricacies of each instrument along with the practicalities of where you might play the instrument and the difficulty of learning.” Paul Burke, guitar tutor at Tutorful, agrees: “The instrument you’ll want to learn will usually depend on the styles of music you gravitate towards. You might have been inspired by an acoustic guitar cover on YouTube, or perhaps the violinist in the orchestra really stood out when you watched a classical concert. That said, many musicians try a few different instruments until they settle on one they really love – so test a few until you find one you enjoy the most.” 

Invest If You Can

“You might find it beneficial and cost effective to hire an instrument and try it out before you commit to purchasing one,” says Paul. “Needless to say, some instruments can be incredibly expensive; however, I would always recommend buying one, even if you have never played before. That way, you’ll be more inclined to want to see a return on your investment, which will come in the way of practising and seeking out a good teacher for lessons. There’s nothing like owning your instrument and developing a sense of pride in ownership of it.” Cellist Natalie James adds: “Purchasing your own instrument will undoubtedly spur you on to make a real go of it. You’ll have your own tool to cherish and care for. Plus, instruments are potentially investments too. Many hold their value and, over time, if cared for, can increase in value. Go to your local music shop to discuss options within your budget, and choose the right model and brand for you.”

Find The Right Teacher

One of the challenges people face when learning an instrument is finding the right teacher. More often than not, it’s a case of trial and error, explains Paul. “Everyone benefits from having a good teacher to point them in the right direction. A good one will be patient, have experience with beginners, and importantly, be someone who plays in the style you want to learn. Tutorful, for example, has over 380 online tutors who specialise in guitar lessons from £15 per hour. Look for a teacher who offers a structured approach to learning and can mentor you throughout the journey. Feedback on how you’re progressing, as well as what you need to work on, is so important.” Don’t be afraid to try a few different teachers before you find one who works for you, says Natalie. “The right teacher is one that you feel most comfortable with. Also, choose a schedule that works for you. You don't want to feel under too much pressure, but rather at ease that you're being taught at your own pace and you’re enjoying it.”

Whether you love the saxophone solo on Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street or the piano melody of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, find an instrument that you like to hear and can identify with.

Set Aside Enough Time To Practise

Once you’ve found your groove, the most important thing is to practise as often as you can. It might sound obvious, but the more time you put in, the better you will become. That doesn’t need to take hours of practice every day, but setting aside regular practice time – whether in between looking after the grandchildren or after work – will help you improve, explains Paul. “If you want to improve, you’ll need to dedicate a decent amount of time to practising your chosen instrument in order to develop and hone your skills. You will also need to be patient, as progress may be slow at first and you might not see results for some time. On average, it takes 10,000 hours to learn an instrument, but it could take you a couple of months or even years to achieve this, depending on ability.” You should also set aside allocated times for different types of practice, suggests Johnny. “Break up the personal practice by spending time playing with or in front of other people once you feel confident enough. There are lots of great clubs in and around London where you can play with other musicians of a similar level. If you’ve chosen an instrument that can easily be played with another musician, take as many opportunities as possible to do so – it will not only further your technique and style, but it will also improve your listening skills.”

Set Yourself Realistic Goals

It’s a good idea to have something to work towards, especially when you’re starting out. Start off by creating small, achievable goals, before building up to bigger ones like graded exams or recitals. However, it depends on what you want to achieve, explains Jonny. “Goals can really help to give you a sense of achievement and improvement. Working towards music grades works for some, but not for others – it will depend on your overall view on what you would like to achieve. Don’t compare your goals to other people. At this stage in life, it’s likely that you’re playing for leisure because you want to, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself. An achievable goal could be practising for one hour every day, or a few hours per week – whatever works for you.” Paul agrees with this approach: “Some people do find it helpful to set goals in other areas of their life and, if you identify as that kind of person and have seen success with this method before, then by all means set goals and aim to reach them. However, there are a number of people who just enjoy life and take it as it comes, and if you just want to have fun and enjoy playing an instrument with no targets, then it’s best to adopt this approach.”

Try Playing In A Group

“Group tuition is a great way to learn from other people,” explains Paul. “You can bounce off others learning the same instrument who are at a similar level to you, and it can be quite inspiring when you all start to make progress together. If you have the time, I’d advise both one-to-one and group tuition, as you will experience the best of both worlds.” However, it’s worth keeping in mind that some people will progress at different speeds, says Johnny. “Look for group classes taught for your demographic. It’s absolutely worth a try, but if you think one-to-one lessons work for you, stick with solo sessions.” One way to try this is to join your local music group, orchestra, or even start your own band with friends. It doesn’t have to be anything serious, just something that gets you playing regularly. “Playing alongside an ensemble of other instruments to create a sound in harmony can be incredibly beneficial,” suggests Natalie. “Some people love playing in an amateur orchestra – when ability allows – while others enjoy playing with friends.”

Persevere Through Any Challenges

Some people learn a new instrument quickly, while others might take longer getting to grips with reading music, learning notes or putting a tune together. However, it’s important to persevere if you become demotivated or feel like giving up, explains Paul. “If you feel like quitting, think back to what made you want to start learning an instrument in the first place. Try to get those feelings back in your mind and body again, and have faith that you will reach the point you want to be if you keep believing in yourself. Also, it will be helpful to look back and recognise what you have already accomplished, even if you only managed the basics -– that’s still more than most people have achieved on your chosen instrument. Develop an appreciation for how far you’ve already come and realise that there are no limits to what you can achieve.” Have a break for a week or two, then get back to practising, suggests Jonny: “Have a go-to piece that you always feel comfortable with, so you can pick it up if you find yourself waning. Also, try listening to instrumental music featuring your instrument. This nearly always sparks inspiration if you’re having a dry spell or feel like packing it in altogether.” 
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