The benefits of being an adult learner

3 years ago

What’s it like to take up an instrument after a break of many years? Recorder player Paul Smith shares the highs and lows of being an adult learner. Like many people I played the recorder at school, never really getting far beyond B, A and G. But four years ago, when week after week of bad weather kept me from getting out cycling, I decided to take it up again – at the age of 55 – and learn to play properly. Amazingly, I discovered that there’s a cluster of recorder players in the Derbyshire village in which I live and with two phone calls I had someone to teach me and the offer of a group I could play with.

Exam experiences

Since then my journey has been a fascinating one, with huge ups and downs. I have had regular lessons, played with two groups and passed Grades 4, 5 and 6. There is no doubt that nerves have been a problem, not only for exams and concerts but even sometimes for lessons.

One of the strangest experiences was to enter the exam hall for my Grade 5 Theory exam, see all the tiny tables in their rows and columns and then sit down and work for two hours – not having taken a written exam for 35 years!

My experience of ABRSM Practical exams has been nerve-racking but on balance positive. I found examiners were pleasantly surprised to see an adult come into the room with his music and recorder and I always felt they wanted me to play as well as I possibly could. I’ve not always been pleased with my result but have taken comfort from ‘success begins at the pass mark’. I have been fortunate to have a teacher who praises more than she criticises and is able to start from how I play on a particular day, good or bad, and always point the way forward.

A suite of benefits

Recently I’ve found learning scales a challenge while moving on up the grade structure, but looking back on these four years of playing I’m so glad to have picked up the recorder once more. I have always been a singer but this is the first time I’ve made any real progress as a musician and it’s delivered a suite of benefits. There is the obvious one of being able to do something that I couldn’t do before and the opportunities, both social and musical, that have opened up as result.

When listening to music played by others I definitely hear new detail and am even more appreciative of the amazing technical standard that professional players reach, apparently effortlessly. And playing has transformed my singing.

As someone who has always sung by ear, I tended to see written music as only a general guide to the ups and downs of pitch and volume! Now I see the music with fresh understanding and basics such as knowing what key we’re in and how time signatures work have made me a more confident and trusted choir member. I would reassure any adult that it is possible to take up an instrument late in life. Your progress may be slow and each step may take more effort than it would for a younger person. You may have to overcome pounding heart or tense fingers as you wait to go into your exam. And you may feel some embarrassment when you struggle with music your teenage fellow players can just play easily, but the benefits will far outweigh the trouble involved. That, at least, is my story!


Paul’s top tips for practice

  • Make practice part of your daily routine.
  • Try to play in the morning. The later you leave it, the more it can become a chore.
  • Always try something new, even if it’s short. Don’t just play your current pieces.
  • Work on the hard bits, don’t just play through.
  • Use an online metronome. Play difficult bits really slowly then speed up progressively.
  • Always work towards a goal: the next lesson, the next exam, the next concert.

This article was originally featured in the September 2016 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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