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On again/off again: the reality of adults learning music

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

TLDR: you’re badass and deserve to do things just for you, for no other reason than you want to.

I know my place in the world of teaching. I’m not going to lead semi-professionals to their moment of opera fame. I’m a choir nerd who gets stupidly excited for folks when they decide they want to sing.

There's a badassery about absolute beginners. It takes guts for adults to walk into something and say "I know absolutely nothing, but I'm here to learn." I love that “aha” moment when someone realizes their struggles with singing are because the system is complex, not because they somehow fail as a person. In lessons we often end up talking about mindset and confidence as much as technique.

How much could the world change if more people were brave enough to accept being beginners?

... And thus I have many opinions on why people sing and how they should be treated in lessons.

A prickly point for many teachers is students not practicing. Get a bunch of music teachers in a room, and inevitably one of them will bring up their one student “who practices!” and the room will devolve into jealous exclamations that turn into rants about people not coming to lessons “prepared.”

I see it a little differently, especially with adults (I think routine is good for kids and a solid daily practicing routine for kids is usually very doable). While many teachers become frustrated with students not practicing because it holds them back from their musical goals (“progressing”), they're starting from a false assumption. In the life of many adults, there is already something momentous taking place each week they show up not having practiced.

See, adults taking weekly lessons, often simply by virtue of showing up for their lessons each week, are already taking the brave and often difficult step of doing something just for themselves.

Carving out 30 minutes in a busy week is a rough task for a lot of people. I have one business owner client who takes lessons in spurts depending on the seasons in his business. Here's our weekly routine:

  1. He shows up in varying levels of stressed.

  2. He admits he hasn’t practiced

  3. I reinforce that he’s here, now, and this is practice.

  4. We'll have a lesson and rock out. He focuses really hard and commits 100%

  5. At the end of the lesson he's relaxed, joking around, and inspired. He'll promise to practice. I'll tell him it's great if he does but it's ok if he doesn't (I know the drill by now).

  6. He'll argue with me that music matters to him and he's doing this because he wants to and dang it, he's going to practice. Ok, sure.

  7. Cycle repeats.

And guess what, he’s improving. He’s learned to read music. He’s gotten pretty swish at rhythm. He’s learning to tie his ear into what his body is doing. But this progress is secondary, because what's really important is he's honoring himself and what he wants. And dang it, he wants to learn to play music!

Yes, practicing is important if you want to see technical skills progress. I can absolutely tell when a student has practiced outside lessons even once in a week. My business owner student is always shocked because he can’t always see a difference. Believe me: your teacher can always tell.

But what are lessons really about? Many teachers have a cyclical pipeline of driving students towards performances. There’s a goal (the performance event) and in lessons they stay focused on the goal. Repertoire is chosen based on how it fits into that goal. It’s a cycle of prepare, perform, process (analyze). Aaaaand repeat.

Cool beans. Haven’t we got it figured.

But there are a lot of people out there who don’t want to perform. It terrifies them. Hello introvert, I’m waving at you.

And why should they? I believe in pushing people’s comfort zones, but performance isn’t always the best way to do that. I’ve done that cycle, for some people it absolutely works. But for others it’s paralyzing. For others, their comfort zone is pushed just by showing up each week to something that isn’t for anyone else.

We don’t know, as teachers, the gumption it might have taken just to get to us. We don’t know the conversations with partners that may have happened to dedicate finances to lessons. There’s all kinds of backstory that may be going on, and it’s bold of us to assume we know what they’re here for or what they really need from this space we hold together.

In my teaching studio currently I don’t have performances. I only teach adults, and I make sure they understand up front that recitals/gigs are not part of my program at this time. Some potential students appreciate the candor and find someone else to scratch that itch… and I love that for them! The students who sign up, though, look like the weight of the world has been lifted and exclaim loudly “THAT WON’T BE A PROBLEM” while squeeing inside.

when your teacher says you don't have to perform if you don't want to

If you’re considering lessons, what is your “real” reason? It is perfectly legitimate to admit you just want to pay someone for 30 minutes’ worth of an excuse to not be responsible for anything or anyone else during that time. Parents, looking at you.

Choir practice is the same. A lot of people use choir as their excuse to get out of the house each week. I was speaking recently with someone in my choir who lives near where I do. I casually suggested we could carpool sometime and her response was lukewarm. She finally admitted “the drive to practice is the only time in my week I’m alone.” I LOVE THIS. I laughed and celebrated with her and you better believe I’m not going to intrude on that special moment!

move along, nothing here but me and this thing called QUIET

Now, do I love it when my students practice outside our lessons? Of course! Like I said, I can absolutely tell every time. But I love it because it shows me they are enjoying what they’re doing enough to carve out yet another moment in their week to focus on it. How cool is that?

Not everything has to be about progress or moving forward or optimization. Learning is neat in its own right, it doesn’t have to serve a purpose or work towards anything. Also, music is fun. Like, really freaking fun. That’s enough!

So to those lovely people who want to learn music but don’t want to perform, you don’t have to! Find a teacher who celebrates the journey (I’m full, sorry). Trust me, we’re out there. And we think it’s super freaking cool that you’re doing this.

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