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Top 5 Challenges for the Adult Music Student and How to Overcome Them

By Dave Isaacs | March 9, 2018

Top 5 Challenges for the Adult Music Student and How to Overcome Them

How many times have you heard an adult student say they wish they had started when they were younger? Or perhaps that they took lessons as a child and wish they had stuck with it. It’s a simple statement, and easy enough to understand the sentiment. But there might be more behind it that’s worth examining.

Finding time to practice in between the adult demands of work and family is hard enough, but the bigger issues for many adult students are not practical ones but a matter of mindset. Some of the most difficult challenges for the student starting later in life come from self-limiting beliefs. Put simply, many adults don’t have a lot of faith in their own ability to learn. Here are five interconnected ways these self-limiting beliefs manifest, and some solutions to the problems they present.

1. I should have started when I was a kid.

When someone says this, what they might really mean is “I’m not sure I can learn to be good enough.” It’s true that young people’s more pliable minds generally absorb information faster, but that’s not just a function of youth. I don’t know about you, but my life is a lot more complicated than it was when I was a kid. It’s a lot harder to just get lost in something. Even more importantly, as more self-conscious adults it’s harder to play.

Kids don’t just learn by practicing, they learn by exploring. The child who approaches an instrument with a sense of play is much more likely to develop the love that will lead to later discipline. Even the most disciplined young people will play more than they’ve been assigned to practice, because they love it! Many of my adult students never do, or had never thought to. They practice, and struggle, but rarely just play something easy because it feels good to do it. Once they do, it’s striking how quickly motivation and satisfaction return. It’s also a great way to recognize and acknowledge progress.

2. I’m not talented, I just like music.

The question of talent, or the belief you lack it, is the most insidious self-limiting belief of all. Worse still, that belief may have started in childhood and had a lifetime to set and harden. Do you remember grade school choir auditions? Kids line up and are sent to one side of the room or the other, and the judgment has been made. “Some kids are musical, and some aren’t.” Even if the child doesn’t feel it at the time, it becomes a formative experience.

Every good teacher knows that talent is a wonderful aid to progress. Sometimes it’s rocket fuel. But every good teacher also knows that talent is not a substitute for effort. Kids don’t worry about whether they’re talented or not, and generally don’t question whether something they enjoy doing is “worth the effort.” Adults, on the other hand, will sometimes ask whether an investment in lessons is worthwhile based on their belief in their own lack of musical potential. Worse yet, some will ask the same question about their kids!

The answer for a teacher, of course, is to simply cultivate the love. Remind your students why they wanted to play in the first place, and see item 1 above. Don’t just assign material at the edge of a student’s ability, but augment with material that’s just enjoyable to play. Of course, this is good advice for students of any age.

3. I don’t need to be that good.

Kids don’t know what they don’t know. But your adult students do, and they’re much more aware of how far they are from where they want to be. Many respond to this by setting limits to their aspirations: to say they are only aiming for a particular level of skill.

Now, it may be true that the circumstances of someone’s life can only allow for so much practice time, and that’s necessarily going to limit growth. Someone might also have specific goals that don’t require great facility on the instrument. But starting with limited aspirations can also just be a way of anticipating disappointment: I don’t think I can be that good, so I’m not going to try to be.

This relates directly to points 1 and 2 above. It’s important for a student at any level to feel accomplishment, and it’s especially important to the adult beginner to be able to feel accomplishment from something simple. But starting off with an expectation of limited potential is counterproductive for obvious reasons. Show your students how the simple skills they may be starting with will come into play in performing even the most difficult music. Listen to challenging music they love and point out the simple aspects. If you can teach your students to mentally break things down to component parts, everything begins to look much more attainable.

4. I know how to do that already.

Like all these challenges, this isn’t limited to adults, but it’s very common. It’s the flip side of item 3: sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know! In this case, I’m referring to the tendency many students of any age might have to practice too quickly, inattentively, or superficially. There’s always more to even the simplest exercise, and there’s always a way to play something better.

For example, a student might practice scales to the point where they can demonstrate the fingerings across the instrument in different keys, but might still be stumbling over the notes and getting frustrated by their inability to increase accuracy and speed. When that happens, the solution is often to take a closer look at their technique. So many people play in physically awkward ways and don’t realize it. When this is explored in the lesson, nearly everyone will see and feel the difference. Unfortunately, some teachers focus too much on the “what” and not enough on the “how.” As a result, many students never take a closer look at how they play and how it really feels!

If you teach your students to be more aware of how they play, you begin to teach them to identify and then solve technical problems. This can be a huge step forward, because an adult’s greater capacity for self-evaluation and discipline make this awareness a powerful practice tool.

5. I don’t have enough time.

Sometimes there’s no arguing with this one. Obviously practicing takes time. But relating to item 4 above, you can teach your students how to make practicing more powerful and effective. Even students with years of experience may not know any way to practice other than simple repetition. As I pointed out previously, an adult ability to focus and analyze provides the means to allocate practice time where it’s needed most.

Once again, this starts with the ability to break things down. Since so much of practicing involves technical challenges, it’s important to stress that every technical problem has a technical solution. Once the problems are identified very specifically, then even short bursts of focus practice will have a short-term impact. Over the long term, they have a much greater impact.


It’s also good to remind your students that something is always better than nothing. Simply touching the instrument on a daily basis maintains familiarity and a stronger connection to the music even if time is limited. That stronger connection cultivates the love and adds to the motivation. Encourage them to play something simple every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Yes, life is complicated and things get away from us. But if playing music provides a break and a moment of satisfaction in the midst of a busy day, even a little bit goes a long way.

Dave Isaacs

A career musician and teacher, Dave Isaacs has taught music for thirty years in private lessons, workshops, and college classrooms. Since moving to Nashville in 2005, he has become known in the music community as the “Guitar Guru of Music Row” for his work coaching performers and songwriters. He maintains a busy private studio teaching guitar, piano, theory, and musicianship in private and group settings.

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