The phone rings; I answer it. The voice on the other end says, “Hello, I’ve been to your website and I’d like to learn guitar, but I wonder if I’ve left it too late in life?”
That one question is the clarion cry of many of the inquiries I receive, and it’s why I’ve found myself teaching 39 adult students one-on-one, and precisely zero youngsters at this moment.
Many children come grudgingly to classical lessons because really they want to play electric guitar, or their parents want them to learn to play an instrument that’s “not too expensive to buy.” Adults, by contrast, are always self-motivated, and their initial enthusiasm is often boundless and matched by their total lack of coordination!
To those of you either struggling to learn guitar as an adult or returning to it later in life—no, you most certainly haven’t left it too late to achieve something remarkable.
So, what’s different about adult learners? Once you leave college or university, most skills are ones you build on, not new skills you have to learn. But starting to learn to play guitar is not only a new skill for an adult beginner, but a complex one that involves sight, sound, touch, reading, planning, reasoning, timing, and interpretation. But it’s also some of the best brain food possible.
Let’s address some of the issues many adult learners bring up:
No, it’s not. It’s a challenge that needs to be broken into smaller problems. Adults want to run before they can walk, and teaching yourself is not straightforward—how can you find a mistake when you believe you are following the instructions? A skilled teacher can, and will, tailor lessons on a per-student basis to get that sweet spot where effort and achievement are at their best balance.
“I WISH I HAD DONE THIS AS A CHILD”
Motivation is a given, but frustration can eat at even the most promising adult learner. But adults forget that adults learn just as quickly as someone much younger, if only because they have considerable patience and just one subject for their evening homework!
“MY FINGERS ARE TOO STIFF”
Actually, no, they are simply untrained. I can prove this: Any of you out there who can play well know exactly what your two hands have to do, but if you sit your guitar on your lap the other way around and try to fret a chord with your plucking hand, you’ll soon find that your fingers just cannot get into position. Adult learners have yet to learn the motor skills players take for granted, but it doesn’t take too long to master them.
This, of course, is the one word that young children throw at adults to question everything that comes their way. Except perhaps in music. Here, it’s the adults who want to know why—they need to know how to store the information they’ve been given, and that means understanding it and filing it away correctly. Whether it’s, “Why is that a second finger on that B when it was a third finger in the previous piece?” or, “Why does that piece have both Ab and G# in it?” the learning process is gloriously two-way and constantly veering off-track.
“I’M FRUSTRATED WITH MY LACK OF PROGRESS”
That really shouldn’t happen anymore. The canon of guitar music has changed radically in the last 40 years, and the sheer wealth of appealing, comfortable repertoire is now so large that I struggle to stay on top of it all. Unlike children, adults will have strong preferences on the music that they like, and although it’s the duty of a teacher to help them explore new genres, their favorite styles can be a potent way to unlock the barriers to progress. Adults will seldom make as many mistakes in a typical workday as they make in one music lesson, and adults really don’t like to feel like they are failing. However, picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and trying to regain your dignity is the only way to make progress, and provided the teacher is sympathetic to the feelings of failure, frustration will soon pass.
“IT STILL HAS MISTAKES”
We can blame our performing professional colleagues for this! The classical guitar fights back much harder than most orchestral instruments—with two hands to make one note, with polyphony, with the problem of not even knowing which finger frets the bottom note of a chord until everything is decoded, with the need to position eight fingers to an accuracy of a few millimeters, the chance of making a mistake is high. In addition, learners forget that the guitar they hear on the radio and most recordings is not how a guitar sounds while it is being learned. Indeed, a quick trawl of YouTube will show you the differences when players of different levels of expertise perform a piece. You might aspire to play like the best, but it can be discouraging to constantly measure yourself against the best. Keep your expectations reasonable.
“I’M BORED WITH IT”
Adults are (largely) sociable beings who like company, and guitar can seem like an insular hobby. Except that guitar ensembles are a great way to enjoy mutual encouragement, a big sound, lots of laughter, and a chance to realize that ultimately, playing guitar is about what you hear, not about what you read and do. Guitar isn’t a lonely hobby when you can find like-minded players!
“WHEN DO I FINALLY GET TO THE END OF MY LEARNING?”
Well, we all know the answer to that: There is an astonishingly large amount of high-quality guitar music out there, and virtually every piece brings its own challenges. As your experience of guitar music in general, and music construction in particular, starts to grow, a large percentage of repertoire can start to look vaguely familiar, because the set of universal building blocks in guitar music is surprisingly large. But there’s always something new and exciting to work at overcoming.
“WHAT ABOUT MUSIC THEORY?”
I suspect some of us who learned music theory as children will instinctively recoil at that question, because music theory can contain a whole raft of concepts that aren’t relevant to classical guitar. But there are many aspects of theory that adults, used to finding patterns in chaos, will find helpful to their sight-reading and analysis. Being shown examples of theory in action is something that many adults find helps cement a new piece or a new fact into place much more rapidly.
“I DIDN’T PRACTICE MUCH THIS WEEK”
Children already have so many routines and regimens in their education lives that fitting in music practice is usually a little easier for them than it is for adults, who may have elderly parents, cars to get to the shop, grocery shopping to do, a boss who makes them work late at the office, and so on.
But guitar isn’t a race to a destination, it’s a journey, and the scenery is all along the journey, not just at the destination! A good teacher will be able to change the lesson on-the-fly to take account of a student’s achievement, and the student/teacher relationship is always a rich and varied one when teaching adults. And just like a real journey, there will be places where the desire to stop and admire that particular piece of scenery just can’t be resisted.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Classical Guitar.