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Kate Little

Teaching Adult Beginners

January 5, 2015 22:29


I’m about to start my first adult student. Since you’re an adult student, can you give me some advice?


Of course! Please allow me!

#1a: Ask your new student why he is studying viola and wait for the response. An immediate one will come. But his ideas may well evolve, develop and become more nuanced over time. Listen for this to happen, and accommodate his ideas. Please do not impose on him your own beliefs as to why he is studying viola.

#1b: Do not assume that he is studying viola “Just For Fun.” This over-simplified belief, common among string teachers and players (at least in my experience), can be irritating in its condescension. He may well have motivations far more expansive and/or complex than “Just For Fun.” His motivations inform how the lessons can and should progress, and must be accounted for.

(As an aside, this is my personal pet peeve with viola and violin teachers. Many have informed me outright that I am studying “Just For Fun” without ever stopping to ask me why I study. The statement is really a reflection the speaker's inability to conceive that there might exist many and varied reasons why an adult might take up a string instrument. Please don’t be one of the blind.) (Stepping back down from soapbox now.)

#2: Developmental differences between children and adults are extensive enough that one may assume that these groups need different training methods. And while an extremely highly developed body of pedagogical knowledge exists about how to successfully teach beginning child-students, no such equivalent pedagogical knowledge exists for the teacher of a beginning adult-student. (If anyone out there in Internet-land can substantially refute this claim, please do, and include references to materials. My teachers and I would be very interested to know about them.) The dearth of guiding materials for adults suggests that, as a teacher, you will need to be pedagogically curious and experimental with your adult student, figuring out for yourself what works and what doesn’t.

#3: Unlike a typical child, your adult student will arrive with his own ideas about teaching and learning, and with self-knowledge of his own strengths and weaknesses. Acquaint yourself with his thoughts and to use them to your and his advantage. Your guidance is essential, but you will not be making unilateral decisions about what will be learned and when and how. Teaching an adult can be an extended negotiation. This can benefit the process as the two of you continually refine where he is going and how he will get there (see #2). Teamwork is key.

#4: Unlike children, adult bodies have decades of nerve- and muscle-memory completely unrelated to playing a string instrument which will interfere with the process of learning to play, at least in comparison to a child-learner.

#4a: Do not assume that this is an insurmountable obstacle. In fact, (1) in the absence of physical pathology, and (2) with sufficient time, motivation and training, one may suppose that the desired skill set can be attained.

#4b: A key to helping an adult acquire violin-playing skills lies in methodology of physical therapy. This is a body of knowledge worth string-teachers-of-adults exploration. In essence, the methodology involves breaking physical activity down into essential skills, figuring out exactly where in the sequence and at what level the student is, and using small, firmly challenging tasks to guide the student toward capability. This approach demands from the teacher keen observation of the student, coupled with sharp analytical ability. Depending on the skill to be learned and the student’s level of dis-ability, it also requires patience.

(As an example, three years ago my left middle finger would not move into a low-2 position. I literally had to interrupt playing to use my bow hand to move and place the offender. The problem became a crisis with the first G-major tune in Suzuki Book I. Determined to overcome, I visited a physical therapist who had knowledge of musicians’ hand issues. In a few sessions he taught me a process to increase finger and hand flexibility and agility. It took a year for the finger to become independent, and I continue work to increase its function, but, as stated above, with time, motivation and training, the skill set was achievable.)

#5: Singing. At least in the United States, we live in a society pre-occupied with Facebook and iPods and we no longer sing. Not together and not alone. Aside from the loss of this delightful social and personal activity in daily life, lack of vocal activity leads to underdevelopment of pitch-creation ability. Unless your student has otherwise had an active musical life, his inner sense of intonation and his corresponding ability to externalize pitch could be lacking. Encourage and support efforts to sing pitches, scales, phrases, songs before playing them. Particularly with adults, who are often embarrassed and shy to use their voices, it is easy to overlook the benefits of sing-then-play. Try to get him used to this skill-building technique.

#6: Fellow adult beginners are difficult to find in this difficult and sometimes lonely endeavor. One friendly group in which your student may find mutual support is the private Facebook group Adult Starters – Violin/Fiddle (violas included). Only beginners and late-returners are allowed in, and the on-going conversation is always kind and thoughtful.

#7: Do be flexible with your demands for lesson schedule and practice amounts. The demands of adult life need accommodation. At the same time, it is fair to require sufficient lesson attendance and practice time for progress to be made such that the studies rewarding for both of you.

That’s it for now. My opinions, for what they may be worth. Let me know next month how it’s going.


Addendum: Posting this essay on the Adult Starters – Violin/Fiddle Facebook page brought out these added passionate insights:

“Adults can go as far or as little as they are motivated to go. If it is important to them they will make it happen. You cannot dictate what that individual wants and how committed they are, but you should help them go as far and as fast as they are willing to make it happen.” – Laura Lyon

“Let the student in on your lesson plans - what needs to be achieved in what succession and how they fit in the bigger scheme of things and how they relate to their playing goals. Also conduct regular reviews on what is working and what is not and change the gameplan accordingly.” - SY

“Adult students are usually self-motivated and have a highly-developed work ethic (as well as a healthy fear of failure) - take advantage of this! No need to worry about mom or dad forcing a kid student to practice. Adult students will do the work, and then some.” – Karen Collins

“Don't assume that because your adult student is highly accomplished in another field or career that s/he is going to be able to direct his/her violin/viola learning at the same level. They may need something deceptively simple from you, or may not know things that are obvious or commonly known to virtually all adult pro musicians. And they may be embarrassed about this--so let them ask seemingly dumb questions and treat those questions with the same respect and care you would any other question.” – Karen Allendoerfer

“It would be wonderful if more teachers of adults were able to put them in touch with other adults of a similar level for ensemble work. Maybe by sharing info with other teachers of adults, being in touch with the local amateur musical scene, etc.” – Marianne Hansen

“Adults are often very unwilling to participate in recitals especially if they are the only adult. Helping them to find an adult to play with, or a small group can help them improve their timing and rhythm. For those unwilling to sing a clapping/tapping exercise can help with rhythm and can be very funny.” – Dale Forguson

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