Adult students can be transformed by learning to play a stringed instrument, but they require some special consideration by teachers.
Elmhurst College teachers Susan Blaese and Edgar Gabriel spoke about this topic at a lecture at the American String Teachers Association conference in Salt Lake City earlier this month. Both have many years of experience, teaching adult beginner and intermediate string students.
They defined "adult learners" as anyone age 24 and older who is either starting to play an instrument or resuming after a period of years (not those who continually played since childhood).
Gabriel said that, during his early years of teaching adults, he noticed a trend: "They would quit, right when they were starting to get good!" About a dozen years ago, he started teaching adults in groups, and he's been happy with the results. "In groups, they stick around longer," Gabriel said. "There's a camaraderie, and they don't quit."
Adults have certain challenges: life gets in the way of practice routines for them. They may have arthritis or other physical conditions, and vibrato can be difficult to attain. They also often have unreasonable expectations; they want immediate results.
But on the other side of it, adults stand to gain much from studying violin or another stringed instrument. Gabriel pointed to studies by Dr. Nina Kraus of Northwestern University that list some of the advantages of studying an instrument as an adult: improved overall hearing, improved ability to distinguish voices in a crowded room and improved memory. He said that his students have told him that their doctors said that playing the violin would help their arthritis.
He described the case of one adult student who had lost her ability to do mental math, due to severe injuries from a car crash. Seven years of therapy did little to help with this skill, which affected her ability to measure distances, understand speed limits, do recipes and balance her checkbook. She had nearly given up when she started playing the violin. As she said in a video, "I didn't realize that some of my mental math skills were coming back," but after several years of violin, she found that those skills were growing. "Now I feel like I'm completely normal." Her skill level on the violin, as shown in the video, was still at a beginning to intermediate level, but the benefits to her brain function were immense.
Blaese, who taught in public schools for 33 years, now directs a group at Elmhurst College called Varsity Strings, an orchestra consisting of music majors playing their second instruments, and also adult students. Gabriel and Blaese did an informal poll of their adult students, and they found that those students felt that learning an instrument gave them increased flexibility, confidence, relaxation, sense of purpose, improved vision, better auditory memory, increased enjoyment of music, exercise for the mind and importantly, new friends. They reported that they liked going to rehearsals better than they liked practicing alone.
What are some of the challenges for adults?
For one, "adults don't want to hear any bad sounds right away, but the kids don't care." No beginner sounds good on the violin, but many kids will saw away happily, largely unaware or un-judging of the sound. Adults have the awareness already.
"I made a rule for my adult students," Gabriel said, "if anyone says anything negative about their own playing, they have to drop a dollar in a bucket."
Gabriel also recommended that if you are teaching adults in a group, they each should have their own stand. "I've tried to get them to share; it doesn't work." Also, with adults, "you have to get them to play, right away," they won't go for a month on a cardboard violin.
To teach adults how to hold the bow, Gabriel said that he shows them how to make a bow hand, then he tells to do it every day, but in the following rather unconventional way: sit in a chair with an arm rest and watch television, keeping that proper bow hand, with the bow sticking straight up. They simply need to spend time with their fingers in that formation, around the stick.
When it comes to holding the violin, he said that he does the first lesson standing up, but he's also more inclined to allow an adult student to sit for subsequent lessons. He does use tapes on the fingerboard, and shoulder rests, depending on the student's needs.
Blaese said that with adults who may have conditions like arthritis, "you have to be super-observant and let them play for a while any way that they want to. Try many set-ups, and don't give up. It takes a lot of effort -- don't expect that they'll look right, right away." Eventually, they'll get there, but it just might take more time.
Some of the repertoire they recommended for adult students includes: Wohlfahrt Easiest Elementary Method for Violin; Fiddlers Philharmonic by Dabsynski and Phillips, The O'Connor Method Books 1-3, Solos for Young Violinists and Violists by Barbara Barber and any middle school orchestra arrangements that grades 1-3 level (and they recommended classics, adults don't prefer "pop" style).
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