Teaching Adults -- Problems and Solutions -- ASTA 2015

March 30, 2015, 6:40 AM · 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).

Susan Blaese and Edgar Gabriel
Susan Blaese and Edgar Gabriel both teach groups of adult students

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.

Gabriel-chairTo 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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March 30, 2015 at 03:20 PM · why is the Suzuki method not mentioned?

March 30, 2015 at 06:56 PM · Great article!

It's also worth noting that adults could come to play anything with fluency, given proper training and commitment. Much have been said about muscle "elasticity" etc., but the fact is that some adults have come to play the violin really well. To indicate that adults can't possibly play the instrument at a high level due to "stiffer" muscles is conservative pseudo science at best. More realistic obstacles are lacking time, or poor training. But adult students must not be inherently doomed to not being able to play at a high level JUST due to them having started late.

I believe a good teacher will always respect the individual behind the student being taught. Adult learners are no less a person-and a violinist-than a budding young virtuoso.

April 1, 2015 at 09:20 PM · I was an adult student, beginning violin studies at the age of 31 (am now 67). I think the hardest part of being an adult student is finding an ensemble to join, especially if you live in rural areas. It was only through the generosity of a local university who allowed me sit in in their student orchestra. I had to endure years of humiliation because I made a lot of mistakes but all in all, I have a patient, supportive husband, and 2 beautiful violins and I currently play in 3 orchestras (mostly first violin) - this is my passion and I am SO glad to be this involved in my music!!! BTW, I left a 22 year nursing career to pursue music degrees in music history and musicology - have NEVER regretted my decision! I would also like to encourage beginning adult students to take advantage of adult string camps (e.g. SCOR)...they're invaluable!!!

April 2, 2015 at 12:55 PM · IInteresting article but it does give the impression that all adult learners have some kind of physical impairment which is really not true. Some of us in our 5th, 6th and 7th decades are thankfully pretty fit and healthy and our only limitations are time and conflicting commitments.

I started playing violin again 2 and a half years ago having not played since the age of 14 - well over 40 years ago. The key is knowing what you want to achieve and having a supportive teacher and groups to play with who can help you to achieve that level. And most importantly to have fun!

Vivien K (UK)

April 2, 2015 at 03:40 PM · I am 54 years old and started to play Viola when i was 47. Never learned to play any other music instrument before, except the harmonica which i taught myself when i was 10.

Started with Suzuki method which was great because i was able to feel my self into the music with my ears and not too much reading music. After 8 months i changed to Violin because it was less labour some to play on it. And my kids (5 and 8 years old) joined to learn the Violin which was a great motivation for me.

Within 2 1/2 years we had worked through the first two Suzuki books and partly through the third one. We always listen to our pieces in the car and at home as much as possible.

Sadly our amazing teacher could not teach us anymore because of health problems. So the road became more rocky to find a suitable teacher. My daughter quit the Violin because she did not like any other teacher. Luckily i found the right teacher for my son. And i was just by my self for 2 years without many lessons at all just repeating what i had learned.

Being very persistent looking out for the right teacher, i finally found one. The Concert master from our local Symphony orchestra took me under his wing and i really enjoyed having lessons once a fortnight again.

And for the first time there were no restrictions on the fingerboard or the kind of music. And apart from doing scales we only do pieces i really really like. He never said that the pieces i liked were too difficult for my level. One of my favorite pieces to exercise is The Cantabile from Paganini. It covers the whole fingerboard and is so challenging to play. It still will take me years to play it to my full satisfaction but playing it and knowing that i can get every note right is very satisfying.

I feel that it is important to have as much freedom as possible to choose music you really really like. Thats the only thing which really really motivates me to carry on.

I now started to play second Violin in our local community orchestra which i find very challenging but nice to be in that kind of environment. Reading music is still somehow slow for me and i enjoy much more playing pieces by heart. At the moment i am on very beautiful piece from Bieber : The Passacaglia. It will take me maybe one or two years to get through it but its all worth it. :) Passion for the piece you love will do it all at the end :)

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