Violin Lessons: Engaging the Adult Learner, with Megan Healy at ASTA 2023

August 10, 2023, 5:15 PM · Adult students tend to have different motivations for learning violin than children, and they also require a different approach.

But what exactly does that mean for a teacher, who wishes to effectively teach adult students? What is going on, in the mind of an adult student, and what approach do they need, in order to embrace their learning?

Michigan-based violinist and pedagogue Megan Healy gave a talk about this very topic last spring at the American String Teachers Association Conference in Orlando.

violinist Megan Healy
Violinist Megan Healy speaks at the 2023 ASTA Conference about "Engaging the Adult Learner."

Healy wrote her doctoral dissertation on the topic of adult learners, earning her doctorate from the University of Colorado. She also has Master of Music and Artist Diploma degrees from Western Michigan University and a Bachelor of Music from the University of Iowa.

In her lecture, called "Engaging the Adult Learner," Healy described "andragogy," which is pedagogy for adults (in the word "pedagogy," the root "ped" means "relating to children."). She also gave advice for the different ways to approach adult students, insights about their motivation, and tips for getting started with the adult student, all based on her own work with adults and research about their learning.

It might be surprising to learn that among adults, there is actually a huge desire to learn to play a musical instrument, and only a small portion of adults actually do so. Healy cited some interesting statistics to back that up: some 85 percent of adults in the United States who do not play a musical instrument wish that they had learned to play one, according to a 2009 Gallup poll. And of those, 69 percent would still like to learn to play an instrument. According to another poll by the NEA in 2012, only 12 percent of adult Americans were currently playing musical instruments.

That would seem to point to a huge untapped potential for adult students, but there are barriers. One big one: "adults know that the methods are geared toward teaching children," Healy said.

So is it possible for an adult to learn to play an instrument? And how can teachers help?

"There is no reason why adults can't be successful in learning an instrument," Healy said. In fact, many adults may be even better positioned for the challenges involved. "Many adults value lifelong learning," she said. "Music education should be viewed as a lifelong endeavor."

This is where it is handy for teachers to truly understand the differences between "pedagogy" - teaching children, and "andragogy" - teaching adults.

For example, children tend to accept that they are supposed to learn what a teacher is teaching them. Adults, on the other hand, need to know why they need to learn something, before they will buy into the process of learning it.


Children are often offered music lessons as a matter of course, by their schools or by their parents. But what motivates an adult to seek out lessons and learn an instrument?

"Adults often start music lessons after a major life change," Healy said. That can include retirement, having an empty nest, career change, divorce, etc. They may have social motivations - for example, a retiree looking for a new identity. They may do it for their health - "learning an instrument can keep the mind sharp," Healy said. They may do it as a stress reliever from their job - with music practice as a form of mindfulness.

Are there any benefits for a teacher choosing to work with adult learners?

"Teachers sometimes don't work with adult students because they are difficult to work with," Healy said, "but teaching adults can have both pedagogical and practical benefits."

Practically speaking, adults can take lessons at different times than children - for example, later in the evening, or even during the daytime school hours. Adults also tend to be more self-sufficient, and they can understand abstract ideas. When it comes to learning details of musicianship like dynamics, adults may be more motivated.

Adults also have more life experience and "adults tend to be more aware of their own learning styles," which can be helpful for a teacher.

In short, "there is no decline in learning ability for adults," she said, they are able to learn as much as children. They just require a different approach.

Approach to Teaching Adults

First, it's important to understand that the teacher's role will be more like a facilitator. "A teacher's instruction must embrace the adult's need for self-direction," Healy said. It's more of a team-based approach: teacher and student are on a team together.

It is also important for a teacher to provide a technical language and vocabulary. An adult student may come up with a colloquial language for the things they are learning and doing in the lessons, and it's the teacher's job to translate that into expert language that the adult can use and learn to identify with.

What are some good strategies that a teacher can use, to prepare the adult learner for success with music lessons?

First, help the student to define their goals and expectations, and discuss why these goals and expectations are appropriate. Give them a trajectory. Collaborate on creating a "playlist" of pieces they'll learn to play. Some adult students may come to their lessons with a "dream piece" they want to play (and some will not). If so, work this in to the goals.

Importantly, a teacher needs to help the adult to incorporate the violin (or other instrument) into their daily life, while making incremental progress. Work with the student to set small and achievable goals.

Climate for Learning

It's important for the teacher to set boundaries with adult students, and stick to them. "The teacher must not be too flexible," Healy said. Adult students may want to distract from playing because they don't feel comfortable being the beginner, so a teacher may want to set a limit for chatting - about 10 minutes is right for adults. (For children, it more like five minutes. It's okay to acknowledge that adults require more chatting time.)

A teacher and adult student might build a friendship over time, but it is important to hold their paid lesson time sacred.

And while a weekly lesson tends to be a requirement for a child to progress with their learning, bi-weekly lessons can work for adults, who are better able to take detailed notes and remain accountable over those two weeks.

Also, "it's important to protect the ego of the adult student," Healy said. They tend to be more self-conscious, and sometimes they are not ready to play for others. While you might require a child to play in a recital, an adult may need more time to take that step.

Adults also may enjoy the "lore of musicians" - "they enjoy expanding their musical knowledge" and will excitedly share information they have learned on their own about the history of music and musicians.

Learning Challenges

Adults may have certain learning challenges that are different from those of children. Physically, they may have previous injuries or physical weakness, and so "adults may not have textbook posture," Healy said. They may have a tendency to grip both violin and bow, and they may be hesitant in their actions.

Cognitively, "teaching adults can be more complex than teaching children," Healy said. A teacher should remember how much courage and bravery it took for their adult student to even start lessons. "A new student may have thought about doing this for years, before taking the plunge."

Adults tend to have a lower mistake threshhold than children - "they are often highly-trained professionals in their field," so they are used to being an expert, not a beginner. "Do not allow the student's insecurities to derail the lesson."

The concept of "non-judgment" can be helpful: the idea of observing their own playing objectively, without judgment.

Adults will be more likely to respond to reading music than a fully aural approach (such as beginning Suzuki with children).

First Lesson

Here was Healy's list of things to do in a "first lesson" with an adult student:

In subsequent lessons: pluck "songs" while learning bow-hold.

In conclusion, "choosing to learn an instrument as an adult is an act of courage," Healy said. Teachers who work with adult students should honor that courage and be open to the unique needs and learning patterns of adults when designing a plan for their progress.

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August 11, 2023 at 08:28 AM · It all boils down to interest and dedication.

August 13, 2023 at 09:25 PM · I had two adult beginners for cello lessons. They each came with the goal to learn to play a particular piece. One wanted to learn to play "Amazing Grace." The other wanted to learn "Ashoken Farewell." I transcribed each into a version the put into the first position of the A and D strings of the instrument and withing two weeks each was playing the music of their choice. So much well-known music can be reduced the level of the early pages of Suzuki Book 1.

They were so pleased they each continued lessons for quite some time.

Doing this with adult violin students would be more difficult because playing the instrument is so much less ergonomic than cello.

August 13, 2023 at 09:45 PM · There are several important points here. Two very important groups of adult learners, of which I'm both are:

1. Very senior ones - those let's say past 80. I happen to be 94.


2. those who are returning to an instrument after several to many years. We know the basics and just need guidance in using them after a long layoff.

I first returned to violin after 65 years. I was very unhappy when I had to give it up again after a few years because left wrist problems prevented me from holding the instrument. Luckily my 12 year old granddaughter needed a better instrument so I gave her mine. She has become a superior player.

After 4 operations on my wrist, including replacement of the thumb joint, I became able to try again.

This time has not been as easy because joints have become significantly stiffer. Although i work at it daily, vibrato has not become possible.

I have given up trying to find a teacher capable of dealing with my problems.

August 14, 2023 at 09:53 AM · Thank You! As one who started as an adult I was fortunate enough to have both a teacher who first asked me what my goals were (to play the soprano/descant line of Episcopal Hymns). The method was (and still is) Doflein.

In my opinion Doflein is better because it starts out with duets for student and teacher from the first page and on every page turn. The student is playing music with another person (a fellow adult) from the beginning. It's not open string "Twinkle" (Oh Mother I Can Tell YOU!) it's Bartok! Along with a bunch of named composers.

I've added the Hal Leonard "101" books a supplementary material because I can find familiar tunes that teach the very same lessons with other music. I call these books "Friends and Family Music."

As to the "Attitudes" - Doflein expects the student to use their fourth finger from the beginning (Suzuki does not because very young children do not develop the dexterity for the fourth finger till later). Your adult student has full dexterity. The reason that Doflein starts with first (half step between 2&3) and then to second (half step between 3&4) is that that sequence opens up all four strings to tunes in the key of A-Major (second attitude on the G and D-strings and first attitude on the A and E-strings). The low second finger (half-step between 1&2) comes next followed by fourth (half-step between the nut and 1). All the while playing duets that aren't "kiddie tunes." Yes, you get to play Twinkle, but only when your ready to play all 12 variations. Oh Mother I can tell you that is really difficult!

Yes, I have two adult students and I really prefer working with them. I have taught children using Doflein and their progress has been great. However, unlike a lot of children, and adult who wants to learn will stick with the plan because it was a choice they made. Doflein's duet rich method helps the adult feel like a real musician thanks to all those duets.

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