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Pauline Lerner

Musings on Adult Beginners

January 20, 2009 at 4:24 AM

About half of my students are adult beginners or re-beginners, and I love teaching them. Like any group, they present their own delights and disappointments. Overall, I find the experience of teaching them both challenging and enriching for me, and I'd never want to give it up.

The February, 2009 issue of Strings has an article by Deryn Cullen about her experiences teaching cello to adult beginners. She says that the students who are most likely to quit early are her adult beginners.

I think I agree, but I'm not sure because I've never taken count. Besides, I'm biased at the moment because three of my new adult beginners have quit within the last week.

Ms. Cullen says that many of her adult beginners already have their schedules filled with working and/or parenting, and they can not find enough time to practice.

 I've had quite a few students like this, and I'll give two examples. One student had a full time job with a lot of required overtime and a one year old child who needed medical attention with surprising frequency. His wife was quite supportive and gladly shared time and responsibility with him. He and I tried different lesson times, but there was simply no way that he could do it all. He quit his lessons reluctantly, determined to try again when his son got older. Another student was a stay-at-home mom with three kids aged six and under, all of whom wanted all her attention all the time. She would let the six year old watch her practice and would even explain what she was doing. However, she could not find or make enough time to practice. She decided to drop out, wait until her kids were a little older, and then return to me for lessons for herself and her oldest kid. She asked me how to start or keep up her children's interest in music, and I said that the most important thing was to make sure that the kids heard plenty of music at home while growing up.

Ms. Cullen says that a major reason that her adult beginners are early quitters is that they can not manage to practice consistently.

My experience has been different, largely because I live near Washington DC, the seat of empire. Some of my adult beginners must travel frequently for their work. Some are able to take their violins with them when they travel (BAM cases can be great) and practice in their hotel rooms. These students rarely miss a lesson and rarely drop out. Other students need to be out of the country for one or two weeks every month, and they can not take their violins with them. Some of them learn to play, albeit slowly, while others drop out.

After a few preliminary discussions on the phone or by email, I give the student a trial lesson to see whether we can work together well. Ms. Collins, on the other hand, after the initial emails and phone calls, has an in-person consultation with the adult wannabee cello student to determine whether she will accept him or her as a student. She asks some questions that she feels will indicate, to some extent, the likelihood that the beginner will stick with it.





Viewing my adult beginners as a group, I know what are the worst and best experiences I have with them.


The worst: Adults want to learn everything at once. I'm always telling them, "Slow down. Before you can learn how to do [something comparatively hard], you have to learn how to do [something comparatively easy].



The best: Adults sometimes behave more like kids than kids do. One of my adult beginners jumped up and down in her chair and called out, "Awesome! Awesome!" the first time she played an open string with her bow. Another one got so excited that she jumped up from her chair and danced around the room playing one open string arco. It's not unusual for an adult beginner to call his/her mother long distance and play "Twinkle" over the phone. I like making people happy, and I get so much happy feedback from my adult beginners.


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