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Pauline Lerner

Adult beginners have advantages

March 14, 2009 at 11:09 PM

Doesn't the phrase "adult beginners" have negative overtones? Some of the most common are: You must begin studying violin at an early age. Starting as an adult won't work because it's too late to train your fingers to play. Adults are too busy with commitments such as jobs and family to devote the necessary time to learning an instrument. Adults are quitters.

It's time to counter these negative thoughts with positive, realistic ones. Adults are mature beginners with mental preparation and study skills, including setting goals or targets and managing their time, that kids don't have. I try to teach my kid students how to set goals, but I know that this is a skill that takes years to develop. Although I'm focussing on mature beginners, the subject of targeted practice applies to all mature students.

Consider this scenario. It happens to everyone. You have a really busy day, and you think you don't have time to practice. Think again. There must be a very brief period of time, 15-20 minutes for example, that you can use to practice. Can you get any benefit from such a short practice session? Yes, you can. If you think carefully about choosing a target before playing, you'll get more bang for the buck.

There are many ways of choosing a target, and I'll mention just a few.

1. If you play with a group of musicians, you will want to play well at the next rehearsal or concert. Think about the most difficult part of your music or a part of the score where your mistakes wil be loud and clear, such as an entrance. If necessary, break this part of the music down to smaller parts and focus on one or more of them at a time.

2. Have you set some overall goals for yourself? Examples are: improve my vibrato, shift positions more smoothly and accurately, improve my intonation, play with accurate rhythm. You can use practically any piece that you're working on for this. Focus on just one thing and listen to yourself as you play.

3. Do you know any pieces which express or relieve your current mood? Are there any pieces which will will help you make it through hard times? One of my mature students has a father who is dying of cancer. This student is playing a lot of slow and gentle music to relieve his stress.

4. Think of a piece that you like and play well now. What can you do to make it sound even better?

5. Do you want to improve your sight reading? Try playing a new piece.

6. Do you keep a practice log? If so, have you noted passages or skills that you need to work on?

7. Has your teacher told you to work on something specific? It's generally a good idea to follow your teacher's advice.

No matter what your goal is, I recommend the following structure for a short practice period.

As always, start by warming up. Scales are good for this. Now that your fingers are warmed up, you need to light a small fire in your brain. Spend a few minutes playing something that you like and that you can play reasonably well. Listen to yourself and focus on things you do well. Then give yourself a pat on the back and move on to your target. Have only one target, and focus on it. Think about it and listen to yourself while you play.

When you take advantage of the mental skills you've developed gradually over the years, you can maximize the payoff of a practice session, even if it's short.

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