Do adult beginners learn differently?

December 4, 2018, 7:07 AM · Hi everyone - new adult beginner here. As someone who's been to old school university (projector and slides + blackboard), and then to graduate school (flashy powerpoint, online resources etc), I've been thinking about how adult beginners like myself can maximise their learning experience in order to do value-adding and smart practice so as to improve. Teaching resources are widely available these days, so are methods.

I'd like to hear from other adult beginners or teachers who teach them on their perspective on their learning/teaching experience. What has or has not worked for you as a beginner or teacher? What tips can you impart for someone who is keen to sit violin exams etc. Can adults learn "faster" than kids because they can synthesise information and learning materials better?

Looking forward to your views. Many thanks in advance.

Replies (29)

December 4, 2018, 7:58 AM · In general, the biggest differences are that an adult is capable of picking up the intellectual aspects faster. However, they'd pick up the physical aspects - particularly motor coordination and anything dealing with flexibility - much slower.

In my experiment of one, those differences are quite magnified by the facts that I had a lot of musical training in my youth (on a different instrument), but didn't pick up the violin until I was almost 60 years old. My teacher (bless her heart) tells me what a challenge (in a good way) it is to teach me as opposed to the youngsters in her studio. She appreciates that she doesn't need to teach me any theory or to pay attention to dynamics and phrasing, etc. But while I understand what I'm trying to do, it takes me longer to pick up technical aspects.

Edited: December 4, 2018, 8:04 AM · Depends on previous experience. When I took up guitar I became convinced that a lot of piano skills transferred to guitar. So now I'm hoping both will transfer to violin. My biggest problem is not to be disheartened and just get on with it. I was a lazy kid, so I'm pretty sure I can learn just as fast now as I did then. But after I hit the "Reply" button I've got to go and practise and not be as lazy as I was then!

Maybe in 6 months' time I'll be less sanguine, lol!

December 4, 2018, 8:22 AM · I think Madeye has expressed the essence of it very well.

Suzuki started a system of learning to play the violin that was supposedly based on the way children learn their mother tongue language. I studied violin from age 4 through 14 before Suzuki was a known method in the US, but later, as an adult, I knew Suzuki teachers and even later I used the Suzuki books in my violin and cello teaching starting in the 1970s (starting teaching in the 1960s I used the methods that had taught me).

I had students from ages 5 to 60. I found that children learn (when they do) by doing what they are told and try to do it as well as they can. Adults have a tendency (I think because they have already learned so much by other methods) to try to think it through - at least too much of it - thinking they can skip some steps. Probably like trying to learn gymnastics intellectually.

The most promising students I had, however, were an adult couple (mid-20s) one violin and one cello who took their lesson(s) together and apparently (to me) had a competition going. Both had had instrumental musical experience (wind instruments and vocal), one through high school and one through college. Their progress was amazing. The young man made it to Suzuki violin book 4 and the young woman (who had had the longer musical experience) to Suzuki cello book 7 in the 10 months they took lessons from me. Then unfortunately they moved away.

Teaching them was like teaching very precocious children. They did what they were told to do, but they seemed to remember it better than children. One other thing with adult students - it's their money and they are studying because they care.

Edited: December 4, 2018, 8:54 AM · In my experience teaching adults, they were difficult because they always wanted to focus on other things. They start working on vibrato on their own the third week of lessons, before they have the proper hand position, or they decide that 3 months in is a great time to learn Vivaldi's Winter. Children accept without question that there is a step by step process with violin.

The half dozen adult beginners I've had were not particularly successful. They had no other musical training, and didn't really understand the process of learning an instrument. It was very frustrating for me as a teacher to give them work for next week, then have them blow through it, disregarding what they were actually supposed to be focused on, then start asking questions about spiccato. Either I wasn't an effective teacher for adult learners or I had a few bad students, but I decided a few years ago to stop teaching adults.

December 4, 2018, 9:06 AM · Different adults learn differently. And although my sample size is just one (myself), I'd say they use the same ways of learning since they were young. However, I think the big difference is that adults are much more self-conscious and afraid of being judged. There is some formative age at which self-consciousness becomes an overpowering force.
December 4, 2018, 9:48 AM · @Timothy, you have almost exactly described the schedule I have, I also have the school run to do on top of all that and I have to find time to learn new tunes on my other instrument, if you find a solution please let me know!
December 4, 2018, 10:03 AM · I took a fiddle workshop a few years ago from Martin Hayes, a very accomplished Irish fiddler. He was talking about technique when he stopped, looked at all of us old, gray haired guys and said, "You know, if you haven't learned the fundamentals of technique by the time you are 50 you probably never will, but you will have learned humility, and that's more important."
December 4, 2018, 10:04 AM · "adults...were difficult because they always wanted to focus on other things. They start working on vibrato on their own the third week of lessons...or they decide that 3 months in is a great time to learn Vivaldi's Winter."

I know. We're trying to make up for lost time!

December 4, 2018, 12:14 PM · Scott Cole wrote:
However, I think the big difference is that adults are much more self-conscious and afraid of being judged.

I think that pertains to young adults. Once you arrive at crotchety old man status, you learn to be comfortable with who you are. You no longer care what everyone else thinks.

At least I don't. I just scratch away at my violin while the neighbors think I'm vivisecting felines, then I go down to the garage and paint some "Get off my lawn!" signs.

December 4, 2018, 12:15 PM · Learning the violin comes down to how you practice, and a good teacher will help guide your practicing, show you where you're going wrong, and select appropriate material for you.
December 4, 2018, 1:03 PM · As an adult, your main asset is that you have greater concentration and self-discipline than a child does.

That means that you can focus yourself on productive practice to a much greater degree. There are loads of threads and loads of resources on what productive practice is, but the short version is that you spend much of your time in focusing in on understanding and practicing individual motions or small groups of motions to develop your technical accuracy.

Don't forget it's a physical skill you're learning. No matter how intelligent or academically educated you are, the intellectual understanding of what's going on is only a small part of what you're doing.

One recommendation (apart from the obvious 'get a teacher' ;) ):

December 4, 2018, 8:32 PM · Yes, and I think a lot of adult learners failures stem from their teacher using child learning techniques, which is all they ever known.
December 4, 2018, 8:58 PM · I'm not convinced that adults necessarily struggle with the physical skills, at least not before they get into their 50s. I've seen adults pick up the physical skills faster than children do. Adults tend to want to know what any particular exercise will do for them, or the reason behind doing something a particular way. If it is explained adequately, adults tend to practice with more focus, though often for less time because of adult responsibilities.
December 4, 2018, 10:12 PM · Thank you all. It's illuminating reading your comments. I had 2 years of beginner piano lessons as a kid, and picked up guitar later in my teens, but can't read music at all aside from the most rudimentary ones.

What advice would you give to adult beginners like myself in terms of approach and attitude, aside from listening to teachers and practising hard?

Edited: December 4, 2018, 11:12 PM · Practicing effectively is more important than practicing hard. This may be cliche, but practice doesn't make perfect, it makes permanent. You'll get more from five minutes of careful, attentive practice than from hours of mindless repetition that can build bad habits. The single most important thing is to know what to watch for while practicing any particular technique. If at any time you're not sure, ask.
Edited: December 5, 2018, 12:48 PM · I would say for adult beginners (like myself), set long-term technical goals in your practise. Obviously you have to discuss them with your teacher first and ask which practise you need to do to make it happen,

But lets say you need to make your left hand better. Then analyze carefully what it is you want to achieve exactly in 6 month period and how you are going to do it, then work towards it every day in a shortish exercise. As an adult you can use your capacity to analyze and work towards goal that are so far away that a smaller child cannot even grasp the time. After analyzing you just have to execute diligently and then after 6 months or less you have the skill.

Watch a lot of videos of famous violinists how they do things and look at your hand shape and try to find really good violinists which have similar hands that you have, for example if you have a short pinky its really no use watching countless videos of violinists with a long pinky.

Adults can analyze better than young children, so use that power if you can, its the only one in which we are better than children as they have much more flexible hands and better memory. (If we compare adults and children of similar abilities of course, its no use comparing adult-prodigies to children with bad fine motor skills) Well, analyzing and better concentration skills.

My life experience has taught me that a lot of our ablities are hereditary, we are born with them. Much more is luck and hereditary than usually is thought of.
For example you can pretty much tell very early on if a baby will have good or bad fine motor skills. In my country at least we have a standard set of observations doctors and nurses do from the time of birth and in those there are observations of fine motor skills and these observations from after birth to lets say one or two years of age are pretty much accurate in showing what level of for example fine motor skills the child will have as an adult. That is also because children who have very good fine motor skills from birth tend to use them more too as they grow up as it is easy for them. And with violinplaying one needs very good fine motor skills very much.

For example most babys are born with their hands in fists, but not all. And most babys develop the ability to pick pearls some time after 10 months but not all. Obviously the babys who are born with open hands and can move their fingers straight from births and can pick pearls before others are the ones that have excellent fine motor skills and therefore will have the technical ability to play violin very well, if they are musically inclined.

It is a very popular idea (in the USA more, not so in Europe) that everybody can and its only the 10 000 hours of practise, but I dont believe that for a moment. Sure everyone can do something, but can they do that something very good is pretty much set in their genes.

But everyone can enjoy doing what they want but to be really good there has to be the necessary biological and hereditary aspects plus the pure luck of having been born in a social place where there is free time to do what one wants,

Edited: December 5, 2018, 2:25 AM · Maria, I wouldn't sell people that short. I tend to think that even the people with the worst genes for string playing still have a high ceiling, because even the very bottom of the normal range of fine motor skills is still quite agile in adulthood. They may not have the potential to be international soloists, but I suspect everyone without a significant disability is capable of reaching regional orchestra level.

My own fine motor skills lagged far behind other children for essentially my entire childhood and are still below-average, and I have extremely short fingers for my height, so I have big natural disadvantages. I'm playing at the highest amateur levels after starting very late. Someone with similarly poor fine motor skills in early childhood, starting earlier than I did and getting better instruction than I had, can likely do much better. Below-average is still good enough to accomplish quite a bit.

December 5, 2018, 3:35 AM · @Timothy, aye, I am in the United Kingdom, gets very dark very soon right now. I'm an expat Aussie so I don't think I shall ever get used to it.

Fortunately I don't have to worry about christmas music, well not yet, my 7 year old is learning the violin now so at some point I'm sure she'll start with that. I at least have some time off at this point of the year, well, until the Burns Nights madness begins in January!

December 5, 2018, 6:32 AM · I think most adults, when they've got their violin on their shoulder for the first time at their first lesson, are thinking, "How in the hell am I going to do all this?" And their hands are a stiff as iron. Put a violin on a four-year-old child's shoulder, and they just want to try making sound.
December 5, 2018, 8:06 AM · On a somewhat related note, what other teaching methods are available beside Suzuki? And which ones are more suited for adults?
December 5, 2018, 9:43 AM · Many adults (myself included)are impatient and want to play certain “songs” right away. They then get frustrated with the sound they produced.

After spending many months on the Mendelssohn Concerto, I realize I need to develop better techniques to play it at an acceptable level. My teacher and I have decided to spend at least a year (longer if necessary) on etudes and scales.

Edited: December 5, 2018, 11:31 AM · It's clear to me from the noises I make, that what is fundamental is good LH/RH coordination, so détaché scales and arpeggios for LH anticipation, and legato scales and arpeggios for string pivoting without LH anticipation. The rest is secondary.
December 5, 2018, 1:45 PM · I think that adult beginners have the potential to learn even faster than children, but the reality of adult life gets in the way. One needs about one hour of practice time each evening, without distractions, with surplus mental energy, after working an 8+ hour day. That doesn't happen very often in real life.
December 5, 2018, 3:40 PM · Andrew,

40+ years ago I started lessons. There are many parts to learning as an adult.

The teacher has to be able to meet the student where she is and come to an agreement on what the goals are. A teacher who is bound to a method and cannot deviate will be a problem for the adult. The adults goals may be modest and while they still have to learn everything, there are many approaches.

The method is important as it must speak to the student. I've met more than a few adults who are totally bored by Suzuki because it relies more on ear training and solo work to impress your parents and friends. Adults have a different logical path.

Time is another factor. Like the overloaded child, the adult has a lot of non-violin responsibilities so learning effective practice is essential.

Adults need some form of outlet that isn't always the recital where all the other musicians are children and the audience their parents. A multi-generational orchestra can help. Also playing tunes in church or some other social site.

For me the method is Doflein because it speaks to the brain and has student-teacher duets on each page turn. But that is what worked for me and I'm still playing and by lucky happenstance starting out a small number of young musicians using Doflein which is still in print.

December 5, 2018, 8:21 PM · "Can adults learn "faster" than kids because they can synthesise information and learning materials better?"

I had an interesting experience in this regard, as I picked up piano at the same time as my son, and then violin, together with him as well, about a year later. So I got to see firsthand how the learning progressed and how the young and old compared. In short, my son did not progress faster than I did at the onset, and I was able to help him progress significantly due to my own learning and supervision and guidance of his practice as well as attending his lessons. I think that you'll find that such guidance or at least excellence in teaching is a common finding among successful players, so it should not be disregarded as immaterial to the question. In other words, it's not just about young vs old and their differences - it's often the quality of teaching and the environmental factors which makes the difference.

Over time, my violin advancement came to a standstill and then to a stop due to an injury, and I also gave up piano in order to focus on the violin, and there I learned the first most important piece of advice I have to share with a violin learner: Stick with piano if possible.

On the long, slow recovery towards betterment, I have the second piece of advice: It's not really about the apparently obvious factors such as age or duration of playing or time spent practising or this or that study or exercise or choice of pieces, let alone choice of instrument and other devices, although they all matter. It's subtly hard, about bettering yourself, and applying that in your learning and playing.

And also about getting off this board and other optional activities - how much is it worth to you to sacrifice over time to sustain this?

December 6, 2018, 2:49 AM · Methods are an American thing. They don't exist in Britain. Suzuki, Doflein, Sassmannshaus. Well, maybe they are German too, or maybe Sassmannshaus saw the money Suzuki was making and thought, hey I could use some of that. My method is to play something until you can do it OK, then do something harder until you can do it OK, then do something harder. Every now and then go back to easier things and do them better than you did first time around.
Edited: December 6, 2018, 6:54 AM · Adult learners don't learn differently, they learn diffidently.

I had the kind of violin lessons, as a boy, that Andrew Fryer describes. Actually I started with Whistler books, but after finishing "Preparing for Kreutzer" (or so), my teacher gave me Vivaldi A Minor. When I struggled with that for a while but couldn't actually play the hard parts, he gave me Accolay. When I couldn't play that either, he gave me Bach E Major. Then Mozart 3. There weren't any other violin students around for calibration, so my parents and I trusted the teacher and assumed I was doing fine. Were we ever wrong. And true to form for "traditional" violin lessons I was not allowed to use a shoulder rest; practicing was painful. Fortunately I escaped that tragedy by going to college.

When I returned to lessons 25 years later I thought I would pick up where I left off. I put Mozart 3 on my teacher's stand and started to play. About midway through the second page I stopped so we could discuss. My teacher said, "Do you have any Suzuki books?" In my second or third lesson he showed me "ring tones" for intonation, which my childhood teacher had never shown me in 12 years of lessons. A year in, we had to completely rebuild my vibrato from the ground up. There's good reason for pedagogical methods and good reason why teachers should receive training in pedagogy, because the obvious stuff might not be obvious.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha YVN Model 3
Yamaha YVN Model 3

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases


Aria International Summer Academy

Meadowmount School of Music

Bobelock Cases


Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine