Taking lessons past age 66 - what should I expect?

Edited: May 27, 2019, 8:44 AM · This is slightly an inner response to the other thread on playing music being a childish exercise, which I'm not sure why that thread is getting so many responses.

I'm going to recap what I wrote at the end of this meandering piece as a bookend.

Are there age related limitations that I should expect, yet not use them as an excuse to give up, and not BEAT MYSELF UP about them.

And I'll add this: I know I'm better off than not taking lessons past the age of 66.

What I experience is frustration.
What I experience is some sense of improvement.
What I experience is a sense of inadequate improvement.
What I experience is some small gains in the music I already play (intonation, dexterity).

What I experience is sometimes wanting to avoid stuff causing the frustration (currently Minuet 2 in Suzuki 1, and some by ear stuff I'm working on).

What I experience is "I'm just paying money for something that I'll never be able to play up to speed nor perform live because I've started too late and ......" other inner critic stuff.

It is decidedly UPHILL. Which, it's supposed to be.

I'm learning to read (for the last 5 months), but often cannot hear the melody in my head when I read it on the page, unless I know the work already. I like to commit melody to memory so it becomes a sort of "by ear", or rather "by mental ear".

I have age related memory issues and ADHD, which limits my working memory and my ability to concentrate. I sometimes miss small details. Still, I'd have to say that I've developed melody memory and other music skills over the last 20 years playing other instruments by ear.

This is a meandering post, and not sure where I'm going with it. Just a post out of frustration, and not progressing as well as I'd like (I play music with someone who's played for 29 years, and he's a little competitive). My ADHD limits my practice time, but I've increased from 10 min/day to 50 min/day through a software program that I wrote that keeps practice items within view and logs total time practicing them.

And to bookend my opening comment, are there age related limitations that I might be up against that I need to give myself a bit of a break on, yet not give up by using age as an excuse.

And am I fooling myself to think that challenging my brain with music is going to have benefits far beyond just playing the music itself. Like staving off further memory issues and mental and physical decline. Not that 66 puts me at death's door.

Replies (30)

May 27, 2019, 8:50 AM · As someone also learning a new instrument, at 70, let me balance your comments by saying that while my memory is trashed, I have a much better understanding of process, and at directing my efforts, than I did when I was at 12, so my learning is more efficient. My attention is short, but I know how to get more done in less time. I'm never going to advance to a professional level, but I'm not doing this for that reason, and have no delusions about that.

I hope you aren't fooling yourself, because keeping myself sharp is exactly the reason I chose an instrument FAR away from anything I have played in the past, so that the whole experience is not just an extension of my previous skills.

May 27, 2019, 9:06 AM · Hi Michael. I checked your profile and followed the link for the violin builders workshop. I see you have Anya Burgess as a teacher. While I do not personally know her, I know, to some small degree, some of the folks she plays music with (Magnolia Sisters). And I'm from South Louisiana. I know she's a transplant. I recently read an article or interview of her.

Anyway, are you saying that your violin PLAYING venture is the extension of your previous skills (which would be violin building)??

May 27, 2019, 9:11 AM · No, I'm learning trumpet. I already play a number of things with strings, and a couple with buttons. Trumpet is as unrelated to what I know as I could find, and I never even held one until two months ago. I'm doing it for real: good horn, good teacher, lots of good practice.
May 27, 2019, 9:14 AM · I've heard some scientists start learning Chinese in their later years to keep their mind fluid, since it is so so very different than their current language.

Thanks for responding.

Edited: May 27, 2019, 12:23 PM · I think that for learning string-instrument playing skills there is a "curve of potential" you can grade yourself on. That curve is shaped like the trajectory of any object propelled by a single impulse (ball, bullet, etc.) into the air at some angle. The vertical axis is the potential level of skill and the horizontal axis is your age. I'm quite certain of this. This "curve of potential" is definitely not the same for all people.

For those who start learning to play with optimal teaching at the youngest possible age and continue to legal maturity their actual curve is probably pretty close to their maximum potential curve. The peak of their ability is achieved at some age - that is the maximum height of the vertical axis of the curve. At some later age their playing skills follow the downward slope of the trajectory

Those who start at a later age approach their curve of potential and hit it at a later time, after its peak and thus lower on their "curve of potential." I know this is too simplistic, but I think you get the idea.)

My cello playing improved in fits and starts (depending on how much and what I practiced and played) from the time I started at age 14 until I was 72 and then I could tell I could not get any better and started to sense some decline. My violin playing took a nose dive when I was 55 because of an injury from which I have never fully recovered.

When I decided to take on viola at age 80 (about 4 years ago) I was probably as good within a month as I have managed to get. I already have already have a sense of some decline on that instrument as well.

I play with some other old people (some of whom I've known for 20 years) we are all gong down hill.

Based on these years of experience, what I can say to you, David, if you are still able to play better tomorrow than today, you are improving. When you get to the stage that the cellist Casals got to when asked why he was still practicing in his 9th decade he replied "I'm still making progress" (I'm sure he meant "I can still do today what I did yesterday") you will likely have reached that point at which you begin to decline. To me that means you will have reached the level of your "curve of potential." At that point, continuing to practice will be the only way to maintain your playing level on your "curve of potential." If you stop playing and practicing for any reason you skills will plummet quite rapidly below your curve of potential.

Age is like time it moves in only one direction. (Oh, yeah, it is time!)

Edited: May 27, 2019, 10:13 AM · "am I fooling myself to think that challenging my brain with music is going to have benefits far beyond just playing the music itself"

No you are not, however you express some frustration in slow (or lack of) progress which is understandable. Age isn't the issue for lack of progress but lessons alone won't lead to progress either. You need to practice and I find that for myself anything short of 1hr daily doesn't lead to progress beyond a relatively low level plateau. Therefore your difficulty in maintaining focus and hence practicing is IMO your biggest challenge.

On your other point, reading music with the objective to learn and memorize the melody and essentially play by ear is rather counter productive. I have difficulty memorizing anything beyond a few bars and that is a challenge for me, but I would never be able to play an exercise or in the second violin section for that matter if I aimed at reading to memorize in order to play . There is seldom a "melody" to memorize. It's as if you were reading letters and words to memorize sentences in order to understand what is written. You don't. You read the words, and sentences without committing to memory, yet can make sense of what is written. Music is no different in a way. Notes are the phonetic alphabet that form words, which make up phrases, which makes paragraphs, which make chapters (movements) that tell the story intended by the composer. When you sight read you are in a sence making up the musical words, does that make sense?.

May 27, 2019, 10:11 AM · I am also 66 but I still want to remind you that slow progress is normal (unless you are a super talent) when you learn the violin. Frustration has been growing and subsiding all along my "career" as an amateur violinist. So don't automatically assume there is something about your age that causes it.
May 27, 2019, 10:28 AM · I think the only good excuse is "I don't practice enough." Anything else is lame.
May 27, 2019, 10:37 AM · @ Roger, I am working through a Suzuki book, where they do expect you to memorize the pieces. However, I can see where if something gets lengthy, that won't work. Focus and practice is a hurdle, you're right, but I've developed a "mental prosthesis" to help me. And I practice in smaller time periods and stack them up during the day. So, 50 min/day in 10 or more sittings is what I'm doing.

@ Albrecht, in essence, thanks. Your concise reply hit the spot.

@ Andrew, my take-away is, I'm a gonna keep on'a keepin' on.

May 27, 2019, 11:08 AM · I strongly believe that studying and playing classical music helps decline the aging processes. Perhaps other types of music does as well, but most of those musicians that I know lived very unhealthy life styles and were around a lot of second hand smoking and such. I know quite a few classically trained older musicians and all of them are doing exceptionally well physically and mentally. My Mom died from dementia a few years ago so one of the reasons I restarted was to keep my brain as stimulated as possible as well as to be a practice buddy with my now 9 year old daughter. I am now 50 and also enjoy the challenges of playing the instrument. I do not feel at this point that I have any age related issues that are impeding my improvement. It has helped me with hearing music differently, making my left hand more useful, and I feel more alert and sharper in general. It also gives me a different purpose in life down a different trajectory that is not related to my profession or other hobbies that I can always enjoy with my daughter.

David, while I think it is good to ask questions it is more important to just do. The things that will propel you the most are determination and guidance from a good teacher. The things that will impede you the most are self doubt and second guessing and a lack of direction. It is impossible to succeed at anything if you believe you never will. The Bach Minuets are treasures, as are all of Bach's works, enjoy what you can of them and be thankful that he wrote music that is beautiful and still within your grasp and you can enjoy playing and be challenged by his music for many lifetimes.

Edited: May 27, 2019, 6:20 PM · I happen to be a physician who deals with dementia patients on a regular basis. I won't quote the research, but physically and mentally challenging activities seem to have a positive, perhaps preventive effect. I have been involved with music since age 8: piano, trumpet, guitar. Over the last 25 years I have played trumpet and guitar in various semi-professional groups. As a personal challenge, at age 60 I decided to pursue the viola and secured a teacher--likewise a Suzuki man, but he allows fiddle tunes and other things as well. I made it clear up front that my desire is not really to take the viola public--it is purely a personal challenge. The frustration for me is that I know the music--I can rip it off on guitar or trumpet--but the limitation on the viola is the radically different technique. To me it is like a golf swing with lots of moving parts: stance (position), grip (bow and left hand), swing (bow action). My analogy would be that I am still hooking and slicing and not getting much in the fairway after about 2 years. That said, I have personal patience to stick with it, and fortunately a patient teacher. I am going at it in very small bites, and that is what I think works best for an older neurologic system.
Edited: May 27, 2019, 8:04 PM · "I am working through a Suzuki book, where they do expect you to memorize the pieces."

This raises another question. Why is your teacher insisting (if that is the case) on using a pedagogical teaching methodology basically aimed at pre-schoolers for a mature adult learner? Obviously hasn't read much anything about adult learning theory. I wonder how often this happens and if it plays a role in adults beginners failing to "stick with it". A good teacher ought to adapt his/her teaching methodology to the student's needs. Unfortunately whereas I believe that most violin teachers have an extensive background in playing the instrument, I would speculate than few have any expertise in teaching (adults especially) other than through experience acquired over time through trials and errors unfortunately.

Edited: May 27, 2019, 9:49 PM · On a simple behavioural level, like any other activity, motivation to learn violin narrows down to carrots vs. sticks (reward vs. punishment) ratio.
If you want to keep playing, you simply have to find your own musical space where reward is higher than punishment. This includes (but is not limited to) your teacher, curriculum, practice time, playing with others or on your own. This also includes setting your goals realistically and with loving kindness toward yourself.
Identify activities that bring pleasure and pain and work on increasing the former and reducing the later.
The challenge with our instrument is that that sticks tend to be more prevalent than carrots for quite some time..... producing a relatively pleasing sound, playing in tune takes longer to learn. Rewards are few and far between. Just like a marathon runner, one has to embrace the difficulties and drive strength from obstacles, constantly pushing one's limits.
Other instrument, such as guitar or viola da gamba are more forgiving in the beginning, so you can get to love them before it gets tough - and it does, later! Suzuki claimed "every child can", not "every 60+ can", so that training programme might not be the best for you.
May 27, 2019, 9:39 PM · I think it’s more important to enjoy the process of playing an instrument rather than expect goals. For me , practicing is a pure joy and my form of meditation. I can practice for hours and hours because I just love it so much. Of course, I want to get better (don’t we all) but I’m just enjoying the moment.

When you take lessons with a teacher, it can therefore feel a bit stressful depending on the teacher. I would suggest you find a teacher that understands this, and also suggest that you might consider taking lessons on a “need to” basis. Rather than going every week or every 2 weeks, go when you feel you are ready for the next step. If you can find a teacher like this, it could alleviate some of the frustration you feel

May 27, 2019, 9:44 PM · "And am I fooling myself to think that challenging my brain with music is going to have benefits far beyond just playing the music itself."

First of all, there's no such thing as "far beyond playing the music itself". Music is far beyond, itself - if that isn't the goal, then look for something else which you would find to be worthwhile in itself.

Second, you do seem to be beating yourself up quite a bit, and need to consider that the consequences of that aren't happiness. If you've been more successful with other instruments, maybe you should return to them instead of taking on this new probably much harder challenge late in life. Expect say a minimum of 10 years of playing to be more satisfied with it. That would put you at 76, with probably additional health issues to deal with. Rationally, you'd be better off playing piano or some other instrument which isn't so physically challenging to learn, at this point. If the goal is music, as it should be, the instrument should be secondary.

To be honest, these issues and ideas apply to me similarly - I find it very frustrating, have physical issues, and might be better off returning to piano. But I am and have been making progress, and finding musical benefits, and still have a drive to gain whatever progress I might make, and still have some runway, I think, in my life to spend on this. But if that drive disappeared, or the frustration continued without apparent progress or satisfaction, I would, with some reluctance simply for having spent the time so far, give it up, with the gains I have already had along the way, to not spend the remaining time frustrated.

"Like staving off further memory issues and mental and physical decline. Not that 66 puts me at death's door."

Anything which gets you out of the bed/couch/chair and engages your mind positively is going to do that. Pain and frustration serve as guidance towards the opposite, to change.

May 28, 2019, 3:48 AM · I totally agree with finding activities that make you enjoy the process of playing. I started flute a year before the violin. When I was learning the flute, my "flute world" has only my teacher, my group class and I. I didn't quite get along with my teacher, nor I can produce the tone quality I wanted, so it really not rewarding. At one point, I was close to giving up. On the other hand, in my "violin world", I have my community orchestra on top of other things. I really enjoy playing with the group and feel very motivate to practise to make my effort count in my section.

Different people find joy in doing different things, or play different music. Just because you don't find, say Suzuki book, or how this teacher teaches works for you, it doesn't mean the problem is you. Very often, it is just a bad combination. The more you explore, the more likely you find at least one thing that you can hang on to in your music journey.

May 28, 2019, 8:44 AM · "Why is your teacher insisting (if that is the case) on using a pedagogical teaching methodology basically aimed at pre-schoolers for a mature adult learner?"

The reality is that most methods are aimed at preschoolers. But it doesn't matter how old you are--if you're a beginner, you have to begin at the beginning, right? And for that, there's nothing wrong with Suzuki if used with other material, although I've said many times the bowings and fingerings are late 19th century throwbacks.

Does having to memorize serve a good purpose? For one thing, it makes us practice more, it lets us focus on the music instead of the page, and it makes us thing about patterns in music (is the phrase parallel or contrasting? What's being repeated? What's the harmony?)

Forget about the supposed benefits about playing music (they say the same things about video games...).
Here's the bottom line: you should be enjoying SOME aspect of playing.

Edited: May 29, 2019, 9:21 AM · "most methods are aimed at preschoolers. But it doesn't matter how old you are--if you're a beginner, you have to begin at the beginning, right?"

Right, but to assume an adult will learned the same way as a child does is an entirely false premise. There is a reason why the sciences of pedagogy and andragogy are two distinct fields, and why a friend of mine quit after a few months; twinkle little star (in a matter of speach) didn't do it for her?

May 28, 2019, 2:56 PM · I chose Suzuki, because I wanted that progressive nature of the pieces. I like to know what's coming and why.

She's not insisting that I memorize. She's already "forced" me to learn to read. I just wanted the lineage of works to make logical sense.

May 28, 2019, 2:57 PM · I agree with Roger. Adults do not learn the same way as children or adolescents.
May 28, 2019, 4:52 PM · Twinkle Twinkle may sound easy, and an adult may think they're "above" it, but frankly I don't know what they're expecting if they're a beginner. The Brahms concerto? As I said, you gotta pay your dues.
It's not the music anyway--it's the teacher's style. They can certainly teach Twinkly Twinkle to an adult without treating them like a 6-year-old.

Here's the bottom line: violin is difficult. If you can't maintain focus, or don't want to start at the beginning, or don't have discipline, or don't like the idea of very slow progress, then pick something easier.

Please have respect for the nature of the task.

May 28, 2019, 7:01 PM · Mostly very slow progress is the bug-a-boo.
Edited: May 29, 2019, 12:42 AM · If I were a *raw* beginner at 66. I would not pick the violin as my instrument. There are other instruments ( piano, guitar) that are easier to learn in the beginner stage and much easier on the body. They just might give you the same health benefits.
May 29, 2019, 3:33 AM · OP, I'm gonna be straight with you. I teach a lot of adult beginners, and many of them have been similar ages to yours. And the reality is this: late-stage adult learners learn slower. They just do. Too many memories competing for space inside your brain, not to mention priorities competing as well. And on top of that, you have ADHD which makes it 10x harder to learn effectively when it comes to a task which requires such long periods of focus. You can't learn the violin easily, period, but especially not if you can't pay attention for more than 10 seconds, and that's just how it is.

Now, some people are OK with learning very slowly. And it can help to know that it's age related. So I'll tell you, your age definitely doesn't help.

Most people here are going to tend to say encouraging things like "everyone can improve if they're willing!" or "just find the right teacher."

But the reality is that based on your temperament and pre-disposed disadvantages, you're going to be a very slow learner. And you're either going to be OK with that or not.

Edited: May 29, 2019, 7:24 PM · Thanks for the reality check Erik. I appreciate straight talk. My attention span is a bit more than 10 seconds, though, unless something is really frustrating.

I'm learning to compensate. It's just that everything I'm being presented with is considerably more difficult than my 15 years of fooling around, only playing what I could. But, this is why I finally went for classical lessons, to stretch me. I'd just like to be playing more for enjoyment. When I attempt stuff now, my ear is more highly refined, and I see the low level I used to play.

But again, straight shooters rule in my book.

Not giving up just yet though. Just needed to vent. Which I periodically do on here.

My take-away from all this is, memory decline (sometimes I resent starting a new song, it's a damned chore), probably some physiological stuff (inflammation, etc), and forcing myself through something that is not always enjoyable (that's where my ADHD can have the largest impact, I think).

May 30, 2019, 11:51 AM · Mr. Ford, I share many of the situations described in your original post. At a similar age, but having played for 25 years, I feel stuck somewhere around year 3. I have not taken lessons in years.
The music has provided social and community connections, lots of introspection, growth, purpose and friendships.

Set yourself up to some noted success each day and keep your stick on the ice.

May 30, 2019, 5:00 PM · Are you saying I've been doing it all wrong, and I should be playing my violin with a hockey stick? I could put an eye out. Well, someone else's.
May 30, 2019, 5:09 PM · Wooden or carbon fiber, wait, metal. Son file?
May 31, 2019, 6:20 PM · Congratulations on your interest in learning an instrument. Lots of good advise above. I would suggest that you learn to enjoy the process and don't focus too much on the results. If you can learn to enjoy practicing the rest will take care of itself. It can be a grind but is so worth the effort when everyday's practice time is appreciated for what it is.
Good luck!
June 9, 2019, 10:41 AM · What has age got to do with it?
One of the things I've always loved about music is that if you're good enough, you're old enough. I had a friend in youth orchestra, who was playing with the RPO when he was 14. (He was later principal oboe in the LSO for a number of years) At the other extreme, I'm now 71 and still playing. I get booked for things not because of my age, or in spite of it, but purely on ability.
My fingers are a bit less flexible that they were, and I have to do more work to make sure they're still working o.k., but hopefully I'm still there.
Luckily, in music, age and gender are immaterial. Long may it be so.


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