5 Reasons Why Adults Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Learn an Instrument
by Amanda Pollak
When I was 14 years old I bought an anthology of Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits, a pair of Birkenstocks and an acoustic guitar. Somehow my mom agreed to guitar lessons, and thus I decided that I Would Not Be Going to College since that was for straight-edge losers and I was clearly on the path towards critical musical acclaim.
Spoiler Alert: I went to college. And grad school. And then, much to the shock, horror and awe of my misguided teenage self, I got an office job with a steady schedule. Don’t forget the benefits! Heck, I even meal prep on Sundays. Young me would never have seen this coming.
The guitar lessons I was certain would transform my future only lasted a year or so, and I never got past being able to play some barre chords and a few simple songs out of my beginner’s lesson book. I still fantasized about packing stadiums and shredding on a Les Paul, but slowly I buried that dream in favor of more practical endeavors. I resigned myself to the notion that the time for learning an instrument had come and gone, and any inclination towards a musical future was simply folly.
Yet, in my mid 20s, the dream began to resurface. I’d banged around on an acquaintance’s kit a few times and found myself drawn to the raw, earthy power of percussion. What if…?
No. That was silly. It was time to grow up and move on, remember? Besides, only kids can learn instruments anyway because their brains are more pliable, or something.
One evening, I was watching my now drum teacher at one of my favorite bars, the Speakeasy, play jazz, and I was overcome with a gripping resolve: I was going to take drum lessons. If by some sweet mercy I ever reached the point where I was competent enough to play at the Speakeasy, I’d consider it all a success. What did I have to lose?
That was three years ago, and my one regret is that I didn’t start sooner. I write this today, hopeful that I may speak into the heart of any adult who might be interested in an instrument–whether it be the guitar from your high school garage band days that you put down and never picked back up, or another that you’ve always been curious about–you got this. And here’s why:
1. Your adult brain is still good at learning new things. The idea that only children are primed to learn new skills, instruments included, is, in my opinion, one of the most harmful misconceptions out there that prevents people from living up to their highest potential. I imagine this popular sentiment originates from the ability of young children to learn languages very quickly–and that’s where it should stop. Yes, there’s a certain amount of plasticity that children’s growing brains benefit from, but your brain doesn’t just quit operating the minute you turn 18. We learn new skills our entire lives; a musical instrument is a much an intellectual endeavor as it is one of muscle memory. I personally believe this is a self-fulfilling prophecy; those who believe they’re ineligible to seek out new experiences and adventures become rigid and closed off from these very things. And what a shame it is to think people prematurely discount themselves from what might be a profoundly transformative journey. Practice and discipline are what make great musicians; those two elements are available to just about everyone. So scratch that off your list, because it simply ain’t true.
2. Speaking of discipline, you probably have more of it now. At 14, I was unable to make the connection that all the wondrously talented musicians whom I admired were not born with all that talent; they had actually worked for it. All I saw was the fame and adulation of those who produced the music I fiercely loved. The minute something became difficult for me in my training back then, I became frustrated and gave up. As an adult student, my outlook is so fundamentally different. I know how I learn best and I’m able to articulate my struggles to my teacher, which makes my lessons and my time spent practicing productive. I’m much better at time management, so I’m able to carve out space in my busy week to dedicate to this growing love of mine, which is something I couldn’t really conceive of as a teenager. And, think of the opportunity to teach your kids about practice, hard work, and never giving up on your dreams.
3. You’ll appreciate it more. I pay for my lessons myself, so you can bet I squeeze every drop I can out of those weekly thirty minute sessions (right, Tony?) As a kid, I had no concept of just how much my mom was pouring into my betterment; if I had, perhaps I would have taken it more seriously. Not to mention I can fund equipment upgrades (praise be to Remo and Zildjian for developing noise-reducing drums and cymbals) and I don’t have to beg anyone for an increase in my allowance or take on extra shifts at the Dairy Queen.
4. You’ll surprise yourself. I’m very fortunate to be part of Freeway Music because of its unique approach to pedagogy: once you’ve got the basics, you’re invited to participate in showcases held at places like Tin Roof and Music Farm. These ain’t your grandma’s piano recitals; these are venues where nationally acclaimed acts regularly perform. And you get to play on the same stage, using the same equipment and running through sound checks just like in the big leagues, all with the intent to prepare you for what it’s like to gig. I hesitate to say students are more or less thrown into this environment, but really, that’s the truth. And that’s a good thing, because you’ll never learn what it’s like to be on stage until you do it. The first time I ever performed in front of people a year after I began lessons was at the Music Farm, and I was so incredibly nervous that I don’t actually remember playing at all. As someone who used to not raise my hand in class because I was embarrassed to speak in front of others, this was a significant moment for me, and it’s one that grew me personally, too. The sense of accomplishment and pride that you’ll feel once you step off the stage is unlike anything else. As an adult, I savor these experiences so much more.
5. Music is for everyone. When I tell people I play the drums, they often respond with one or both of the following: “I could never do that, I’m not coordinated,” or “I’ve always wanted to learn drums/guitar/bass/other instrument.” So let me make this clear: I’m not more coordinated than anyone else (you should see me try to dance) and it’s not too late (see point #1). It’s not too late for you, the father of three, who used to have long hair and cover Metallica with his equally shaggy-haired friends; it’s not too late for you, the stay-at-home mom, who always loved the piano but never had the chance to take lessons; it’s not too late for you, the young professional, who’s doing the whole college-and-career thing and is wondering what else is out there; it’s not too late for you, the retired couple, to rekindle your dreams of becoming a traveling bluegrass act. Music is for the young, the old, the shy, the bold, and everyone else in between.
That’s me, playing at the Speakeasy two years later after deciding I’d see where lessons took me. What I assumed would be my loftiest goal, the end of the road–has only been the beginning. I implore you to start your own journey today!