I was lucky. I was able to learn the piano and organ as a child and teenager. Sixty years on, I still manage to play. But I know loads of people who start to learn to play a musical instrument and give up far too quickly and easily. The main reason seems to be that they have little idea of what is actually involved, the commitment it takes and, above all, their expectations are far too high. The result is that they blame themselves and wonder what went wrong. Whether they are learning woodwind, strings or keyboard instruments, the reasons why people give up are remarkably similar. Here are the top 10 reasons.
1. You are diligent but do not make the progress you expected, so you give up
If you are an adult, there are certain things you should keep in mind. First, diligence is just not enough. Perhaps you are not making the progress you would like because you are not taking advantage of your own learning experiences and the ways you always solve problems. In this respect, you have an enormous advantage over a child learner. An adult can apply memory techniques and logic to learning about notation and scales. By using these more, you can make more progress, as recommended in an article by K. Roulston in The International Journal of Music Education.
2. You practice a lot but are afraid of making too many mistakes, so you give up
Adults are self conscious and they are also keenly aware that their faculties are not what they once were. They think they have poorer co-ordination of fingers, arms and lips plus a lower level of sensory awareness and hearing difficulties. There is no denying that adults are facing a greater challenge, but the real problem seems that they are far too self conscious about making mistakes. If they were more relaxed about this, they would make much faster progress. Being more childlike in this can be a great help because the fear of failure or embarrassment is no big deal for them.
3. You like your teacher, but she is not encouraging you enough, so you give up
‘Great teachers do not exist, there are only great pupils.’ – Arthur Rubenstein
If you are not getting enough moral support, find another teacher. I had a change of piano teacher for the worst when I was seventeen. I did not like her at all and longed for my old teacher. The result was that I never practiced. Things came to a head when she told me I had not studied enough and that I could not do the exam. I stormed out and banged the door. There was a severe ticking off a week later, but it was a turning point for me. I began to practice and passed the exam with a decent grade. I was very proud of that and went on to study the organ.
Here is what you should do. If you find that your teacher is not encouraging you enough and giving you confidence, then you could have a word with her. You need more compassion and support. In an adult music students’ forum, the teachers usually ask “Why can’t adults learn?” The answer is of course, “Why can’t teachers teach adults?” It is a two way street and you have to find the right balance between getting enough encouragement with a teaching style that suits your learning mode.
In regards to praise, just bear in mind that Vladimir Horowitz, the great Russian pianist, got very faint praise when he played in New York in 1928. Critics described him as a “virtuoso, but musically underdeveloped.”
4. You are applying too much theory which is getting you nowhere, so you give up
Lots of adult learners would love to learn the violin, tuba or French horn by reading it all in a book. They are not prepared for the whole kinesthetic process where touch, control of the body and physical sensations are the keys to learning any musical instrument. Children can do this much more easily as learning in the early years is a physical process. Adults have forgotten this and replaced everything with words, logic and reasoning. A good teacher will help the adult become more aware of the physical sensations and the sounds they are producing. This will work for any instrument such as the violin or the guitar, but it may be more difficult with the piano because of its bulk.
If you are intimidated by child prodigies, just forget the fact that Arturo Michelangeli Benedetti, the controversial and gifted Italian pianist, graduated from the Milan Conservatory at the age of thirteen!
5. You practice once a week but cannot see any improvement, so you give up
Maybe you think once a week is enough? If so, you should be aiming at several times a week. There is no short cut to learning a piece properly. It just takes hours of practice. The best way around this is to set aside a time for practice every one or two days and stick to it.
6. You perform your first pieces, but you get no great praise from your friends, so you give up
Look at what Joshua Bell, the world famous violinist, did at a metro station in Washington. He decided to be a busker. He wanted to see if people would really listen to his music in a rather busy setting. Well, they didn’t. Of the 1,097 people who passed by, only 7 actually stopped to listen. So, do not be discouraged, just keep practicing. You might remind your friends that learning a musical instrument takes people years so they should perhaps be more appreciative.
7. You want to perform really well, but you practice superficially, so you give up
Your expectations need to be lowered and you need to be more concentrated when you practice. It is as simple as that. Look at what the great musicians had to do to be successful, so take a leaf out of their book. I know that Maurizio Pollini, the extremely talented pianist, withdrew from performing for 6 years because he felt he needed to develop artistically!
Intense practice and study really pays off. A world famous harpsichordist, Enrico Baiano, has told me that when he studies a piece really well, he finds that he has to do very little revision when he has to play it again, even if it is years later. As a music teacher himself, he also recommends that his students work with intelligence and concentration.
“Practicing comes and goes. There are nights I can’t do anything right, but at other times it’s incredible. I play something that sounds decent and it makes my whole day. It colors my whole world when I practice well.”- Barbara Klain (violist)
8. You have not analysed your own technique enough and feel dissatisfied, so you give up
When musicians find that they cannot perform a piece to their satisfaction, they start to analyse their own technique. They see it as a problem solving exercise. This may mean slowing down and taking it to pieces. It may be a question of fingering, breath control or bowing technique. Then they will drill it unmercifully and gradually add the repaired bit to the whole piece, thus restoring it to its rightful glory. Older musicians have to be more aware of fatigue and stamina issues and may have to build in more breaks. Discover what works best for you and stick to it. Routine always helps.
9. You practice a lot but do not use the time efficiently, so you give up
We have talked above about how much you need to practice but what about how you organize it? Here is what the experts recommend.
Just as with gym, you have to warm up. Don’t start straightaway on the hard stuff. Play something easy and which is also fun. You want to be fairly relaxed and comfortable. The warm up should last about 5 minutes. Then get down to the really difficult bit while you are still fresh and alert. You should be able to play this section a few times without any mistakes if you are to cross it off as actually learned. You can practice scales too, but try to make them interesting by building in good tone and some rhythm. It makes it more enjoyable and you are also experimenting. Then finish off with fun stuff or you could try some sight reading if you are not too tired.
10. Your motivation sinks after a while, so you give up
How can you stay motivated? Remember your first enthusiasm when you started out on this adventure? There is a sense of magic about approaching music and the desire to be a protagonist in this wonderful experience, not just a mere listener. You know there is an element of risk and this is where the teacher has an essential role in encouraging you in being compassionate and considerate.
Set yourself reasonable goals and divide these into mini goals so that you can measure your progress in a more concrete way. As you discover more and more about music, listen to some great musicians and read extensively about composers and concert artists and the struggles they too had.
Keep a few inspirational quotes in your music case or on top of your keyboard. Remind yourself that you are in it for the long haul and that you will not be performing at Carnegie Hall in a few years!