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June 14, 2016

9 Helpful Tips for Teaching Adult Music Students

by Lara Levitan

The beauty of teaching adult music students is no one is forcing them to take lessons. Unlike kids, their parents aren’t requiring it, or breathing down their necks to practice. (At least we hope not!)

Eager to learn and challenge themselves, adult students can be a true pleasure to teach.

Much of the advice below applies to students of any age, but may resonate in particular with preparing and managing expectations for your adult music students.

1. Be flexible and patient.

Adults have very real, high-stake responsibilities that can keep them from practicing or attending lessons regularly. For this reason, leniency is a must.

Acknowledging this in advance can help manage your—and your student’s— expectations for how quickly they progress.

2. Create attainable goals together.

“I’ve noticed that adults tend to be more self-aware and want to feel progress more than children,” said music teacher Anthony Allamandola.

Collaborating to create goals and steps for achieving them can be the fuel adult students need to stay on track with a practice schedule. (Especially important after a long day of work, kids, and chores!)

Be honest with your students when stressing the importance of daily practice. Help them find ways to make practice happen, e.g. get an electric keyboard with headphones so they can practice after the kids go to sleep.

3. Be open to where lessons take you.

Many older students may be taking lessons to relax and de-stress. Although playing music can be very soothing, sometimes this means playing very little music during lessons.

“Often times my adult students and I spend lesson time talking about music and why it’s important in our lives,” music teacher Leah Rockweit said. “I find that taking lessons, even if there isn’t a specific deadline or goal can be very therapeutic.”

4. Teach “beginner’s mind.”

There’s a well-known quote in Zen Buddhism: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Unlike children, most adults aren’t learning new things every day.

“Adults cannot remember how long it took them to master the English language,” said music teacher Emily Volz. “They want immediate results in reading music.”

As a music teacher, you know the process requires hard work and is truly unending, depending on how long you stick with playing. Remind your adult student of this when she is uncomfortable with being less than perfect. Reassure him often, even if you start feeling like more of a cheerleader than a music teacher.


5. Give up control…at least a little.

When working with kids, you typically gauge their skill-level and decide what and how to teach from there.

Adults, on the other hand, tend to have specific ideas about how or what they learn, e.g. learning to sing a song to perform at a wedding, or playing The Eagles’ oeuvre.

This is one of the great joys of working with adults!

They can be a strong partner or even leader in steering the course of study. Bonus for you, they may also be more passionate and eager to learn from the outset.

6. Don’t assume it’s harder for adults to learn than kids.

Beginning lessons with an adult with the assumption that this is going to be difficult for them is just that— an assumption.

When Debby Dubow began piano lessons after semi-retirement, she was pleased to find her sight-reading better than it had been when she was a kid.

“Honestly I play terribly, but my understanding of music is better than it was [when I was a kid taking lessons],” Debby said.

Piano Power Student Debby Dubow and teacher Doug Ferdinand
Piano Power Student Debby Dubow and teacher Doug Ferdinand

7. Enjoy your break from teaching yet another Taylor Swift song.

Music teacher Dan Huber may have nailed the greatest bonus of working with adults: “They often have better taste in music.”

8. Don’t hold a “recital”, hold a “musical soirée.”

Keep the atmosphere casual and celebratory. Make memorization optional. And provide plenty of wine.

9. Celebrate the beauty of life-long learning.

A commenter on a blog post about adult music lessons had these lovely words to share about starting music lessons as a non-child: “Adults have futures, too. We need to continue to learn and to grow. When we play a piece, we play our best right to the end, to the very last note, without dwindling in focus. Life can be played that way, too.”

For more on adult music students, check out 8 Reasons You’ll Never Regret Taking Adult Music Lessons.

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