The Reality of Starting to Learn Violin, Viola, Cello, or Double Bass as an Adult
I have heard and read people claiming that adults struggle when they start learning violin, viola, cello, or double bass because children can learn faster and adults can’t learn new things as easily. I disagree with this based on my experiences with teaching both children and adults over the years. However, quite a few of the adults that start learning an instrument end up quitting in the first year for many reasons. I want to support anyone who is learning violin, viola, cello, or bass, so I want you to know about, and plan for some of the pitfalls that adult beginners face. Starting to learn a string instrument as an adult won't be a good choice for everyone, but the following considerations can help you to decide whether to begin and give you a much better chance for success.
Its About the Practice Time!
I believe adults can learn faster than children in general, but that’s not what matters most. It really comes down to practice. A child is often forced to practice regularly by the parents, and as a result they make fairly consistent progress. Parents who spent money on the instrument and lessons expect to see some progress for that hard-earned money. With studio recitals and orchestra concerts to prepare for, the student also has lots of short-term goals laid out for them and they practice to prepare for those events. This is not to say that forcing someone to practice an instrument is the best way to learn. I believe that having internal motivation and a passion for the art form results in the best outcomes, but just putting in practice time for whatever reason is going to get better results than not practicing.
Adults often don’t hold themselves to the same practicing standard that they demand of children. Even though they are spending their own money, they often let a few days of practicing slide here and there, which then becomes the norm. With too much time between practice sessions, the body doesn’t get the kind of repetitive training at frequent intervals that it needs to start to internalize the subtle motions needed for high quality music performance. Each practice session will feel like starting over again rather than building on the previous practice.
To have a legitimate chance at progressing sufficiently on a violin, viola, cello, or double bass, you have to commit some time to practicing on a regular basis. If your life is so hectic that you will only be able to practice a little bit every three or four days, I would suggest not starting. Its going to be extremely hard to make progress that you will be happy with. At a bare minimum, you should be practicing every other day for about a half hour. Practicing every day is ideal, but it is often not possible given work and family obligations as well as other important activities you may have. If possible, pick up the instrument and play for even just ten minutes on a busy day to give the muscles that repetitive experience of the motions they need to make.
Understand the Challenge
You also need to have reasonable expectations about your progress so you don’t get upset at how long it is taking. Developing skills on a string instrument is a very long process because a high level of precision and fine motor control is demanded even for fairly simple music. If the bow is just slightly too close to the bridge, a terrible scratching sound will occur. If the finger is just a quarter inch away from where it is supposed to be, the note will be way out of tune. Understanding that it may take over a year before you are excited to show others what you have learned on the violin, viola, cello, or double bass can help you to enjoy the process and not feel like you are a failure or just don’t have the musical ability. This is totally normal. There are no short cuts to developing this sophistication of fine motor skills and if you try to short cut the process, you will actually harm your progress.
On the other hand, if you are practicing daily for an hour and you are taking hour-long lessons with a prestigious teacher, you should progress much faster than this. However, I haven’t found any adult students who have that kind of time and money to dedicate to their hobby, so I’m assuming most of the readers of this article are more like the half-hour-every-other-day type of student. Please keep in mind that the years it may take to build your skills are just an investment that should last a lifetime. Once you have the skill, you can play the instrument for the rest of your life, provided you keep playing and don’t let your instrument collect dust.
"I'm Busy and Impatient! What Should I Do?"
If you don’t have this kind of time, or you are too impatient to wait the long time it takes to sound good on a string instrument, but you really want to learn an instrument, I’d advise you to play piano, guitar, or ukulele. Not that these are “easy instruments” but they all make a reasonably nice sound from day one. With a bowed string instrument, it will take a long time until you can make a nice sound with the bow all the way through a piece of music. The piano, guitar, and ukulele are very forgiving in this respect, so its easier to make beautiful sounds early in the learning process.
If you have the discipline to practice regularly, have reasonable expectations about your progress, and you have fun with the process of learning a great art form, then learning a string instrument as an adult can be an exciting and rewarding life-long experience. I encourage you to check your schedule to block out practice time, check your budget to get a good quality beginner instrument and good instruction, and get started!