Can Adults Learn to Play a String Instrument?

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.

Get Started!

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!

12 thoughts on “Can Adults Learn to Play a String Instrument?

  1. Hi there, I play the violin for five weeks now. I got the violin for my 29 birthday from my husband and kids. I cant affort a violin teacher so I try to learn by turtorials vrom youtube. I followd a teacher there, she had some turtorials of basic violin play. Now I have finished the lessons I came across youre youtube channel with a turtorial on how to play Canon in D. I downoaded the music sheet and I am practising very hard. From the first day I have my violin I practice 2 hours every day. The last four days I started with Canon in D. At the sheet is standing number 15, that is were I am right now. My questions to you are how long wil it take for me to make it sound beautyful. Now I have lets say…about 15% on key at this moment and Is it a good choice to use this piece as a practice ?

    Sorry for the long story and my poor english

    Greatings from the Nedherlands 🙂

    1. Thanks for your question! It really depends on SOOOOO many things: what would you consider “beautiful,” your basic physical dexterity, the kind of training you get, etc… Assuming you will keep practicing like you are so far, and you get some good training, it could take up to a year before you can play that version of Canon in D to a level that you are in tune most of the time, have a good tone throughout, with some dynamic contrasts, and a basic vibrato. It would likely take a couple years to get to the point that you have a fine control over articulation and dynamics, have some variety in your vibrato, and be in tune more or less all the time. I know that seems like a really long time, but you are still very young and once you have these skills, they can be with you for the rest of your life!
      About affording lessons, I am going to be offering video lessons soon that will be like this: the student makes a short video demonstrating the exercises and pieces he/she is working on, then I make a video in response to it demonstrating the way to improve. It will only cost u.s.$39 per month. Is that something you would be interested in, or is that still out of your budget for lessons? I can give you the full details if you are interested.

      Thanks,

      Todd

  2. Hi there, your article confirmed what my young teachers have already told me. And I’m so glad to have come accross this esp coming from a master like you. I’m very positive now that I’m going to improve in spite of how late I began with cello, just last January 24 of this year and I’m already 42, I actually started with violin may 2014,then fell in love with the beautiful tones of viola in November but had to give it up due to a physical condition. Now I’m happily learning the cello for 4 months now and I’m doing the everyday 30 min to 1 hour. I hope to stay with my new bff for life 🙂

    1. That’s great to hear! Keep up the practice time and you’ll see little improvements regularly. Let me know if you have any questions along the way as you are learning. If you have any particular exercises or scales you play, I can add them to the interactive player for you. Let me know.

  3. I started when I was 63 with a little bit of guitar playing behind me.Weekly 40 min lessons and I now can pick up tunes (mostly fiddle tunes) by ear and am pretty well in tune most if the time. I still find it difficult play along with my teacher and have tension problems. I play weekly with a group of up to ten adults , all with different folk instraments and find it easier to play with them. I think you need the rigour of a good teacher as well as an outlet to just have a bash and enjoy it. Need to develop some vibrato and better phrasing before I have confidence to play solo infront of people. Keep at it

  4. In 1970 I began violin studies at 8 two years later, life got in the way I stopped! Decades later I was inspired by a concert I went to and decided to start what I stopped so many years ago “the love of music”. I purchased a Viola and Violin and spent 6 months with a private teacher who confused me every step of the way. I thought it was age Then just a few days ago I accidentally came across, the string club and it’s simplicity, a metronome, fingerboard w/ finger notes, sheet music to accompany with, 1st position 7th position it all came together in less than a minute. I let my teacher go and thanked him. Teachers can be great only if it’s the right fit. I’m back on track.
    Thank You String Club 🙂