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As humans age, their ability to master new skills reduces, it may take longer to reach the same level or it might not even be possible anymore.

For a person that starts learning piano at a later age i.e 30+ and has no prior experience with music instruments, what must they be aware of since it might be that for the same amount of time put in as say a 10 year old, their skill level might not improve as fast.

The purpose here is to have realistic expectations.

I understand that "learning to play piano" can a lot of meanings for different people. Lets say that I want to properly pass and go through the ABRSM levels in Piano playing. Assume 0.5h-1h practice per day.

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    Playing piano can mean a lot of different things. What does it mean to you? Fun alone, fun with friends, fun being creative, or social status? Do you want to perform highly regarded classical pieces like a concert pianist, exactly properly like they "should" be played in order to be regarded as a proper pianist ... or do you want to make wild sounds that make you feel nice? Or maybe sing songs together with someone? Do you want to play "correctly", or to create nice feelings, nevermind social status or correctness? These are different paths and there are many ways between the two extremes. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Apr 5 at 18:24
  • Patience is a virtue --- and for us older folks w/ busy days (kids, jobs) an absolute necessity. – Carl Witthoft Apr 6 at 14:04
  • I have never, ever bought into the idea that "as you age the ability to master new skills reduces." I learned to functionally speak Italian at my current age in about a year, yet when I was a kid I took six years of Spanish and essentially failed. If you learn in a way that is optimal for you NOW, it works. Imagine trying to teach a child to speak by giving them lists of verbs to conjugate and making demanding expectations on them. And yet that's how adults try to learn. It's about how you're trying to learn, and what you expect from yourself. Make it joyless, and you will fail, young or old. – Tim Consolazio Apr 6 at 16:40
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    There are a variety of modern linguists (e.g. Pimsleur) that have repeatedly validated that teaching grammar as the primary build block of learning a language is flawed. You learn by experience and reinforce by repetition. If you want people to become skilled at conjugating verbs, teach 'em the old way. If you want people to lean to functionally speak the language, teach them the way children learn to speak. How many English speakers can tell you what the present progressive of "have" is? Strangely enough, not knowing that doesn't prevent them from saying "I had, have, and will have, no idea." – Tim Consolazio Apr 7 at 14:03
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    @TimConsolazio You are condemning one extreme and turn to the other. I never heard of anybody teaching modern languages by giving long lessons on grammar. At least nobody did that thirty years ago. (And conjugating verbs is exactly what you advocate, reinforceing by repetition) I know however that most music classes do just that, letting kids play, not giving them any background theory, or at most teach a few latin vocabs. The failure rates speak volumes. The secret is to teach both, and make sure the students get the connection. – Karl Apr 7 at 18:11
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Just one thing. You will make rapid initial progress. Then you enter a consolidation phase. You must maintain regular practice but progress will not be so excitingly rapid. This is the point at which most adult learners give up.

If the adult DOES maintain 0.5 - 1 hour daily practice, they should progress a great deal FASTER than a 10 year old. But it still won't be instant gratification.

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  • What is used to measure progress? ABRSM exams? – quantum231 Apr 5 at 20:35
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    If you like. Adults may measure against ability to play certain known pieces. Kids don't KNOW the pieces they want to play, adults often do. – Laurence Payne Apr 6 at 0:20
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Doktor Mayhem Apr 8 at 9:08
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As an adult, you have different strengths and weaknesses in music than does a child. The best way for you to learn is not the same as the best way for a child to learn, but if you adapt to the way your brain is now, you can learn very well.

Discipline

A child's brain is more plastic and picks things up faster. It memorizes things faster, and has an easier time with motor skills. However, that brain is not so much better that it puts your adult brain at a fatal disadvantage. You have something that the child's brain does not: discipline. Where the young brain might find it too difficult to keep going when it gets difficult, you are more likely to practice anyway, to find ways around the difficulty, or power through it, or take a break and come back tomorrow rather than just give up forever in frustration. Living an adult life with its challenges has taught you how to keep going when things are hard, so that will be one of your biggest assets as you learn an instrument.

Scales and exercises

Related to discipline is the practice of scales and exercises, which you ought to embrace. Many beginner music books and series emphasize the playing of tunes, because people want to learn music in order to play music. It makes sense. Who wants to just do scales and exercises? However, the one thing I wish I had done when I started music was to emphasize scales, exercises, and basic technique over learning to play actual tunes. I'm not saying to not learn to play tunes, but make them an adjunct to your main study, not the main thing.

This advice is based on my own experience: I learned to play many tunes when I started, but all I could do was recite the tunes. I was like a musical parrot. But once I added scales and exercises (and a little theory) to my practice, my playing technique got better, I gained some ability to improvise, and my playing got more musical. I started to get the ability to make my own arrangements, and learning new tunes became much faster. It was focusing on the basic that made that possible for me.

Scales and exercises and theory are the bedrock. Your adult brain's sense of discipline and working for long-term goals will allow you to focus on them, and you will progress much quicker as a musician.

Meta-learning

And, as you show very well by asking your question here, you are well positioned to think about the process of learning on a higher level. Rather than just practice a scale or a piece, you are prepared to ask yourself (and others) questions about how to best practice. If you look at an accomplished musician, you will find that their expertise isn't just evident in how they play, it's also evident in how they practice. They think about how to practice, they experiment with practice routines, they learn from how others practice, and they adapt their practice routines over time to find what works best for them. This is a significant advantage, since it can make your practice much more effective. I claim that an adult's brain is far better suited to this kind of meta-learning than is a child's, so this will be your other great strength.

By applying the strength of an adult brain, you can do just as well as the child's brain. You'll just learn in a manner that fits the adult brain better.

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    I´m not sure this is the whole story, but I find it very convincing: Children have a "strategic" (for lack of a better word) brain disability. It is "slower", allowing it to filter out anything that is too complex to be properly processed. You can speak to a baby in complete sentences, and it will always find something useful to learn in it (provided there is) . At fourteen or so, it stops getting faster. Seems like this is actually some fat layer in the synapses, which gets reduced more and more. The adult has to implement some own discriminator, i.e. plan to learn in the right sequence. ;) – Karl Apr 7 at 18:45
  • @Karl Very interesting, thanks! – Wayne Conrad Apr 7 at 20:52
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I started to learn guitar at the age of 24. It was my first instrument. I had no prior musical training.

Now, I am close to the 10k hours of total practice time. I made progress, but I would be hesitate to call myself an "expert". It is more like that I know better what my weaknesses and my strengths are. I am quite sure that I would have made much more progress if I would have started at least 10 years earlier.

I think it is quite well established that learning in the youth is easier. The brain is still growing, you have a much higher neuroplasticity. Your hormones work different, in the sense that experiences and emotional responses are more intense, which in general faciliates learning. All that stops, at the latest, somewhere between 20-25 years.

But, also as a child I guess you have a more playful overall attitude and approach. As an adult I think you are more goal oriented which might get you easily frustrated. At least I experienced this with my progress. I learned programming as a teenager, which was much easier. But also due to the fact that I did it "on the way" with projects etc, but was never specifically focused on programming faster, learn more programming languages or something like that. Happened in the process anyway.

Over the past one and a half year I recorded my weekly progress on certain difficult tunes. I plan to make a learning progress video and upload it to youtube. I can tell you when I am done with it. Meanwhile there a dozens of others on yt who made videos like these, even of adult starters with age 20+. But in my opinion these videos are a little bit biased in the sense that they mostly show success stories, the end result, but not the small scale intermediate steps and fallbacks.

Good luck with your journey! Don't be to strict with yourself.

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    Scary I just turned 41 and thought about starting acoustic guitar but I am very much result oriented...I want to be a rock star and I dont even know the basics. Should I not bother ? – JonH Apr 7 at 0:10
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    No, I do not wanted to be scary! Just to make it clear, I definitely made progress. Enough to play in a band and have some fun. But I am not a virtuose. I still have sticking point in regard with fast and precise playing, and ear training. But I had absolutely no prior musical experience before I started, and I would not consider myself very talented in music! Even if you had already some musical experience (many played flute in pre-school age... me not) I guess you would have better prerequisites. [...] – StefanH Apr 7 at 9:02
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    Btw I am still practicing, maybe you can ask me in 5 years again and things look different. And your goal is to be a rock star, seriously? That sounds more like a 10 year old... Set yourself goals what you want to achieve on your instrument, tunes you want to master etc.. that would be way more viable and effective. – StefanH Apr 7 at 9:06
  • I think you misunderstood it - its an expression when I said "I want to be a rockstar" - meaning I want to be really really good. And yes I am being serious - I want to be really really good! – JonH Apr 7 at 14:13
  • @JonH Ok. As said, to become really really good scientist tell that you should put in 10k hours of practice, which translates to roughly 4h a day for 10 years. For old folks like us maybe its more 15-20k hours then. So better start soon :) – StefanH Apr 7 at 15:53
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@LawrencePayne probably gave the most practical advice: don't give up when you hit the initial plateau.

To that I add: take advantage of your adult ability to think abstractly and self-evaluate.


TL;DR

I'm not a teacher so file this under: personal anecdotes...

I took guitar lessons as a kid. I never questioned what I was doing in those lessons. Zero music theory or improvisation was included. I learned how to strum and fingerpick chords, but I could have learned so much more.

Now, as an adult I'm studying piano on my own.

To me, the difference between studying as a kid and an adult is: as an adult I can think abstractly, self-evaluate, and research my own study materials and repertoire.

For example, I don't just learn the fingering for a specific piece of music. I try to understand the underlying mechanics and then look for its application in a variety of piano method books. I make up drills on such things in all keys, varying rhythm and harmony.

I do similar things from theory studies. When learning about harmony sequences, types of motion, etc. I will apply that in little drills in all keys.

The point is to identify musical elements abstractly and understand how they are used in different contexts. Relative relationships and abstract modeling are hugely important in music so there is a great benefit to studying this way. Kids don't think abstractly like that, but adults do. Use that to your advantage. You will get more out of your study time when you realize everything has some underlying pattern or model which gets re-used in countless ways.

Not too long a ago I experienced the pay off when trying to play Mozart's K. 545. Not the first movement that everyone learns how to play (I learned that about 15 years back) but sight-reading the andante. Not that long ago attempting a sight read would have been hopeless. But after a lot of pattern drilling for about two years I really was able to read the piece. At certain points my hands started playing things before I realized what I was actually doing! The basic mechanical and harmony patterns had already been trained into my hands. I mostly had to pay attention to the rhythm. It was very satisfying.

So, set your own goals, self-evaluate, and use your higher level thinking.

If you really are starting with zero musical background, take time to review and compare method books. There are tons of beginner methods at http://imslp.org. Don't forget about the famous Mozart and Bach notebooks.

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See music as a language. Like any language, it can be learned at any age. Can a kid learn French for example better than an adult? I'm not sure one can quantify it like that. There's a lot of variables involved (free time, dedication, urgency, and a bunch of other factors).

For a person that starts learning piano at a later age i.e 30+ and has no prior experience with music instruments, what must they be aware of since it might be that for the same amount of time put in as say a 10 year old, their skill level might not improve as fast.

I don't agree with this. There's a lot of benefits to being older and learning music for the first time. I've learned music in different stages of my life. I can easily say without a doubt that as an adult in these last 3 years I've learned the most rapid of any age.

As a kid you kind of latch on to whatever teachers hand you. I had terrible music teachers as a kid that made it more a job to learn music. Which killed my inspiration for many years. You just take what they say as fact, and you practice whatever they hand you. You go by their schedule, or whatever schedule they prescribe for you. You're not as free-thinking, committed, focused as you are when you are an adult. As an adult you're also pressured by time, a kid has all the time in the world to goof off.

Age is also irrelevant because we don't know when we die. Chopin died at the age of 39. So at the age of 20 he was 57 years old if you compare it to average life expectancy of 76. In short, just do the best with the time you have and stop making excuses!

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    It's pretty well demonstrated that children's brains can accept new topics (foreign languages as well as music) much faster than adults. But if an adult learned music or second/third languages as a kid, learning yet another as an adult is easier. – Carl Witthoft Apr 6 at 14:06
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    Adult learners mostly do not learn a language to the same degree as a native. You can tell the difference mostly by the way they speak, their dialect. I have even seen studies about that long ago (one was about adult japanese learning englisch, and how to avoid common misproncounciations. But I cannot remember the name of this study). But anyway, it is still possible of course. – StefanH Apr 6 at 14:41
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    @CarlWitthoft yes kids are like sponges more than adults. but as I mentioned they goof off more and waste time following orders (at least I did back then). so I think given all the variables it's a balance between the two. – user34288 Apr 6 at 21:27
  • @CarlWitthoft also, I'm talking about the general population. just your average adult and kid. If I told them you have 1 year to learn everything you can about music theory, I'd bet the adult would win. the kid would be dependent on a teacher most likely. – user34288 Apr 6 at 21:47
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    When I took linguistics in college - around 1990 - we were taught children's language learning ability was about physical brain development, language acquisition atrophies after adolescence. In other words it is physiological not psychological. Don't know whether something similar happens with music. – Michael Curtis Apr 7 at 18:37
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You must have some means of practising where you are not worrying about the neighbours. E.g. on an electric piano with headphones, at a time of day when the thud thud on the keys is not obviously objectionable. You need to be able to concentrate and play simple things over and over.

You probably need some means of getting interested feedback, which could be

  • a teacher (so long as they are a great teacher)
  • a parent / friend (who is interested in a 30s video of something you've spent many hours practising)
  • a learner band (if you weren't playing piano)

You may well need a guide i.e. to what to do first, which could be

  • a teacher (so long as they are great)
  • an online course,

because it appears to be true that if you play a series of structured exercises (i.e. not just pieces), then it gets easier to play pieces.

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As an adult you have the cognitive capacities that enables you to comprehend in one lesson the same amount of knowledge that requires a a child a whole year: E.g. reading sheet music, intervals, chords etc. (elementary theory).

But you will need weeks and months to assimilate this stuff and you will need a lot of time to train your ear and the independency of your fingers - if you haven’t developed the basic functions of these abilities. (The fact that an adult of 30 years wants to learn piano playing seems to be an indicator that he’s got it.)

I suggest you to write like a diary or marking like the finerings directly in the sheet music what and how you’ve practiced a certain part and what you have recognized and learnt. (That’s what others call meta-learning ... and what I’ve started only since I’ retired. )

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One advice which I find important is to find and play music you like. A difficulty with starting playing music as an adult is that you have well-defined musical tastes: maybe you want to play something extremely well-known like Chopin's nocturne or Liszt's second rhapsody. But you will not be able to do that after a week, a month, a year, which is a bit discouraging.

However, what is also discouraging is being stuck with beginner songs and exercises, which, though educative, simply don't please you aesthetically. So you'll be stuck playing "London bridge" or whatever you don't like and it can feel boring and unfulfilling, leading you to quit.

But it isn't true that only complex music is pleasing to the ear. I'm sure that for everyone there are easy-to-play songs that sound good to them; so you have to search for these. Stuff that is at your skill-level (or slightly above, to give you a push) but that you also like musically. I've noticed in several piano books for beginners that it's quite common to present simplified arrangements of well-known pieces or themes from other music (e.g. the Habanera from Carmen).

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