My first harp recital – and I am the only adult there. I shuffle my feet in the local community hall. Kids robed in shimmering gowns and tiny tuxedos chase each other, narrowly dodging our costly instruments.
At the ripe age of 23, I decided to start learning a new instrument. Back then, all I knew was that I really liked the sound of the harp and wanted to try something new and fun. But at that recital with an audience of less than 30, I had never felt so out of place – almost ashamed to be there. Blood rose to my head and my hands trembled, coated in cold sweat, as my teacher asked me to take the stage. The only question screaming through my mind was: ‘Why am I doing this?!’
Today, it almost feels as if learning an instrument as an adult is pointless. With busy livelihoods, the fact that listening to music is so accessible now with the likes of YouTube and Spotify, and the feeling that it may be ‘too late’ to get to an advanced level, it can be hard to find a ‘sense of purpose’. Perhaps this is why I felt ill-at-ease at that recital. Many of the other students there were taking exams and aimed to become professional musicians. For me, I just wanted to enjoy being involved in the music.
Many adults pick up an instrument without the intention of creating a career out of it. Rather, these learners play for the love of music. This little phenomenon is called amateurism. Unlike many professionals, amateur musicians define their success through their enjoyment of their instrument. They regard ‘jamming’ with friends, playing ‘happy birthday’ for a loved one, or mastering a piece they’ve always loved listening to, as something to celebrate.
To learn more about the experiences of adult learners, I conducted a survey, inviting learners from all around the world to participate. I asked them why they chose to pick up an instrument later in life. Some stated that they had found more free time in their schedules, while others said that they were finally in a sufficiently secure place, financially, to start. Certain individuals made it a family affair – their children had started learning, so they decided to jump onboard too. A few already played multiple instruments and wanted to try something new. A large proportion of respondents had started learning an instrument as a child and stopped practicing, only to pick it back up in their adulthood. A typical comment: ‘I used to play the violin as a child, but never put in the effort. When I listened to music, part of me always missed playing.’
Joy is a pianist and guitarist who began learning at the age of 21. She always enjoyed listening to music as a child and found inspiration to start playing because of film music. ‘I’ve always wanted to play since I was a kid because I liked listening to church songs played on the piano,’ she says. ‘I also enjoy watching movies involving piano, like Your Lie in April, Crash Landing On You and La La Land.’
In the COVID-19 pandemic, many picked up a new instrument because their other hobbies were put on hold. Being stuck in lockdown, those who had ever thought about learning a new instrument now had a window of opportunity. One respondent stated that with a lighter workload due to the pandemic, they could finally start pursuing their interests. Another said that they ‘needed something to distract (them) from the lockdown’. Musical instrument sales soared in 2020. According to Amazon Marketplace, ukuleles saw a huge 66 per cent increase in sales compared to 2019, guitars saw a 21 per cent increase and pianos 12 per cent. Online music forums grew in popularity, with adult beginners asking for advice and sharing videos of themselves playing. Many found a community in this sea of adult learners: they created a social life for themselves within their own homes.
There are many benefits of learning an instrument as an adult. Listening to music alone can alleviate stress and anxiety. Playing an instrument improves motor skills, multitasking skills and focus, and can even help fight off the flu. Natalie started playing the violin at the age of 26, and says: ‘(Playing is) therapeutic. Practice is a great way to begin or end a stressful day of work, and it offers a nice mental challenge’. Many people also enjoy the social aspect of music-making. Prior to the pandemic, amatuer music-makers were involved in community orchestras, met others through performing at local gigs, or found a practice buddy. Music is a versatile hobby which can also be shared online. Amateur musicians are able to meet others through Facebook groups, Instagram reels, TikTok videos and other social media sites.
‘Learning to read and play music has enriched my life in so many ways. It’s my time for mindfulness and self-care, and it gives my brain something to chew on all day long, which has greatly reduced my anxiety,’ says Rachel, who started learning the piano in 2020. ‘I love learning about music, as well as playing it. Oh, and progress. Knowing that I am progressing daily is such a rewarding experience. I wish I had started years ago.’ For Rachel and many others, progression in their instrument is enough to feel a huge sense of purpose and accomplishment. Their self-esteem and resilience are boosted, knowing that they are improving in their craft – they enjoy the lack of pressure to become an advanced player or play professionally.
Adult learners want to connect to music on a deeper level than they once did as a listener.. ‘It’s like reading books – there are so many beautiful, dramatic, tragic, funny or intriguing stories there for you,’ says Taras, a violinist. ‘Same with music – there is a story behind every piece you play: the mood, the struggle, and the happiness.’ The adult learners I surveyed found that the way they listened to music changed, after they began learning an instrument. They enjoyed listening out for their instruments at concerts. Some stated that learning an instrument allowed them to listen more closely for techniques such as rhythm and pitch. Reading along with the score gave them a stronger grasp of what the music was about. Mark, a guitarist and pianist, said that their emotional interpretation of music changed. ‘I’m much better about finding what makes a song great to me.’ Another individual found a deeper love for a genre they never expected to enjoy. ‘I used to think of classical music as “boring”. Now, I barely listen to anything else!’.
However, adult beginners also face many challenges that their young counterparts do not. While some musicians have found a community when learning an instrument, for others the path to learning is a lonely one. Self-doubt and lack of confidence have also led to people wondering why they bother putting in so much effort – especially when there is little to no intention of becoming a professional. Some feel embarrassed about being an adult and playing at a beginner level. ‘(One of my biggest challenges is) watching five-year-olds KILLING it while I am struggling,’ says Ryan, a beginner cellist. ‘I guess (I am not) able to enjoy my progress due to comparing myself to others all the time’. Having to learn how to read notes, perfect technique and understand musical jargon is a lot to take in, especially when you’re later to the game than most musicians. Erika discovered a few physical barriers. ‘I feel like my body has a hard time adjusting to the violin. I don’t know if my muscles are just tight, but I had some kind of pain for a month or two in my shoulder/upper arm area’. A huge number of respondents found that they had very little time to practice their instrument. Others faced judgement from their peers when they decided to start learning. Dérick, a violinist who started learning in June 2020, said that many of his friends told him that it was ‘too late’ to pick up an instrument.
A huge issue that stood out was people’s inability to find a teacher to cater to their needs. In music education, there is a huge focus on preparing students for examinations or to become professionals in their art. When I started learning the harp, I never intended to do exams. However, I was encouraged to do them as a way to check my progress. Exams can have many positives – for example, they keep me accountable. But there is also an increased pressure for me to get ‘good’ at the instrument fast, to abide by the exam board’s curriculum, and focus on a more limited repertoire. Others had similar responses, saying that it felt like their music teachers were preparing them for a career in music rather than looking at their learning as a hobby. It is important for all learners to understand fundamentals and basic techniques to enjoy their instrument. However, there is a need for teachers to expand their curricula in a way to include those who wish to play ‘for fun’. Jeremy stated that their teacher approached teaching them in the same way you would a child. ‘Most teachers have so few adult students that they just don’t know the best way to approach someone taking up the instrument as an adult’. My survey indicated that 61 per cent of respondents never intend to ‘monetise’ their music. Teachers need to do more to meet the needs of these amateur musicians and find a way of teaching that is appropriate for them. This also brings up the issue of access.
In the 19th century, there were only two ways to enjoy music: either head to a concert hall or play it at home, most likely on the piano. Hence, the ‘amateur musician’ emerged. To enjoy the works of Debussy, Mozart or Puccini outside of the concert hall, people relied on pieces originally composed for larger forces in arrangements for two people to play together at one piano. Four-hand piano defined the difference between professional musicians and amateurs. Now, many classical compositions and even modern pop songs are being arranged in a simplified way for amateur musicians to enjoy. With all of these resources available, it could be said that amateur musicians are being thought about in an access context. But another issue arises. Whilst attending a concert has become significantly more accessible now, the question of whether classical music is elitist has not gone away.
When I spoke with my musician friends, ranging in skill level from amateur to professional, many agreed that the classical music industry seems to struggle with moving on from outdated ideas. One topic that continued to come up was that classical music is a luxury only for the rich. ‘I would rather attend a pop concert than a symphony. At least I know that I will 100 percent fit in at a pop concert’. And it wasn’t just a matter of musical ability that made my ‘amateur’ friends hesitant to immerse themselves in classical music. My friends are all under the age of 30, many from a culturally diverse or non-English speaking background. These demographic features highlighted to me that younger people and those who identify as culturally diverse, do not feel well represented in a classical music context, particularly in an audience setting.
As I speak with Vincent Ciccarello, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s managing director, we discuss issues surrounding access to classical music performance venues. According to a study conducted by the Orchestra, audiences who are not directly involved in the world of professional music (e.g. non-musicians, amateur musicians) are hesitant to attend concerts as they believe that the venues feel too rarefied for them. When I spoke with my friends, they agreed that a string quartet in the park feels much more inclusive than a string quartet playing in a formal concert setting. Another problem here relates to access to teaching for those amateur musicians living in regional or rural areas. Whilst the internet means that online learning is an option, having an ‘in-person’ teacher brings many benefits, including connections to the local music community.
But the industry is constantly evolving and there are people creating change every day. Respondents to my survey, as well as some of my friends, gained the motivation and confidence to start learning an instrument because of YouTube stars TwoSet Violin (Brett Yang and Eddy Chen). TwoSet Violin are professional musicians who create humorous and informative videos about classical music. They have managed to humanise the industry with a comedic and approachable attitude, and help those who are new to their instrument, or non-musicians, feel accepted and included. Hilary Hahn is an activist for equal rights for LGBTQ+ and racially diverse communities. Yo-Yo Ma played to a crowd waiting at a COVID vaccination site. In fact, it is clear that many professional musicians play to share their love for music with others, not to entertain a room full of millionaires. And isn’t that what music is supposed to be about – creating a sense of joy, connection and belonging?
So, ‘why am I doing this?’
As I stumbled onto the elevated stage at my first ever harp recital, I gave my worst performance ever. I missed several notes, paused constantly, and forgot every bit of technique my teacher had ever taught me. Sitting on the stage red-faced, it took all of my willpower to put away the thought that I should just give up there and then. But as I bowed, the audience of kids, family members and friends applauding, I realised that ‘perfection’ was never my aim. I had chosen to learn an instrument to experience the joys of music on a deeper level, find a community for myself, and have an interesting hobby to talk about on dating apps. I know that I will never play professionally in an orchestra in front of thousands. And that’s okay. What I have now, will always be enough.
Ashleigh Ho is an alumnus of the Words About Music program, AYO National Music Camp 2021.