ABRSM is always delighted to welcome adults into the exam room and examiners appreciate that the path they’ve taken to that moment may be rather different to those of younger candidates. Clare Stevens finds out what motivates adult learners and the challenges facing their teachers. ‘The main challenge facing most adult learners of musical instruments is the child within,’ says violin, mandolin and music theory teacher, Frances Taylor. ‘Most adults carry around the remnants of an unresolved past. As teachers we suddenly become a critical parent, teacher or some other authority figure in the eyes of the pupil.’CT ABRSM course mentor, violin and piano teacher, Fiona Lau, makes a similar observation. ‘Adults are very aware of the speed of their progress and the fact that they can fail, so you have to build them up and make them aware of how well they are doing. Many find it difficult to fit in learning an instrument alongside work and family responsibilities; a certain amount of flexibility on the teacher’s part is vital. For example, I find it helpful to offer one-hour lessons every other week, which gives them time to practise.’ Adults enrol for lessons with very different levels of skill and previous knowledge. Fiona’s pupils include a ‘returner’ who stopped at Grade 6 as a child and now wants to do Grades 7 and 8; a Chinese student who wants to improve her practical and theory skills in order to take the Principles of Teaching diploma; a piano teacher who just wants to play more (‘she and I are doing concertos this term!’) and a head of music who is a singer and brass player, and needs to brush up her keyboard skills in order to play for school assemblies and accompany her pupils. Many people however, decide to take up an instrument with very little previous experience of music. ‘I always encourage pupils to ask questions or to tell me if I am explaining something they already know,’ adds Frances. ‘It is very important to meet students where they are and connect with something they are already interested in – gardening, cooking, folk music – whatever it is, you have to make that connection and factor it in to the lesson.’ An important basic tool for Fiona is ‘a really good adult tutor book – one without gnomes and toadstools! It needs to guide and help without patronising.’ She supplements this with a range of other material such as pop, jazz and duets. Anna Picken took up the piano in her late 30s, having learnt the clarinet at school, played in adult recorder ensembles and sung in choirs to a high standard. With this level of musical knowledge she managed to get quite a long way in teaching herself the piano, but realised that she would need formal lessons in order to achieve her goal of playing the pieces that she really likes listening to. ‘When I hear a piece of piano music – Debussy or Bach especially – I know I have to play it. That’s an incredibly motivating thing.’ Anna was initially disappointed however, to be told by her teacher that she would have to go right back to the beginning and start learning Grade 1 pieces, scales and exercises, in order to establish a good technique. ‘It has been hard, but I know it is the right approach and will pay off in the long run. My learning curve has been very broad; he has been teaching me a lot about posture, relaxation, dealing with nerves, performance skills, musicality and musical style. He’s always raising the bar, trying to boost my confidence and get more out of me. I’m now aiming towards Grade 5 next summer and eventually Grade 8.’ The tension that Anna feels between ambition and self-criticism is typical of many adult learners. Frances has found that the key thing in helping her pupils to overcome the psychological barriers they set up for themselves is ‘learning to focus on the pulse of whatever they are playing, feeling it in their bodies so that they don’t notice the negative thoughts they have in their minds such as “she won’t like this” or “I can’t do it”.’ ‘When adult learners come to take exams, they are often more anxious and nervous than younger candidates,’ says ABRSM’s Chief Examiner, John Holmes. ‘So it’s our job as the examiner to be aware of this and to do what we can to put them at ease, as far as possible. By the same token, adult candidates deserve to feel proud of their exam success, given that they are not “full-time” learners and often have to juggle music lessons and practice with many other pressing demands on their energy and time.’
This article was originally featured in the January 2011 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.