"God, it's pathetic. I really should be able to do this by now!"
A student of mine said this the other day as he grappled to sight-read a chord sequence from a lead-sheet and kept mixing up his major-seventh and dominant-seventh chords. I get this kind of comment from my adult students a lot. Whereas kids are open to all things new and are capable of simpy enjoying the ride, most adults seem to study in a state of embarassed frustration.
The majority of my students are adults and without exception, they all struggle with their own feelings of inadequacy and the perception that they should be better than they are.
I have the utmost respect for my adult students, because learning anything new as an adult involves us taking a huge leap outside of our comfort zones. Our lives seem increasingly to consist of a narrowing of focus and a dash towards specialisation.
Think about it. As kids we do everything: we sing, dance, paint, act, read, write, play sport and study arts, sciences, humanities etc. - in short, a bit of everything. Then, as we become older we narrow those interests, discarding things that we think we're not so good at and focusing on the rest.
In the education system in this country, schoolchildren select 'options' around the age of 14, discarding the subjects they think they don't like or are worst at. Then at 16 they pick 3-6 subjects to study at a higher level before choosing just one or two to study at university.
Outside of the classroom too, most people rely increasingly on a smaller number of skills - especially once they get into the world of work. They get experience in certain roles or certain fields and as time goes on, they find themselves in fewer and fewer situations where we have ablsolutely no expertise or even relevant skills to help us.
In short, the older we get, the less likely it is that we're going to be faced with situations where we're completely and utterly out of our comfort zone. Starting music lessons as an adult is exactly this kind of situation and although it can be extremely rewarding, it's nearly always both intimidating and humbling at first.
Because of this, adults seem to place unreasonable demands on themselves and come up with ungrounded assessments of what they 'should' be able to do. Whenever one of my students says 'I should be able to do this by now', I always counter with 'according to whom?' or 'based on what?'.
It's impossible for somebody learning a totally new skillset from scratch to be able to set any kind of objective timetable for how they should be progressing. One of the first questions people always ask me when considering lessons, (although it's phrased in various different forms) is along the lines of 'how long does it take to sound good'. Although it's obvious why they ask, anybody with any musical experience knows that's an impossible question to answer.
Whenever a student is giving themselves a hard time because they think they 'should' be able to do something, I always try to remind them that there is no logical or empirical reason why they think that. They don't know how fast people typically learn the material they are studying, they don't know how long it has taken other students to learn it and they don't know how long it took the professionals to learn it. In other words, they have absolutely no basis in reality for thinking that they should be able to do whatever it is they're attempting.
However, because they are often highly-competent in other areas of their lives, it's incredibly frustrating for them to be back working at a basic level. Unfortunately for them, the key to improving as a musician is to develop the fortitude to push yourself continually outside your comfort zone and tackle the things that you can't do; the things that frustrate you and make you feel untalented and incompetent.
Even as professionals, the learning never stops and I always try to show students that although the material might change, the process remains exactly the same and that more advanced players have to put in the hard yards in exactly the same way in order to get better.
Sometimes, I'll let them sit and watch me practise something I'm working on for a couple of minutes and they're always surprised that I can't do things as quickly as they might have thought - often they're surprised that I have to practise things in the same way as they do. This is because they might hear me demonstrate something I'm teaching them, or hear me playing material I have already mastered and assume that because I can do those things easily, that anything new I tackle will be grasped pretty much instantaneously.
The irony of learning music is that increased knowledge and facility may mean that you can learn new things faster (as they are related to things that that you can already do) but the level of complexity of the new material increases as you improve - so the practice process has to remain pretty much the same throughout your whole development.
For adult beginners, the challenge is to suck up their feelings of inadequacy, stop plucking unrealistic expectations out of thin air and keep working. The undersirable alternative is sounding bad forever.
However, what I rarely tell these students is that these kinds of feelings and foolish expectations can stay with you, and no matter how good you get, the challenge becomes even harder. For more advanced musicians, the challenge is to suck up our feelings of inadequacy, stop plucking unreasonable expectations out of thin air and keep working.
The undesirable alternative is sounding OK forever.
Until next time...