play an instrument

Are you too old to learn to play an instrument?

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It’s definitely too late to learn anything when the dirt hits your face, but until then, you have plenty of time to learn how to play a musical instrument.

An 81 year old man called me a few years ago and asked if he was too old to learn to how to play the banjo. “I don’t know,” I told him, “I’ve never had an 81-year-old student before, but let’s give it a shot.” He bought a banjo and we set up a schedule and started beginner lessons. This gentleman lived on a sailboat and he had large, powerful, and rather stiff hands. After three months of slow going, his fingers gained some dexterity and started to move with a little more ease. In nine months, he was learning the standard songs and playing as well as any average adult student I’d ever taught in that amount of time.

This is one of a number of experiences that have convinced me that learning how to play an instrument – be it the banjo or anything else – is not so much about age as it is about desire and willingness to commit to the learning process.

Desire is pretty self-explanatory: do you really want to learn this skill? Chances are, if you’re an adult seeking instruction, you have the necessary desire. Willingness, especially for adults, means setting aside or scheduling time every day or every week for practice. It also means to understand and accept that, given the responsibilities of adulthood, it will take as long as it takes to learn to play an instrument. If you maintain a positive attitude and apply some discipline to your practice, you can learn to play the banjo or any other instrument with great satisfaction. You just need to commit to enjoying each stage of development and understand that you don’t have the freedom of time and the freedom from responsibility to learn as quickly as children.

We tend to think that because children learn an instrument quickly, we as adults don’t have the same ability to learn as we get older. Perhaps, but then again, children don’t have to work long hours, take care of a family or a spouse, and carry the typical adult burdens like paying rent, maintaining a car, and attending to the needs of others.

Of course, our bodies change as we age, but anyone who isn’t dealing with severely injured hands, backs – or whatever – can learn to play an instrument and get a lot of satisfaction doing it. Will you achieve mastery and play like some of the great instrumentalists you admire? That’s harder to predict – but then do you golf, bowl, ride a bike, or sing in your church choir like a world champion? Why diminish your enjoyment with such grand expectations? You participate in your hobbies and activities because of the soul-satisfying joy that comes from developing yourself and doing something you love.

If you (or someone you know) would like to play a new instrument but doubt that you can, try this.

  • Go to your local music store and rent a an instrument, or borrow one a one from friend.
  • Get a beginner video session or search YouTube for some lessons and tutorials. I you’re interested in banjo, get Deering Banjo’s Deering Two Finger Method DVD.
  • Play your instrument as often as you can, whatever your age or occupation. Remember that champion golfers, world-famous chefs, and great orators have developed and refined their natural gifts by gradually building skills through years of daily training and repetition. I enjoy riding a bike, but Lance Armstrong will always leave me in the dust. I like playing golf, but Dustin Johnson has nothing to fear. I love playing my banjo, but I will never play as well as Steve Martin, Bela Fleck, Jens Kruger, Tony Trischka, or Mark Johnson. Does that mean I can’t love doing these activities? Of course not.

Playing an instrument is not a competition, and learning to play is not just for the young. Most importantly, playing music is not just for professionals, it is for each and every one of us. It’s a fulfilling, personal canvas for expression. Don’t let the number that is your age stop you… go for it! It’s never too late to learn to play an instrument.

This post originally appeared on the Deering Banjos blog. Reprinted with permission.

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