There are plenty of advantages to being an adult beginner when it comes to learning how to play musical instruments

BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE SPRING 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE

“Oh, look! There’s that four-year-old kid on YouTube shredding on the uke, playing ‘Body Surfing’ while riding a skateboard. How is that possible?” In my years of teaching ukulele, I’ve heard many a tale of woe about how never in their wildest dreams could the adult ukulele student ever attain the musical prowess of a young whiz. But wait! Don’t let your aging heart be troubled. There are advantages you, as the adult beginner, have over all those hot-shot prepubescents.

Reminisce for a moment over all the music you’ve listened to and enjoyed in your life. Think of it—Elvis, The Beatles, disco, punk, Hank Williams—you’ve listened to tens of thousands of hours of music, while the four-year-old has been alive for just over 35,000 hours. Hands down, you are way ahead in the listening department. So, what other advantages do you, the adult student, possess that younger students don’t?

There is an entire academic field of study dedicated to the adult student, called Adult Learning Theory. Sharan Merriam, a professor of adult education at the University of Georgia, has written extensively on andragogy (an·druh·gaw·gee), the method and practice of teaching adult learners. She notes there are two basic tenets in Adult Learning Theory: self-directed learning and transformational learning.

In self-directed learning, according to Merriam, the adult has an independent self-concept and with maturity, he or she becomes increasingly self-directed. Transformational learning is dependent on adult life experiences and a more mature level of cognitive development than is found in children.

Longtime music educator Peter Luongo easily explains this second tenet of the Adult Learning Theory model: “Kids don’t know what they don’t know and don’t care.” 


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Luongo speaks from experience. For over three decades, he was director of the world-famous Langley Ukulele Ensemble, a group of crackerjack student players from the Langley, British Columbia, school system. In 2016, Luongo turned his attention to creating a group similar to the Langley Ensemble, but this time with older adults. According to Luongo, “Where an adult has the advantage is the ability to reason through things using their rich background of problem-solving. Kids don’t have that history of figuring things out.”

Renowned Canadian music educator and ukulele patriarch J. Chalmers Doane has decades of teaching experience with children. He has also taught music to scores of adults, including one group of seniors that ranged in age from 88 to 92. When it comes to teaching adults or children, Doane says, “With anybody, I try to build on what they already know. For example, the three-year-olds in my violin classes don’t have many tunes in their heads, but I build on what they know. Take a tune like ‘Hot Cross Buns.’ I would teach that to a 70-year-old student, as well as my three-year-olds.” 

Doane also points out that the main advantage in favor of adult students is their life experience. “The difference between a seven-year-old and a 70-year-old is their experience,” he says. “So, you ask questions: Can you play anything? Can you sing anything? Have you ever clapped a rhythm? If you don’t find out where they are, you end up doing what so many music teachers do—they come in with their lesson plan, and they do their thing. But it isn’t necessarily relevant to the student’s experience. Some don’t know what the teacher is talking about, and others have done that before.”

Analyzing the skill sets that children and adults possess is the first step in developing a successful teaching curriculum for both age groups. However, the life experience aspect of adult students can come back to bite them. Luongo provides an example: “When you give a group of kids an exercise in syncopation, either with claps or with finger-snaps, they say ‘OK.’ They don’t realize the complexity of it, they just do it. On the other hand, adults will first say, ‘I can’t do that because it sounds too complicated.’ Overcoming that attitude is part of the strategy of showing the adult they can indeed do it.” Luongo combats the “can’t do” attitude of some adult learners through cognitive exercise. “What I’ll do to teach syncopation to adults is have them get up and march around the room in time. Then, I’ll have them clap a syncopated rhythm. As soon as they feel where the beat falls against the rhythm, it’s no longer simply a concept in their head.”

There is no shortage of adults wanting to take music lessons. Luongo cites a recent article that stated that 70 percent of North American adults wished they had taken music lessons as a child. (Only 17 percent are currently enrolled in music lessons.) Other advantages that many adult students have over their younger counterparts are time and money. Many adult ukulele students come to the instrument near or after retirement.

One final advantage the adult music student may have is their intense desire to be able to play an instrument. Says Luongo, “What’s unique and exciting about today’s adult learner, the ones that I am fortunate enough to work with, is that they truly want to be studying music with the ukulele.”

book cover for ukulele basics – chords and harmony

Ukulele Basics: Chords and Harmony is a collection of six easy-to-follow but in-depth lessons on the basics of chords and harmony. Instructors and Ukulele magazine contributors Jim D’Ville and Fred Sokolow, as well as the great composer/player Daniel Ho, will guide you through easy chord variations, harnessing the power of certain chords, demystifying the famous Circle of 5ths, and understanding moveable chord shapes.