Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Adult Beginner - Is it all about Talent?

Last night I did some fascinating reading about teaching older students. I had been questioning my views on teaching older adult novice flutists. Below are some quotes and some interesting avenues of discovery.
Comments are welcome!

Quote: from Unleashing Talent by Ricardo Iznaola

The Myth of Innate Talent

TRADITIONAL musical pedagogy is still tainted by the conventional wisdom which teaches us that musical talent is an innate ‘gift’ with which a few privileged people are blessed, and that its presence or absence is not necessarily related to a vocational calling, which may exist in the ‘untalented’ individual. This deleterious viewpoint shuts the door to the riches of musical training to untold numbers of people who never give themselves a chance to pursue their musical dreams, in the belief that they were born without a talent for music.

The belief in ‘innate talent’ is also a convenient expedient to excuse pedagogical failure; indeed, how can we blame a method or a teacher for the difficulties encountered by this or that ‘not very talented’ individual, poor soul, full of desire and enthusiasm but ‘not gifted’? This pedagogy of predestination has to be counteracted energetically and without compromise.
Traditional musical pedagogy must follow the lead of the great early childhood training methods (like those of Orff or Suzuki) and ground itself on the premise that everyone who shows a strong desire to ‘do’ music has a talent for it. This is the only truly disinterested pedagogical posture because it places the burden of responsibility where it properly belongs – with the teacher, instead of the learner.
We, as pedagogues, must come to believe in talent as a function of method.

The Adult Beginner
The success of early childhood musical pedagogies lies in their assumption of a universal musical capacity in children not dissimilar to that which allows them to learn their mother tongue by rote, through imitation, playfulness, trial and error, etc. This success gives credence to modern 'generative’ theories of music which assume similar mental structures for music as Chomskian linguistics speculate may exist for language.

Be that as it may, these pedagogies deal with a stage in the development of human beings when the spiritual ‘slate’ is cleaner, less burdened, than in older individuals, who carry a heavier emotional and intellectual load. Our main interest, pedagogically, lies with the musical training of the latter.

Post-adolescent musical pedagogy is notoriously deficient in handling the challenge presented by the ‘passionate adult beginner’: what to do for those students intensely in love with music but possessing little or no training, who usually bring with them deeply ingrained convictions about their lack of talent, their being too old, too physically badly coordinated, their lack of aural ability and other such negative self-concepts. Where to begin? What goals can we realistically expect to achieve? How far can they go?

There is no denying that the passing of time does have a deteriorating effect on the human body, with joints becoming more stiff, reflexes slower, stamina and endurance lessened. These effects of ageing, however, are not strong enough to produce noticeable malfunctions usually until well past middle-age and are practically irrelevant in most normal adults until the sixth or seventh decade of life. Even more, some radical medical thinkers are now disputing the unavoidability of old age’s dereliction and are beginning to offer alternative viewpoints of far-reaching implications.

Of even less consequence is the effect of age on mental/spiritual capacities, except in cases which are pathological in nature. We can keep fully functional intellectual and emotional capabilities for most of our life. We must then conclude that much more important than the obstacles imposed on us by physiology or the passing of time are those created by our psyche, by our self-concept, by our relationship with authority figures, etc. In short, by the world surrounding us, and our interpretations of it.

The sad fact is that, in most cases, the students of whom we speak will never experience the full realization of their true potential because their real needs will never be addressed or even recognized. Their own self-concepts (and our implicit assumptions as their teachers), will deny them that right. The negative expectations about their lack of success will become self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating and, in our faculty lounges, we will look at each other with a knowing wink as if saying, ‘See? I told you so.’

For those of us involved in academia, this scenario is a familiar one (and who among us can claim innocence?): the distinguished master, talking about his ‘star pupil’, with glittering eyes, hushed enthusiasm in the voice, pride in the accomplishment of the pedagogical mission...or talking about ‘that other student’, eyebrows raised in disgusted surprise, a sneer, and a dismissive shrug.

How commonplace and how terribly unfair! Surely ‘that other student’ is more a victim of who knows what complex circumstances than of a cruel fate that has deprived this pupil of ‘talent’.
If only the illustrious and no doubt well-intentioned master would take the time to educate (bring out) rather than instruct (pile upon). If only the teacher could empathise rather than criticise and could become an ally instead of a judge…

Seen in this light it becomes evident that a primordial pedagogical responsibility remains in the discovery or, more precisely, uncovering of hidden talent. For diverse reasons, many people have their talents buried under layers and layers of emotional debris. These are the people we consider untalented (as they themselves do). The talented are those who have managed to maintain unimpeded access to their talent: those souls who are relatively free from the burdens that scourge the human spirit.

In particular this pedagogy avoids:

•the overbearing authority of historical traditions, which may easily lead to dogma and rigidity. This is the greatest enemy of intellectual freedom.

•critical statements which express, explicitly or implicitly, moralising value judgements. This is the greatest enemy of emotional freedom.

•standardised or formulaic procedural approaches to technique which constrain the playing mechanism by their narrow and unimaginative perspectives on the issues of technical control and security. This is the greatest enemy of physical freedom.

Instead this pedagogy searches for:
•tangible evidence demonstrating the existence of connecting, integrative principles whose applicability is based on contextual interpretation rather than pseudo-apodictic certainty.

•ways to stimulate the student’s discovery and identification of problem areas that are viewed as opportunities for learning and progress rather than as reasons for condemnation or derision.

•the fitting application of functional movement, and its related sensory feedback, to each individual circumstance presented by the ever-changing technical procedures contained in the work under study.

Read the full articles at these links:

The Adult Beginner - Is it all about Talent?

Jen continues:I wonder if some of the physical tensions that adult novice flutists can present with would be helped by The Feldenkrais method? So I spent a little time researching that as well. Here are some interesting avenues of thought:

Unlearning tension and increasing "feel" article by Feldenkrais

Working with an older musician (brief article about uses of Feldenkrais with a 70 yr. old composer/pianist with neck and back pain from posture habits).

Book excerpt from: Awareness Through Movement by Feldenkrais

Video of Moshe Feldenkrais working with stiff necked person (from whiplash).

ATM Feldenkrais floor work on video

And all levels of musicians may want to read about:

Quote from Feldenkrais use in the performing arts.

This refers to accomplished musicians who may find that they currently play with emotional/physical stress:

Working with a Berklee Saxophonist:
A saxophone player once came to me suffering through arm, shoulder and back pain. He was familiar with the Feldenkrais Method because he had taken the group classes, called Awareness Through Movement, during his college music training. His practices were becoming more and more troublesome and he found he needed to inhibit certain movements in order to make it through a performance. Technically, he had mastered his instrument. His level of virtuosity was quite apparent. Yet, he was physically uncomfortable. This same virtuosity, as well as his livelihood, was being threatened by his current condition.

In the beginning of one of our first lessons, I asked him (an accomplished saxophonist) to play a few musical passages that were: a.) easy and comfortable, b.) difficult and required significant effort, and c.) poignant and full of emotion. Observing him play, I noticed a great attention to the music, but considerably less attention to himself. The musical notes were the foreground, and his body a distant background. I noticed there was little acknowledgment of the ground through his feet. His difficulty manifested itself in back and shoulder pain. His eyes were strongly tensed and his head position forward, as if he were trying to reach the musical notes on an imaginary music stand. His habitual tensions were forming the quality of tone, effort and expression in his playing. Read more....

I hope to explore more of this topic in the future, and try out Feldenkrais for myself and report back. As a flute teacher, I find that the ease and balance of the physique is critical to the freeing of the emotion and learning of an instrument in a student. Who knows? It could increase the perception of "talent".

Please do comment if you have interesting ideas on the above cornucopia of information about freeing talent, freeing the body and freeing the musician.
Comments (17)
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have found many of the above statements to be true. Over the course of my 13 year study of the flute, I have concluded that most, if not all, of the problems with my playing were, as you say, a result of years of emotional debris. Given the right teacher (who discouraged my attempts to sabotage myself and worked to find ways of getting me to my full potential) I improved tremendously. Although these obstacles were mostly psychological, getting rid of them did not required a psychiatrist. All I really needed was a superb flute teacher to guide and direct me towards my strengths rather than allowing me to dwell on my imaginary weaknesses.

Thursday, November 12, 2009 9:03:00 PM

Blogger Anna Gryszkiewicz said...

So interesting! I'm an adult beginner myself and there are mainly two things that are helping me, I think.

Firstly, I've had such a luck with teachers. I don't know how, but they have helped me to reduce all the different worries about shortcomings, and instead to enjoy and love all the music I play and practice. They keep me occupied with interesting and fun things I can do or learn with some effort. There will always be others who play better or learn something quicker, but there is no reason for me not to happy about when I make someting sound really nice or suddenly manage something that seemed impossible a year ago. It was a relief to realize that.

Secondly there is an orchestra at the music school I go to. This made me realize that I'm not the worst player ever, but that we all have strenghts and weaknesses. And that weaknesses can improve with work. Most importantly is the pure joy when all ten students in the orchestra manage to play togehter and make it sound ok. It's great to feel that you are not the only one who loves the struggles of learning to play an instrument as adult.

Friday, November 13, 2009 1:04:00 AM

Blogger Paula Buermele said...

Thank you for this information. It is very interesting. I was also thinking about this topic recently and wrote in my blog about it. The link to that posting is found at
and it describes how my thinking improved on this subject.

Friday, November 13, 2009 6:12:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

These comments are fascinating. Thanks so much for your input. Great! J.

Friday, November 13, 2009 10:28:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone hoping to win a job not too far in the future, I constantly pick at my playing. I work for perfection. Consequently, I often beat myself down and feel defeated and broken after a grueling practice session. I just walk away and start again later or the following day. I love the music, but I work very hard to get to the point of loving how I perform it. Its a constant emotional roller coaster...and that's not including the burdens life can bring!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009 8:43:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Beating yourself up (mentally) for not being perfect is a very limiting way of working. I know. I've done it for many years.
Read what Klickstein says about the fruitlessness of this method in his book "The Musician's Way". It's linked on my post on Klickstein to a fairly full version on google books. See pages 110-111. Perfectionism diminishes your potential, instead of the hoped for increase. Deep thought.
Best, Jen

Tuesday, November 24, 2009 10:32:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a self-taught adult who came to the flute by way of the piano and the clarinet. The talent issue doesn't bother me any more than it bothered Scottish shepherds playing their wooden flutes up in the hills. I love the flute, I've got music I enjoy playing, and that's good enough for me.

Monday, November 30, 2009 6:17:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about learning to play by ear? I don't know anyone who can do this who did not have childhood musical instruction. Do you think this ability can be learned by an adult picking up their first instrument in adulthood? I'd like to think so but everything I've seen seems to indicate otherwise.

I know this is an old post but I've been wondering about this for a long time and would love to know your opinion.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011 2:54:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Anonymous,
My feeling about "playing by ear" is that it opens one door, and closes another.
If you don't read music, and you want to AVOID learning to read music and learn by ear instead, then you are limited, because reading music is so much easier than spending hours and hours memorizing how to play by ear.

If you read music well, then playing by ear is an added bonus, because it allows you to play whatever music you're listening to, even though you don't have the sheetmusic. So it's a bonus.

But to deliberately avoid learning to read music and to insist only on "playing by ear" is limiting, since hundreds of hours of really fun music is just sitting there, waiting to be read.

So I would learn both, but with the emphasis on the reading first.
Then you can move ahead faster on the flute because you can play all kinds of sheetmusic from solos to duets to orchestral; the world of music is at your fingertips.

The only student I've taught who learns entirely by ear is visually blind. And it takes five times longer to learn each piece, because she can't just read it "aloud" as we read words in a book(even though this particular blind student has perfect pitch and can pick out the notes immediately, she still has to record band rehearsals and go through the recording minute by minute.)

So learn to read music unless you cannot, and if you have dyslexia or any other problem with reading music, that will be discovered and assisted.

Then for fun, play by ear all you like.
Hope this helps,
Best, Jen

Wednesday, July 27, 2011 9:27:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Beginning flutists only have to learn to read two or three notes: B, A and G, at first.
If you can read those three, then the world of written music has begun for you.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011 9:51:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Dyslexic music reading advice here:

Best, Jen

Wednesday, July 27, 2011 9:57:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Jen,

I didn't mean in place of reading music at all. Just as its own skill on its own. (I can read music okay, by the way.)

Sounds like from what your wrote you believe an adult can develop that skill even with no previous background with music instruction?

I long to develop this skill as I feel it's important to be able to hear music and be able to figure out what's going on by listening and want to have that kind of independence musically and not always have to rely on help or written music. Some even say it's what separates a music player from an actual musician. Whether that's true or not, it's definitely something I'd love to be able to learn in my musical development.

I have wondered if I can develop this ability at this stage in life.

And by the way I'm not a flute player but am an adult beginner learning my first instrument (guitar) and have thought about this topic a lot so I found the post really resonated with me. Thanks!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011 7:01:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Thanks for the clarification!
I think we're all infinitely capable, and that the feeling of being part of the flow of human music is one of the most valuable things on earth. There's no downside to just leaping into the great sea of music! Listening and joining in is key. Best and thanks for the thought provoking-ness-factor. Jen :>)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011 7:04:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The feeling of being part of the flow of human music is one of the most valuable things on earth."

Ain't that the truth! Perfectly said. Thanks for your response, Jen!

Thursday, July 28, 2011 4:38:00 PM

Blogger katsywei said...

Thanks for this Jen, I'm only just now finding this, and will go and read all the articles.

I know this is old, but just in case someone looks at this again, here's my take on learning to play by ear:

First, there is a group of educators here in Finland that start all their students without notes (check 'color strings or color keys for more info). I taught at the school where this method was devised, and was asked to help put together the material, but decided against it after a few years, since I feel it's pretty important for flutists to equate the sight and feel of notes early to learn how to read well. But it does seem to work well for string players.

BUT - all my students play by ear, and I see no reason why an adult wouldn't be able to learn. I'm pretty sure any of us who can read this have 'sung by ear', from a very early age (and the myth of 'tone deafness' is pretty much just that - a myth. I can dig up studies, if you like).

So... it's just a matter of understanding a little of what you do when you sing by ear. Easiest way to do that is to learn to solfege (singing by giving each degree of the scale a name or number - 'do re me etc', or '1 2 3'... either works). And - like Jen said, starting on your instrument with just 2 or 3 notes - try playing 'hot crossed buns' - shouldn't be all that difficult! With a bit of practice, you'll get better at it.

Which brings me to what I think is the biggest - if not only - difference between adult and younger beginners - time spent practicing. 'child prodigies' are born into a 'perfect coincidence' of circumstances that give them the opportunity to find an instrument they love, a teacher that loves them, support at home, and a group of friends who share their passion. THAT = loads of time spent practicing, 'cause it's fun.

There are very very few adult beginners that could invest the same amount of time to start as kids do - AND do it with a teacher who understands their unique qualities (it IS hard to get over a lifetime of learned limiting thoughts!!). And even if they do - we have a society that right now is still more interested in a young talent than an older one. I believe - hope - that is changing...

But I strongly believe that anyone at any age can become competent enough on their instrument to provide themselves and an audience with a meaningful musical experience.

Thursday, June 20, 2013 9:04:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Thanks Katsywei for your input on this.
Best, Jen

Thursday, June 20, 2013 9:23:00 AM

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