Dora La Cordobesa (1925) by Romero de Torres. Private Collection. Photo by Getty
It’s never too late to play an instrument or learn to sing. Take the leap from listener to maker in the way that suits you
by Gayla M Mills + BIO
Dora La Cordobesa (1925) by Romero de Torres. Private Collection. Photo by Getty
If you’ve ever moved to a beat, joined in a chorus or felt your heart quicken to the lyrics of a song, you’ve felt the power of music. That power runs deep in the human experience, and the urge to dive fully into the sounds, to make those sounds and share them, is strong.
Like millions who’ve learned to play or sing as an adult, I had no idea that music would become so important to me. As a teen I enjoyed playing guitar and singing, and in college I took a few bass lessons. I married a singer/songwriter who had gigged in his youth. But it wasn’t until we’d settled into our middle years that I returned to music. Now I struggle to imagine my life without it. If I could learn music as an adult – with little innate talent or musical upbringing – surely anyone can.
Most of us had musical experiences as children, whether it was singing during religious services, taking lessons that our parents supervised, or attending music clubs in school. But playing music as an adult is different. We have pressing obligations, no supervising parents and fewer opportunities thrust upon us. We have to choose to do more with music, and then we have to make time for it.
Those who have the desire to play often fear that they waited too long, that learning music as an adult is just too hard. But it’s never too late. I’ve spoken with people of all ages who have chosen music and are prospering with it. As adults, we have learned how to learn, we value what music has to offer, and we have the patience to watch our abilities and joys compound with time. We might not learn to play as quickly as a teenager would, but we can play with feeling and nuance, and deeply appreciate those we play with.
If you’ve tried an instrument and struggled to keep up with it, if someone has made fun of your voice, if life’s demands stripped you of free time, then you might be reluctant to dive in. But this moment can be different as you explore new methods and discover what works for you. Because it’s not a question of if but how. Everyone can make music.
The benefits of music
Music brings us joy. But what else can it do? It can relax us, offer us solace, and give us a creative outlet. It can deepen our emotional experience, sharpen our hearing, and produce changes in our nervous systems that create a natural high. We’re able to enjoy tapping our feet to a beat because music fires up our neural systems through entrainment – the synchronisation of one’s own rhythms to an external musical rhythm. Listening to music, playing, singing or dancing intensely engage our brains and our emotions. Beyond making us feel good in the moment, research suggests, music can also help us lead more satisfying lives as we age.
Playing music together strengthens social bonds, for music is, by its nature, social. Like many people, I’ve been moved by music while watching a rock concert, listening intently to the crescendo of a classical performance, or following a big-screen drama enhanced by its score. But even more intimate and memorable is playing a song with others, improvising a solo or holding down the rhythm, and adding a harmony to someone’s melody. These moments have brought me closer to people in a way I’d never have experienced without music.
Similarly, Kelly Trojan, a truck driver who spends hours singing along to CDs while on the road, told me that playing music with her band gives her ‘somewhere to belong, a social group, and some focus other than the daily humdrum’.
You can find your own way to make music
Whether you approach music as a child would a playground, as a mathematician would a proof, as a painter would a canvas, or as an athlete would spring training, you can find satisfaction in your pursuit. This Guide will help you take the first steps as you choose an instrument, learn how to practise, find ways to play with others, and develop techniques to keep moving forward.
When I started my current musical journey more than 15 years ago, I had no idea where music would take me. I didn’t know that I’d learn to sing in tune, that I’d leave jams energised rather than terrified, that I’d form lasting musical friendships with so many people in so many places. I didn’t know that my husband and I would be working on our fourth album, that we’d get to gig in New Zealand, attend music camps as students and as teachers, and play for couples walking down the aisle.
There isn’t one path with music. Some learn to play chords or melodies to videos, discover the pleasures of noodling, or spend less time watching TV and more time thinking about songs. Some join a choir. Some develop the sounds in their heads and write music to share. Some record their band and create a legacy that others cherish. And some nurture a music community when they volunteer at music halls, learn to DJ at radio stations, host concerts at their homes, or start jam groups at senior centres or bars.
Who knows where music might take you? Like all of us, you have music in your genes and in your head. Now you just need to take the next step toward music and follow the path where it leads you.
Choose an instrument
Finding an instrument that feels right is your first step. Whether or not you’ve played one in the past, this is a good time to consider what suits you now.
One approach is to follow your feelings. What instruments move you? Which ones draw you in when you’re listening to music? I started with guitar because our family had one. But when I held a bass fiddle (or double bass) and felt the vibration and tone of those low notes, my heart beat a little faster. That excitement outweighed the drawbacks of an instrument that was twice my size and dictated the dimensions of my car forever more. If you still haven’t felt that ‘aha’ moment, open your eyes and ears to the instruments you encounter and see if one moves you more than the others.
A second method is pragmatic: what can you learn more easily or more quickly? Do your hands, lungs or ears constrain your options? Does your wallet? For many, getting quick results, measured in months rather than years, matters most. In the acoustic world, some instruments yield pleasing results in less time: the ukulele, the drum, the dulcimer, the autoharp, the harmonica. Electric instruments (such as the electric guitar) can be easier on the hands. Electronic instruments, such as synthesisers and drum machines, offer versatility and a quicker means of getting sounds from your head out into the world.
A third approach asks you to consider who you might be playing with, and what role you want to take on. Do you see yourself in an orchestra, a jazz band, a folk duo, a rock group, a choir? Do you want to shine in the limelight, taking solos and basking in that glow, or do you want to support others in the group? Instruments lend themselves to some roles and genres more than others. ‘Often people think of an instrument as a standalone object. But they really should think of it as part of an ensemble,’ says Scott Walter, a community orchestra conductor. ‘They should think about the character of it, what its voice represents in that group.’
Singers have other choices to make. Their body is their instrument, intimate and unique. Your voice will change with time, and how it changes is partly up to you. With the help of a voice teacher, choir director or experienced friend, you can find your voice and develop it. Then you can explore how best to share it. Many people begin with singing, then learn an instrument to accompany their voices. Others play an instrument and realise they can learn to sing along with it.
Still uncertain about what to do? Talk to amateur and professional musicians. Read music blogs. Visit a music store. Listen to live music. Attend a music jam, where you can see how people at different skill levels play informally and improvise together. Experience instruments in different settings to open your eyes to new possibilities. And if you try one instrument and it doesn’t suit you, don’t give up. Consider it an adventure that can guide you to the next instrument, the one you’ll come to love best.
Set goals for yourself
When working on music, it helps to set specific and realistic goals. A short-term goal is something you might accomplish over days or weeks. You could learn to play one chord or scale, learn the lyrics to one song, or get started on one technique. A medium-term goal might be achieved in months. You could take private or group lessons, develop calluses and muscles to extend your practice time, learn to sing in tune, expand your repertoire, or explore a new musical genre. A long-term goal is measured in years. You might aim to play comfortably with others, learn to read music or play by ear, form a band, perform in public, or record your music.
If you’re just starting out, you might find it helpful to keep your goals simple and modest, focusing on what can be achieved within the next few months. Once you’ve chosen an instrument and started learning how to play it, you’ll have a better idea of what direction you’re heading in. Then it will be easier to set practice goals and create a long-term vision.
As with other goals we pursue, our musical ambitions can change as we mature. A 20-year-old might hope to make a career with music or to hit it big. A 40-year-old with work deadlines and kitchen duty might be pleased to carve out a few hours a week to play. And a 70-year-old might find that learning new skills and deepening friendships is the richest reward. Your goals can change as you progress with music, too.
Find out how you learn best – and what will keep you going
Do you prefer the privacy of learning in a quiet corner, with no one else listening? Do you like the structure of a class with assignments and deadlines? Do you like the freedom of YouTube instruction? Do you like working with a teacher one on one, and if so, what sort of teacher helps you prosper – someone who’s gently supportive or someone who prods? Someone who is a pro at their instrument or someone who is a mentor and peer? Experiment and see what feels right for you.
Getting a teacher to work with you in person, one on one, is especially helpful at the beginning. They can correct your posture and hand positions and prevent poor habits from taking hold. This isn’t trivial: relearning pick strokes, the best angle at which to hold a bow, or how to breathe is a lot harder to do once a bad habit is ingrained, and it’s easier to learn in person with someone showing you the mechanics. They can help you set goals and suggest practice strategies. And the thought of facing your teacher at the next lesson without having practised could motivate you to dedicate time to it.
Music schools are adding group classes to their offerings, and these can be liberating for people who find one-on-one instruction too intense. Music stores are another place to search for teachers. Sites such as Take Lessons (in the United States), Music Teachers (in the United Kingdom) or Lessons Australia list the cost and availability of teachers, for in-person or online instruction.
Online teachers are now readily accessible for those who face obstacles to working with someone in person. And year-long subscriptions to mass video lessons, audio files and other materials offer a wealth of targeted information and individual feedback from working musicians.
If you have self-discipline and can stay motivated without structure or deadlines, YouTube videos can take you far. You could spend a lifetime exploring online resources for singing, writing songs, playing instruments, and synthesising music. You can learn techniques for your instrument, find millions of songs, practise to them at ½ or ¾ speed (on YouTube videos or with music files), and listen deeply to as much music as you can.
Get the most out of your practice
After a few weeks of practising how to hold your hands and arms or how to sing a line, you may ask yourself: ‘Isn’t there more to music than this?’ But you’re just like a toddler taking her first steps, not realising that one day those legs will take her anywhere she wants to go.
So pace yourself. Plan to practise as much as you realistically can, whether it’s 15 minutes each evening or several short sessions in a day. Work your way up to longer practices, which will be easier when you’ve developed calluses or muscle strength, and can work on a wider variety of skills. In the meantime, you can alternate sessions in which you practise intently with sessions of listening to music you love or playing songs that make you feel good.
There are many learning resources focused on how to practise, with some centred on a mental approach and others on a specific instrument, so find one that suits you. But here are a few basics to get you going:
Find others to play with
When we’re new to an instrument and fumbling to make satisfying sounds, it’s more comfortable to make them in private. But some teachers argue that playing with others early is the key to learning and to sticking with it. Why? Because you’ll learn what you need to work on, experience moments of connection that keep you going, meet people who can help you, as well as getting inspired and avoiding the rut that can come from exclusively playing by yourself.
‘Find someone to encourage you, someone who’s into music who can be a helper,’ says Mary Caraher, a fiddler, singer and retired computer scientist. ‘I have seen five other women bloom with their joy of music, and they were doing nothing before that. It was because they met someone who encouraged them.’
Resources for finding others abound. Music stores and centres commonly offer group classes that focus on different instruments and genres. Community orchestras often cultivate newcomers. Many churches, synagogues and other places of worship bring their congregants together with music and welcome members to sing, chant or play instruments during services. You can find local jams in both rural and urban areas through online platforms like Meetup, and it’s easy to play quietly at the beginning as you learn how to play by ear. Adult music camps offer intensive weeks when newcomers can learn from seasoned musicians – and each other – at an idyllic musical getaway. Go out with some friends and listen to musical performances, too – you can learn while you’re doing it.
You might need courage to get out of the basement and play those early notes in front of others. It’s not easy to reveal to a group that you don’t know the songs they do, can’t play the chords or melody fast enough, or haven’t attained myriad other musical skills. As adults, we’ve gotten pretty good at what we do, and it’s easier to hide what we don’t know. But the world is full of millions of people in the same boat who want a chance to learn more, share what they’ve learned so far, and make music with others. You can find a supportive community to play with and, as you become the experienced musician, you can help the next person along.
Why you should consider music camp
Rather than spending your vacation at the beach, why not try a week with music? I went to my first music camp thinking it would be like school, but I discovered it was more like summer camp for grownups who love music. Yes, you’ll be taking classes in whatever you fancy, whether it’s learning your instrument as a beginner, understanding music theory or learning new songs step by step. But you’re really there to share music and to get energised while doing it. Camps offer different genres, levels and learning styles, whether the focus is on jazz, folk, roots, bluegrass, orchestra, rock, singing, songwriting or other subjects. But no matter which camp you attend, you’ll be offered camaraderie, meals, late-night jams, concerts, inspiring teachers who might be the best in their genre, and a big boost of musical adrenaline.
Which camp should you choose? Begin by searching online by location, music genre, and ‘adult music camp’. Which ones call to you? Classes might be held outdoors, hosted on a college campus, or connected to a music festival. You could learn in a small group with one teacher, or attend a camp with hundreds and have several teachers during the week. Costs vary greatly, depending on the quality of food (which can range from cafeteria to gourmet), the lodging (from camping to dormitory to posh), the length of camp, and the cost of living in that country. A few camps cater to families, with classes for all ages or activities such as hiking or dancing. Most camps provide a list of what to bring and how to prepare. With hundreds of camps around the world, it’s not hard to find your niche.
What you gain from jamming
Jams come in different varieties: informal or structured, instrumental or song-focused, improvisational or tradition-bound. Though ‘jam sessions’ received their name from jazz improvisations in the 1920s, since then jams have earned a place in old-time, rock, folk, blues, bluegrass, drum circles and song circles. People go to jams to have fun and to stretch themselves musically, often bringing a few songs to share and a readiness to learn new ones.
When I first watched people jamming at a party or a bar, what they did seemed magical. How were they playing along on new songs as a group, taking turns, adding their harmonies or solos, and making it all come together without having rehearsed it ahead of time? When I finally gained the courage to join in, I struggled to keep up, and I sang so quietly that no one could hear me. But now I enjoy jams and don’t fret too much about my inevitable mistakes. I’ve learned that it’s not about what I’ve played, but rather the overall vibe of the group. That vibe can feel transcendent.
‘When you learn a tune, you’re focused on the notes,’ says John Simmons, a banjo player. ‘But the first time you play that song in a jam, you forget about your hands, your daily life – you’re just kind of in a euphoric state.’
Want to give it a try? You can pick up basic jamming skills quickly – such as learning the body signals of the leader, listening for chord changes, maintaining the rhythm, and following the guitar player’s chords. You don’t need to read music or understand music theory to play, and you can play softly to the side until you’re ready to contribute. Those who are more experienced are often accepting of mistakes and ready to help newcomers.
Playing with a handful of friends, in a group class, at a music camp, or at a jam can become the high point of your week. It will also teach you the essentials of music, from listening carefully to what others are playing to learning how to improvise. It’ll push you out of the comfortable and controlled space of your living room and into a space where you can really soar.
Then you’ll realise that you’re doing it. You’re making music.
My book Making Music for Life: Rediscover Your Musical Passion (2019) is a practical guide with further information on how to learn and practise, why you should play with others, and how you can find others to play with. It also explores singing, performing, recording, ageing with music, and ways to build a music community. Although it can help musicians of any age, it’s tailored to those in the second half of life.
The online magazine Making Music offers free, practical information for beginners and seasoned musicians alike, including how-tos, features, health tips and more.
In the article ‘Learn from the Best: Plan Your Summer Camp Getaway’ (2017), Acoustic Guitar magazine offers insights on how to prepare for a music camp experience and provides a list of various camps, workshops and clinics worldwide.
In his book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (2006), the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explores why music is so important to us as individuals, and to our species.
The book The Inner Game of Music (1986) by Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey considers ways to overcome setbacks and get more from music, including ensemble playing, improvisation and composition.