The Adult Learner

By Dr John H Holcombe

Are you an adult learner? Have you ever wondered why it takes you such a relatively long time to learn a new tune, or to get an embellishment just right?

On the other hand, do you wonder how kids who are nine or ten years old grasp the elements of piping so quickly? What makes such a difference in our ability to learn? As an adult learner, I’ve given this subject a lot of thought, and would like to share some ideas.

Although the world’s greatest pipers all start playing somewhere around the age of seven to ten years, it is interesting that adult learners seem to make up the bulk of beginner pipers, with a good number of folks in their 30s and 40s and even older. In fact, I was the ripe age of 55 years when I first picked up a practice chanter and a CD from the College of Piping. While I had always loved the sound of the bagpipes, I had never before played any musical instrument (the 5-string banjo in high school notwithstanding). Worse, I could read not a single note of music, nor did I have any sense of rhythm. When I first learned the scale on the chanter, for example, it was impossible to tap a foot and change notes at the same time.

But now, more than a decade later, I continue to make steady progress with all aspects of my piping. I am a longtime member of Dojo University, and attend Piping Hot Summer Drummer each July, the well-known and longstanding piping, drumming and Highland dancing school. I have even taught the fundamentals of piping to a handful of adults, and now have a couple of regular students, one of whom is a skyrocketing teenager who has been on the pipes for only one year. As a result of helping others to learn, I have spent considerable time thinking about my own learning process and contemplating how people at different ages acquire knowledge and skills so differently and at such different speeds.

To begin, I believe that most adults have little, if any, concept of what will be required to become a good piper. For me, I naively assumed that it would be “easy”, perhaps because I saw so many adults playing the pipes. Wow, was I wrong! Thus, unrealistic expectations are likely there at the outset for many of us. With the already busy and tumultuous lives we adults live, taking up what many consider to be the most difficult musical instrument in the world is a weighty challenge, indeed. But as adults, we have had successful careers, sometimes at the top of our fields, so why should piping be any different for us? For such folks, I often ask the question, “Other than bagpipes, what if you had chosen to learn the violin, oboe or piano, instead? How long do you think it would take you to get really 'good' on that instrument?” Suddenly, the road ahead doesn’t seem so easy, but if the path forward is clearly laid out with some good planning, success can and will be achieved.

Adults tend to overthink, and often fear making mistakes, especially in front of others. But with few or no inhibitions, younger folks are eager to try new things. They might even get so engrossed with piping that they play the chanter at the expense of their homework, whereas adults often make excuses to leave the chanter on the desk. I’ve observed that seeing some actual success tends to make one want to practice more. (It’s funny how that works, eh?)

I have also noticed that among my friends who took up piping as a child, but got away from it for many years, when they return there are certain skill sets still in place. It’s as if they have the ability to take up right where they left off. The muscle memory from early learning is so well ingrained that it can be called upon later, something akin to opening a file cabinet and pulling out the old “piping skills folder”. That said, though, there is always something to learn or improve. Even the top players in the world continue on the journey toward elusive “perfection”.

But for the rest of us, good instruction coupled with perseverance—some call it grit—along with regular and efficient practice sessions lead to steady improvement. So, why do so many adult learners give up? In my view, early on it has to do with lack of visible progress, which in turn is surely due to lack of practice. Even a few minutes of practice each day is more important than an hour long practice only once a week.

Motivated youngsters absorb music quickly, often learning “by ear”. Their growing brains are more likely to grab onto and play something after hearing it only a few times. Perhaps the playing isn’t perfect at first, but with some practice, the young folks can get it right faster than adults. Besides, young folks don’t seem to like to spend much time on theory. Adults, on the other hand, take a more cautious approach. We like to learn from written music, and to take our time and think about what we’re supposed to do next. But at the same time, we seem to feel pressure to succeed quickly. As a result, adults tend to play too fast, totally out of rhythm, and thus, beyond our capability. I have also noticed that in a group setting, many adult learners are not keen to “play around the table”. Perhaps this reluctance is due to “nerves”, fear of making a mistake or from general embarrassment, but listening to others make mistakes and learning from them is an important habit to master. Like any skill, piping takes time and patience. One of the many truths about piping is the following: “If you can’t play something slowly and correctly, then you will never be able to play it faster.” In my view, for adult learners the shortest path to success and enjoyment on the pipes is patience.

Another undeniable fact is that adults have lost at least some finger dexterity, whereas younger folks seem to have lightning fast fingers and amazingly flexible joints. Accept the fact that we adults will never be as "fast" as the kids/teenagers, but also know that adult learners can still do quite well, even in solo piping competitions. Good finger and joint stretching exercises to overcome a little of the inflexibility.

From my experience, the following points are keys to success, especially for adult learners:

1. Listen to pipe music often, particularly soloists.
2. Get superb instruction.
3. Prioritize your piping along with all your other responsibilities.
4. Practice often, even if for only 10 to 15 minutes.
5. Record yourself, and listen so you’ll get an idea of what’s right, and what’s wrong. Write the date on the recording and listen to it again in six months. You will be amazed at your improvement.
6. Have a practice plan, which allows for most efficient learning.
7. Persevere. Find an excuse to practice, not an excuse to do something else.
8. Never stop learning. Become a member of Dojo University. Consider attending a piping school.
9. Be patient. Success will follow. It is really fun to see your own improvement. Look back from time to time and be proud of what you’ve accomplished.

If you're new to Dojo University, make sure you check out the Courses page to find some fantastic ways to build your knowledge and skill as you keep those neurons firing.

And if you're not yet a student, where have you been?! Sign up today to join our thousands-strong global community of pipers – we'd love to welcome you to get started.

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  1. As an older adult learner myself, I found this article by Dr John H Holcombe very interesting and encouraging. I accept there are serveral age-related obstacles to overcome, and I am absolutely sure Dojo University will help me make progress with these. I also feel there are some positives in learning as an adult - I have fewer demands on my time, I have a good idea of what music interests me, and I've amassed a few life lessons over time which will hopefully give me a measure of resilience in meeting some of the challenges of the great highland bagpipe. Lastley, I thnik its wonderful to be ibnvolved in an activity in which so many youg people are involved!