Why am I researching adult learners? Perhaps the best place to start is to look at what an adult music learner is. The ‘adult’ bit is self-explanatory, except that when we talk about adult music learners we don’t usually include music students in higher education, even if they are over 18. But we might include students who are at university studying a different subject, but taking music lessons as a ‘hobby’. Adult learners include those who are learning an instrument (or singing) from scratch in adulthood. They might play or have played another instrument, or maybe not. It also includes those who have continued to play from childhood, not made a career of music, but continue to learn and develop their playing. A lot of adult learners are ‘re-starters’, having played at school then stopped for some time (anything from a few years to a couple of decades). Some adult learners get lessons from tutors, and some are self-taught. Some are even musicians or music teachers, learning a new instrument – I’ve had attempts at the violin, clarinet and saxophone myself, with varying levels of success!
For the purposes of my research, an adult learner is anyone who defines themselves as such, as that seems to be the easiest way to define such a varied group! But these variations got me thinking – do all adult learners feel the same about learning music? Do they have different approaches to it? Do they share common concerns? What are their aims and priorities? How do they relate to their teachers? How do they feel about exams and performances? Does it make a difference whether they’re a beginner or a re-starter? Do they consider themselves to be ‘musicians’? I don't expect to be able to answer all of these questions in one dissertation, but essentially, I want to find out how adult learners describe their experiences and express their identities. In future posts I’ll explain how I plan to do this!
Why do I want to do this? I teach the flute to a mixture of children and adults (roughly half and half at the moment). Parents enquiring about lessons for a child rarely have any doubt that the child will be able to start learning an instrument. Adults are often uncertain – they have concerns about being ‘too old’, not sure if they can learn something new, worries about going back to something they ‘used to be able to do’. Children are used to learning, to not being able to do something; adults are often less so, and more easily frustrated by the process.
I’ve found that a lot of teaching guidance and materials are aimed at teaching children. Reading around the subject and asking other teachers* I’ve found there’s a range of attitudes to teaching adults from “they are notoriously difficult to teach” to “I much prefer teaching adults”. There has been some research into adults learning music, but much of this focuses on older adults (retirement age and above, when people are traditionally seen as having free leisure time to take up new pursuits). I’ve found there’s often a focus on teacher’s experiences of teaching adults, which is an invaluable resource, but I feel that more could be done looking into the subject from the learners’ point of view. I think that really getting to know what adult music learners think and feel could help to inform how teachers approach teaching them, and how organisations (amateur music groups, professional groups running courses, universities training future teachers, and exam boards) can meet their needs.
*If you’re a teacher and would like to add your thoughts to the discussion, I’ve got a brief online survey open at http://www.sheffieldflute.co.uk/ma-survey.html - please do join in!
Flute player and teacher blogging about playing, learning, teaching and researching music.