Ask the Expert

Is it ever too late to learn an instrument? If not, what’s the best way to do it?

Composer John McDonald, professor and chair of the Department of Music, offers his advice
December 17, 2013


As a composer and pianist, when I’m asked to write something for a new instrument, I enjoy the privilege of starting from scratch. So I feel as if I know what it’s like to learn a new instrument as an adult.

Knowledge gained from language acquisition studies suggests that learning an instrument as a mature person isn’t the same as it is in childhood. Regardless, there are so many advantages to studying music in later life—and so many riches to savor from musical experiences—that I would encourage anyone and everyone “of age” with an inclination to start singing or to pick up an instrument.

“I would encourage anyone and everyone ‘of age’ with an inclination to start singing or to pick up an instrument,” says John McDonald. Photo: iStockLast year Jeannette Chechile, who earned her master’s in music composition at Tufts in 1978 and had a career as a music teacher, joined the composition seminar I teach. She had this to say: “It’s never too late, of course. Music adds so much to a person’s life, whether it’s through physical playing, dance movement or writing music. There are myriad feelings that can’t be captured in words that music can address,” she told me. “When I first started teaching piano, I had four psychologists who took lessons as therapy—some never had lessons, some were returns. They loved the time and involvement with music, but not necessarily public performance.”

We both agree that for people who never had a chance to engage with music directly as children, doing it as an adult is a kind of “deferred maintenance.” Most important is finding the right instrument and combination of activities, including being able to practice.

Edith Auner, coordinator of performance and director of outreach activities for the Tufts music department, also says that it is never too late to learn to play an instrument. “All that is required is a good teacher and lots of practice,” she told me.

I recommend these three steps for learning an instrument and engaging with music—no matter what your age:

1. Find an instrument that works for you—something that is “right” for you physically.

2. Engage a simpatico teacher to work with you along your unwalked path.

3. Consider modifying your achievement expectations and initiate relationships with both your new instrument and music written for it on your own terms. Experiment and improvise. Make sound effects. Go for it.

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