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Inspiring adult learners

6 years ago

Flautist Elisabeth Hobbs uncovers the pleasure and inspiration of teaching adult students. Guiding adult students through the highs and lows of their musical journey can be one of our most inspiring experiences as teachers. Many instrumental teachers prefer not to take on adults, perhaps (we hope) because their timetable is already filled with eager young musicians. Often, however, it is because they lack confidence in dealing with a different kind of teaching challenge: how to teach, what to teach, and whether or not to cast aside the usual frameworks of assessment can all be of concern when taking on an adult student. After many years of teaching as a flute specialist, I have become a passionate advocate for adult instrumental learning, and working with my many adult students – at all levels of attainment – has hugely enriched my professional life.

A desire for creative expression

Mature students come to the teaching studio with widely varied levels of musical experience; some may be complete novices, while others hope to build on the achievements of their school days. My own students include a retired surgeon who is now happily contemplating Edelweiss from ABRSM’s new Grade 1 syllabus; another who, when not practising for her diploma, holds down a high-level job with an international organisation; and a bee-keeper who insists that we do only Baroque repertoire and brings me honey. What they all have in common, though, is a genuine desire to express themselves creatively through music. Adult learners come through the door driven by their aspirations, and are willing to work towards those goals through the commitment of precious time and hard-earned money. Such a student brings deep motivation to the learning process.

Conquering fears

FlautistOf course, the other side of the equation for adult learners can be a constant awareness of their own perceived inadequacies, creating a tension between aspiration and self-doubt. Successful professionals may have forgotten how to give themselves permission to fail – and need time to relearn that experimentation and failure can be a vital part of the musical journey. Childhood fears and humiliations also often present themselves afresh at the music stand, causing nerves and embarrassment. Conquering those fears in a performance or exam can bring a huge sense of personal satisfaction (and sometimes even tears of release). Similarly, a sense of the encroaching years can lead students to worry that their fingerwork will never be fleet enough; if the teacher approaches the repertoire intelligently, however, it is possible to overcome these concerns. ABRSM’s new books of Flute Exam Pieces are very useful in this respect, providing a pleasing selection of pieces that can be used to tackle musical and technical challenges whether or not an exam is in sight.

Exploring the subject

I also find that adult students are willing, and even eager, to read around subjects like the psychology of performance (The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey is still invaluable here) or bodywork, and recommending books and blogs can be a good way to support a student’s musical progress. Students also benefit enormously from playing with others, perhaps in an amateur ensemble, on short courses or by joining a society for like-minded players.

The value of exams

Many adult students feel they benefit from having their progress benchmarked or appraised by someone other than their teacher, and an exam provides the ideal opportunity for this. Ann Robertson, a mature flute student from Aberdeen, decided to take an exam when she returned to flute playing in her retirement. ‘I only managed Grade 5 at school,’ she says, ‘and decided that I would set the records straight and finally do Grade 8. Why? First of all I wanted to make sure that my scales and arpeggios were firmly under my fingers, as they are the building blocks of everything we play. Secondly, I wanted to put together a programme, perform it, and have someone tell me what they thought. It was one way of making myself practise a piece to a performance level.’ Wisely, Ann also notes that, ‘although the experience was not without stress, isn’t this something that all performers have to learn to deal with?’

The examiner viewpoint

ABRSM examiner Zoë Booth is sensitive to the fact that adult candidates may be suffering from nerves. ‘As examiners we take great care to treat all candidates in the same way, but we also understand that adults may feel more self-conscious or nervous than some younger candidates. Whatever their age, we always do our best to help candidates do their best and we’re rooting for them to do well. ‘There is no need for adults to be embarrassed if they feel shaky or wobbly, as we have seen it all before. No matter what happens, there could be lots of positive attributes an adult's maturity may naturally bring to the performance.’ Adult candidates may also take longer to settle down at the start of their exam, particularly if they feel anxious, and the examiner will ensure there is no undue pressure to get started before they're ready. ‘I like to offer time to try a few notes on their instrument and check the tuning, providing a few valuable moments to adjust to the situation,’ says Zoë, ‘and I always offer the option of taking the aural tests earlier in the exam, to allow some time for the nerves to subside; often, this offer is enough to reassure an adult candidate that the examiner is sympathetic to the situation. ‘As examiners, we have all taken music exams ourselves at some point, so we know that an exam is a significant milestone for each and every candidate. My hope is that every player who chooses to come through the door of the exam room will have an enjoyable experience. At the end of the exam there is usually time to exchange a few friendly words with an adult candidate, knowing what their exam represents, not just in their efforts on the day but in the many hours of musical preparation too.’

Alternatives to exams

Some adult learners feel, however, that the idea of being tested or assessed is at odds with their experience of music as a liberating creative experience or leisure (and pleasure) activity. For such students, and for those who really struggle with nerves, ABRSM’s Performance Assessment provides another opportunity for feedback outside the traditional parameters of an exam. The Performance Assessment allows the student to receive constructive independent evaluation of a programme of their own choosing, without either the fear of failure or the worry about supporting tests. The student has the opportunity to chat to the examiner afterwards and receives detailed written notes immediately. This low-stress option is popular with adult students and can provide a valuable performance goal.

Sharing the journey

I often feel I learn as much from my adults as they do from me: they bring dedication, motivation, and a real love for music. Their life experience and careers have honed their intellects and tastes, given them opinions (not always easy!) and shaped their interests. I like to think of the way I teach adults more as a kind of cooperative coaching, in which we work together to uncover their inner musician. Whatever path or process best suits your adult students, embrace the opportunity to share an exciting musical journey with them.

This article was originally featured in the March 2014 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

Flautist and teacher Elisabeth Hobbs runs specialist courses for adult flute players of all levels. She conducts the Oxfordshire Adult Flute Ensemble and is the editor of PAN, the Journal of the British Flute Society.

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