How To Learn An Instrument As A Grown Up

Inspired by Toyota We've teamed up with Toyota Yaris to build the ultimate guide on how to find The Drive Within You.

Anyone who has ever crammed in another practice of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ before their after-school music lessons will know the terror when faced with a piano as a grown up. Why is it so much harder? What does the note with the dot mean again? Why does the idea of playing in front of someone else make you want make a break for the nearest exit?

Contrary to popular belief, you can learn to play an instrument as an adult and feel awesome about it, whether that involves joining a community gamelan band or relearning an instrument from your past, like the piano.

We speak with piano teacher and musician Josh Cohen from Melbourne’s Josh Cohen School of Music to discuss how to pick up an instrument as an adult – and better yet – stick with it.

Set realistic goals

You know how it goes: as the bathing waters of childhood dry up so does an almost hysterical ability to conquer anything. Create a menagerie of origami animals? Easy. Memorise the runic alphabet? Why not? Pick up the cello in a week? Sure.


“A lot of adults, when they approach an instrument, feel like they should be able to conquer it really quickly – and then find it’s a much bigger beef than what they initially anticipated,” explains Josh, who says half of his students are adults.

Approaching your new instrument “with an open mind, and not expecting the world” is important to making any kind of progress. “Don’t have the expectation that you’re going to nail it straight away – it takes a long time.”

Remember your sense of playfulness

When it comes to music, kids are virtuosos at understanding what it actually means to ‘play’ an instrument.

Josh has noticed that, “Kids play, adults don’t really play… How often does an adult just pick up a pen or pencil and start doodling just for the sake of nothing, to no purpose at all?”

You might be motivated to start learning an instrument for all sorts of reasons, but the best thing you can do is to let go. While your music teacher will obviously adore you for practicing that tricky section of ‘Moonlight Sonata’ a hundred times, it can be reinvigorating to take a break to make up something mindless.

“Just jam on it, have some fun, because for me that’s where music resonates the most. It’s fun to have a purpose, but it’s also fun not to have a purpose and just do something for the sake of doing it,” says Josh.

Embrace the sweet satisfaction

Remember the euphoria of mastering an arpeggio? Executing the perfect drumroll? Memorising a sonata? Nailing a tune or technique is pretty much the same as baking a cake – you know straight away if you’ve pulled it off or not. And the satisfaction is so much sweeter for it.


Image source: HBO, Girls.

On top of that, building music into your life is a great way to ease stress and balance your world. Being fully aware of why you want to learn an instrument in the first place is important to sticking around down the track.

Josh says another big benefit is the social aspect, which isn’t just about showing off your skills to friends and family. While learning an instrument can often be an isolated journey, having the occasional jam with other adults on the same path can be pretty damn rewarding.

“You get some really beautiful moments out of that,” says Josh, referring to the fortnightly performance workshops he runs from his school, which gives students a chance to share their experiences. “Even if they’re at a beginning stage, they can still get up and play, and then have that experience of talking about it and sharing it.”

Build practise into your routine

In the same way you’ll never make ratatouille from your zucchini patch if you don’t water it, forgetting to practise is a great way to let your musical efforts wither and die.

Josh says the best way to keep motivated and make progress is to build practice into your routine. Whether you jam on the strings straight after work or before your porridge, setting a regular time aside will drive you to stick with it.

“A good place to start would be to commit half an hour a day, maybe four to five times a week,” advises Josh.

Before you start your lessons, be realistic about how much time you have to give to the instrument. Too busy? Drop something to free up some space.

Regular practice is the only way you’ll make any progress in your instrument of choice, so sort out your time before taking the leap into the audio realm.

Be willing to learn

Just because you’re winning in every other area of your life doesn’t mean you’re going to become a concert pianist or session musician in a year. Learning an instrument requires leaving your ego at the front door, preferably at the mailbox.


“I have a lot of students that are particularly well-versed in their chosen fields – I’ve got surgeons that have been running hospitals, I’ve got lecturers that are heads of entire departments. So they come with these expectations that they should be able to conquer [learning an instrument].

“You have to remember that just because you’re really good at something else doesn’t mean that you’re going to nail that [too].”

There’s a reason you’re seeking lessons from an experienced music teacher, so drop the attitude and pay attention. Above all, says Josh, “be patient”.

To keep you musically inspired, the Toyota Yaris Hatch features a 6.1″ touch screen that displays artist and track details on FM stations, along with steering wheel controls so you can pump up the volume, change from CD player to radio (and back again), and skip tracks without even taking your hands off the wheel. Find out more, here. Yaris: Find The Drive Within You.

Lead image: Weheartit

Megan Anderson is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and online editor for Going Down Swinging, who spent the last year writing her way around Europe. You can find her on Twitter here.