By Isabel Struik
If you’re looking to make positive changes in the new year, you’re probably considering the usual suspects: eating better, getting more exercise, learning a new skill, or giving up a bad habit.
Carving out time to learn music as an adult — whether it’s learning to sing or play an instrument — is also a popular choice, and one that consistently makes top 10 lists of New Year’s resolutions. Once you’ve identified what you want to pursue, however, how do you know you’ve chosen the right activity, and how do you ensure long-term success?
An article in The New York Times offers some good advice on how to avoid falling into the reported one-third of resolution-makers who don’t make it past the end of January. It suggests setting SMART goals. The SMART acronym, originally published in 1981 by the journal Management Review, is based on the idea that successful goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
We found that the SMART model applies equally well to learning music, especially after speaking to some of the many adult students and faculty members at the Royal Conservatory School (RCS), our community music school.
Robert Loewen, voice faculty at RCS, observes that adults tend to study based on a deep desire to learn and improve. “Even the simplest skills are seen as an essential aspect of learning,” he says. “My adult students find pleasure in skills acquisition, technical growth, musicianship skills, and enhancing their singing experience. ”
Set a concrete goal for yourself. What instrument would you like to learn? Is there a specific piece you would love to play? Do you prefer playing solo or do you prefer the comfort of a group setting? Hone in on the specific things you’re looking for.
Retired library scientist Louis Mirando, for instance, knew what he wanted from the outset: “All my life I wanted to take piano lessons,” he said. “It was my 55th birthday present to myself.”
As you learn to play or sing, it may be hard to assess your progress or notice if you are improving. Try recording yourself once a month and then compare recordings. You will be surprised at the difference in sound over time.
For retired ballet dancer Patti Milne, the measure of success is how she feels. “Music touches my emotions,” she says. “It’s an emotional experience, not just an exercise.”
Another way to measure your progress is by taking exams, playing in a concert, or auditioning for a band or ensemble. Setting these milestones gives you something to work towards.
As with any skill, you have to start at the beginning and learn the basics. And be realistic: you won’t be playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 after only one year of piano lessons. However, even at the beginner level, you can enjoy dipping into a vast library of performance pieces. And as your playing skills improve, you can look forward to choosing new and more advanced pieces of music.
Almis Ledas, a telecommunications engineer, may not enjoy performing in public but he does like taking exams. “I don’t enjoy performing for others — the exam is much less stressful [for me],” he says.
Once you’ve determined your specific goals, find a teacher or ensemble director who will become your partner in learning so that the experience is fulfilling and meaningful for you.
Marydean Morrison, a member of the piano faculty at the RCS, says of her adult students: “I am a facilitator that helps them meet their goals and expectations, not mine.”
Playing an instrument and knowing how to sing are skills, and skills take time to develop and improve. So if you’ve chosen to study music as an adult, just remember that it’s a long-term investment, but one that will pay dividends over time. And there are ways to reward yourself and celebrate achievement at all stages of your musical journey.
Vaughn Betz, who is a full-time university professor, restarted piano lessons as a beginner 14 years ago. He is now preparing to take a piano exam to earn his Level 7 certificate. He is pleased at his progress, and even more about making music. In his words, he is looking forward to “being able to create something that sounds beautiful, that is moving, done by myself.”
Think about your musical goals in the context of the SMART model. Perhaps this is the year you finally pick up the guitar you inherited from your father and learn to play!