Music lessons for adults: Getting passionate about making music



At top left: Over the past year and a half, Bryan Saville, left, has enjoyed refocusing on his music with the help of his teacher,
Eric Hedrick, right. Photo by Eric Hedrick

Taking music lessons as an adult may seem like a frivolous use of one’s time and money. Some people feel intimidated by the idea of trying something new.

But learning to play an instrument can lower stress levels, help build new relationships by providing common ground in a community of musicians, and help offset the deterioration of speech and hearing skills, says one blogger. (Nature Reviews Neuroscience, July 2010, is one among several sources quoting studies from places such as Northwestern University). Music, in all its forms, stirs our emotions and stimulates our thinking.

One such adult is Eric Hedrick. He was working in the maintenance department at James Madison University (JMU), and playing in bands on the weekends. He had taught himself to play the guitar in high school. Usually his impromptu free-style solos sounded great, but occasionally the chords just didn’t flow and he wasn’t sure why.

So he shipped his motorcycle to Hollywood and enrolled at the Musicians Institute there.  He sees his resulting twenty plus years of teaching guitar, piano and other stringed instruments as a long string of rewarding experiences. Nearly all of his students have come to him because they truly wanted to learn to play the guitar. Many have used the guitar as a springboard to learn other instruments.

Some of Eric’s adult students played when younger and decided to pick it up again, while others are singers in bands who want to accompany themselves. For many, figuring out how to let the music flow from their heart has taken years of study and practice. Eric helps each student learn music they naturally like because all types of music, from Bach to Led Zeppelin, have great value. “We’re more likely to practice if we’re interested in what we’re playing,” says Eric.

Adult music students have the maturity and commitment lacking in many children, but learning to play an instrument is much easier for a child. “Adults can’t just wish they could play,” says Eric. “They have to want to play so much that they have great determination to make it happen.” Unlike sports, it’s never too late to learn a musical instrument. You can enjoy the learning experience even if you never play in Carnegie Hall.

Bryan Saville, a professor in JMU’s Department of Psychology, has been taking guitar lessons from Eric for the past year and a half. As a child, he learned to play the piano and trombone and sang in a choir. Then he switched to guitar lessons as a teenager and started his own band. He practiced several hours every day and hoped to have a career in music. He continued to play often while in college, but with each academic achievement in the field of psychology, his professional responsibilities took him further from music until he hardly ever played.

Then in 2012, at age 40, Bryan began studying the psychology of passion and came to realize how important it is to our psychological health to include activities about which we feel passionate. He decided once again to make time for the guitar and started taking lessons from Eric to increase his motivation. He now practices for one or two hours every day and loves it. His goal, over the next year or so, is to join a band and start playing regular gigs again. He can’t wait.

Unlike sports, it’s never too late to learn a musical instrument. You can enjoy the learning experience even if you never play in Carnegie Hall.

Bob Bersson, right, leads the Countryside Garage Band in a monthly concert at Braithwaite Studios and Coffee Shop in Dayton, Virginia. He instructs two adult groups through actual music making. Bob Horn, on guitar at left, is featured in this article. In back of Bob Horn is Elaine Hurst and Jack Greer substituting for Jody Hess. Dave Pruett is singing and playing guitar next to Bob. Photo by Lauree Purcell

Bob Horn, Professor of Economics at JMU College of Business, emphasizes that, “It’s important to set aside some time, throughout life, to pursue creative interests and have stimulating experiences.” Bob started taking guitar lessons from Eric when he was 47. When Bob likes a song, Eric writes out the tablature (musical notation) and shows Bob a strumming or finger-picking pattern to go with it. Then Bob spends about an hour each day working on technique. “It’s a great diversion. I can forget the ills of the world when I practice,” he says.

Bob meets with Robert Bersson, Dave Pruett, Elaine Hurst and Jody Hess each week so they can make music together.  They perform about once a month as the Countryside Garage Band and enjoy growing as musicians through their weekly interaction. Members take turns showing the group how to play songs in a wide variety of genres. Sometimes Bob will play a solo while another member of the group sings. He finds the challenges of playing with others to be fun, and it’s done a lot for his timing. Bob enjoys participating in guitar workshops in other parts of the country during his summer vacations, too.

Being a part of a group of musicians helps beginners to feel connected to great pieces of music even if they are contributing only a small part of the full piece. It’s also much easier to sound good when you are among a group. Shenandoah Music Trail, led by Martha Hills and Don DePoy, will hold free weekly bluegrass jam sessions on Tuesdays from 6:00-8:30 p.m. at the Elkton Community Center starting September 16. Musicians at all levels are welcome as long as they can tune their own instruments. Group classes for many instruments are available at Blue Ridge Community College.

Mary Rouse, who earned a B.S. in Music Education at Radford University, has been teaching piano in the valley for 53 years. One of Mary’s students, Judith LePera, says, “Mary is wonderful with adults as well as children and is an educator in the full sense of the word. So I have learned a great deal about composers and music theory as well as developing skills.” Mary has helped parents learn the basics and stay one step ahead to provide support for their children’s musical learning experience. Other parents have sought her help to have a musical goal of their own while focusing heavily on raising children. Some parents who have become unhappy when their children move away have enjoyed continuing to grow and be fulfilled through Mary’s music instruction. “We can keep coming back to a piece of music we have practiced in the past and enjoy it on a new level each time we refine our skills,” says Mary.

Judith LePera sits in front of the grand piano as her teacher, Mary Rouse, provides encouragement and advice for further study. Mary has also taught the writer for almost nine years. Photo by Terry LePera.

Adults who studied music when they were younger often regret having given it up completely. Judith studied violin as a child, so she had some sense of the notes. But learning a second clef and coordinating her hands has been a challenge since she started learning piano at age 67. Daily practice has kept her brain sharp and her fingers supple while she has fun seeing each improvement. She enjoys making music for the pure pleasure of it without the pressures of competition or a parent nagging her to practice. In addition, she has met Mary’s other adult students, including this writer, as the students play for each other from time to time. “It is gratifying for each of us to see how the others have improved,” says Judith.

Some adults feel that something is missing from their lives and they long to play a musical instrument. Zsuzsa Fox, an English as a Second Language teacher in Rockingham County schools, started taking piano lessons from Mary three years ago. She grew up in Hungary where children must choose one activity to focus on from a very early age. She committed her whole childhood to swimming, but was always fascinated by people who could play the piano with ease.

When her younger daughter decided to try piano lessons, the purchase of a piano seemed expensive for something her child might tire of after a few weeks. To justify the expense, Zsuzsa decided to take lessons, too. She was excited to finally try the piano and secretly expected to discover an amazing hidden talent. But, more realistically, she just hoped she could play some nice tunes for her family’s entertainment. Zsuzsa’s family, however, would grow tired of the same song long before she could perfect it. So, she forgot about entertaining the family and just kept learning and practicing.

For Zsuzsa Fox, left, an unexpected benefit of learning piano as an adult has been the fun of playing duets with her daughter, Andi. Here they are playing “Heart and Soul” by Hoagy Carmichael.
Photo by Zoe Fox

After three years, an unexpected benefit has emerged. Zsuzsa’s daughter is  surpassing her in skill, but they now enjoy playing duets together. Her older daughter sometimes joins them on the violin, too. “It’s definitely been a bonding experience for us, and hearing each other motivates us to practice,” she says.

Sometimes Zsuzsa chooses to work on music she likes that is above her level. She doesn’t mind her lack of perfection as she challenges herself because playing the piano is relaxing and fun. “It is nutritious, zero-calorie candy for my brain,” says Zsuzsa.  Rictor Noren said in Psychology Today, “Music gives us options. It allows us to see the world as we wish it were. It gives us insights into ourselves as it invites us to think big thoughts. It makes us feel clever … as though we are     privy to an esoteric body of knowledge hundreds of years in the crafting. We become keepers of the craft” (January 16, 2013).

LAUREE PURCELL serves as an editorial consultant for Living. She and her husband Steve have two daughters.

Musicians Institute: (323) 462-1384,
Shenandoah Music Trail’s weekly bluegrass jam sessions: (540) 209-3540
Blue Ridge Community College group music classes: (540)453-2215,
Additional group classes and bluegrass jam workshops: (207) 323-4800,
Group Piano Instruction: (540) 434-1376,!adult-music-education/caj6
Piano Lessons from Mary Rouse: (540) 246-6363, [email protected]

Private music instruction on many instruments:
Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg:  (540) 432-4277,
Josh Sprouse in Staunton:
Valley Music Academy in Waynesboro:  (540) 942-8648,

Private guitar lessons:
Eric Hedrick in Harrisonburg: (540) 432-6356,
Bob Driver in Singers Glen: (540) 833-8608,

Banjo lessons:  
Hensley’s Bluegrass Music in McGaheysville:  (540) 466-4810,


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