Second Chances: Denied a Spot in the Orchestra as a Kid, This Violinist Found the Right Teacher as an Adult Beginner

One challenge in being an adult beginner is finding a teacher who is willing to divert from the typical lesson format to incorporate adult learning principles

By Rachel Pantos | From the January-February 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

A long time ago, when I was in about fourth grade, I wanted to learn to play the violin. My mom tried to enroll me in the school orchestra. The school told her that they didn’t think I could do it and that it would be too hard for me. I had contracted spinal meningitis when I was three months old, and I lost all of my hearing in my right ear and about 60 percent in my left. I remember being very disappointed that I wasn’t allowed to participate. This was in the era before inclusion and accommodation for disabilities.

I continued to be attracted to the lyrical voice of the violin. I loved the soaring grandeur of the haunting melodies and the fact that I could indeed hear the violin, unlike other lower-pitched instruments. My hearing loss is unique in that I hear the higher pitches of the human voice, and the violin has long been touted as being the instrument with tones closest to it. 

Fast forward about 40 years or so. As an adult, I decided I wanted to try to learn to play the violin. I never expected to perform or to become proficient—I just wanted to make music. One of the many challenges in being an adult beginner is finding a teacher who is willing to divert from the typical lesson format to incorporate adult learning principles into lessons. I had no interest in the simple repetitive lessons used for younger learners. It took me a very long time, with multiple starts and stops, to finally find a teacher who was willing to take on the challenges of teaching an adult beginner.


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Developed by Malcolm Knowles in 1968, Adult Learning Theory, or andragogy, is the study of how adults learn and how it differs from how children learn. It aims to show how adult learning is distinct and identify the learning styles that suit them best. There are four key ideas that enhance a lesson geared toward adults.

Adults want to control what, when, and how they learn. The most important thing for me when I started on this journey was that I wanted to select the music we worked on. I did not want to learn from the “beginner” lesson books that are available for students. It was and still is important to me that the music has meaning for me and touches my soul in some way. The teacher I take lessons from is open to helping me learn using a different method than he might use with a child. I bring music that I have chosen to the lesson, and he helps me learn the fingering and bowing required for the piece. Since I have chosen the piece, I feel engaged and happy to be learning.


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Adults learn more when using their experience. My experiences as a child with music and the people who were supposed to teach me to appreciate and enjoy music failed miserably. I remember one time, in choir class, the teacher told me not to sing—to just mouth the words. I bring these disappointments and self-doubts to my lessons. But at the same time, I have memories of a string quartet echoing through the concert halls my parents took me to. I appreciate how positive and encouraging my teacher is even when, to my ear, the piece sounds awful. I have never once been scolded or reprimanded for lack of practice or not understanding a basic music principle. 

Adults want to solve problems and use reasoning to understand the information being presented. My knowledge of basic music theory is spotty at best. During one lesson, we may have both a discussion of notes and half-steps and a more conceptual conversation about how to make the instrument sing and musicians’ techniques during performances. I knew from attending many concerts that etiquette dictates the audience should wait until the conductor lowers their baton before clapping, but I did not know that it was important for the musicians to continue to hold their instruments in playing position in order to allow the strings to finish vibrating. 


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Adults want information to be applicable to and implemented immediately in their lives. This ties back to the idea of using the experiences of the student in order to enhance the principles and lessons being taught. Even if a technique or explanation needs to be repeated, a teacher should be able to present the same information in several different ways in order to find the one that clicks for the student. Finding a teacher who is confident and comfortable enough in their own abilities and is able to translate the written notes in such a way that the student can produce a pleasing sound is vital for an adult learner. 

A teacher should not be afraid to work with a person who has a disability. The simple joy of making music by far outweighs the struggle their disability may present. Meet the student where they are in their interests and skills. An adult learner has internal motivation that makes learning a new skill rewarding. It took me a long time to find a teacher, but being affirmed in my efforts has enriched my life. As a child I wasn’t able to participate in a recital, but just this last year, at 51 years of age, I got to play in my first one. I may have been the only adult on the stage, but the experience was deeply meaningful to me.