Maximize Your Time with Adult Students

by John Thomas

Date Posted: October 31, 2017

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John Thomas is a Vandoren Regional Artist. The goal for the Vandoren Regional Artist program is to enhance the quality of the music experience through education and the assistance of Vandoren. These highly trained professional educators and performers will engage your students through educational and fun sessions. The clinics they conduct cover a broad spectrum of topics and, based on your input, can be customized to fit the needs of your students. Contact us today to arrange your free Vandoren clinic.

Throughout my career as a saxophone teacher, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching many excellent adult students. Working with adult students can be very rewarding, but they require a much different approach than your average school-age student or college kid. For these students the time, effort, and expense represent a sense of wish-fulfillment. Some people reach a certain point in life and buy a red sports car or a Harley Davidson, while others buy a saxophone and get very serious about music. Keep in mind that the experience of learning an instrument is something that they have been working up to for a long time as you develop your approach. Consider the following advice when working with these students.

1. Listen Closely

When you first sit down with your adult student, listen to what their motivation and goals are. Many adult students have been thinking about this for weeks, months, or even years, and will often have some very specific goals. With our younger students, we often have a road map planned out. With an adult, take into account what they are hoping to accomplish, and customize the lessons for what they need. I’ve had students who were very serious about jazz and improvisation, and others who just wanted to learn enough to be in the pep band for a local football team. More often than not, the person with a very modest goal ends up enjoying their lessons more than they expected and continuing on for years.

2. Manage Expectations

When working with someone who has a passion for the instrument, their passion sometimes outruns their patience. Adult students often have lofty goals but run headfirst into reality, and that can be a tough comedown. As their teacher, it is your job to make sure they don’t get ahead of their skis. Develop specific goals, both short and long term, that can serve as motivational milestones. Here are some examples:

Short Term Goals

  • Learn a new major scale every week
  • Cover one page in your method book per week
  • Learn one new melody from the Real Book per week

Long Term Goals

  • Join a community band
  • Play on a student recital
  • Sit in on a tune at a public jam session

3. Manage Their Gear

Often adult students will overspend on their gear. With a young student it can be like pulling teeth to get parents to spend a little extra on a good mouthpiece, but adults must often be restrained from blowing several hundred dollars on a custom jazz mouthpiece or thousands on a vintage horn. For some, gear acquisition is half the fun of learning a new instrument. Gently guide them into equipment that will help them along their journey. A good mouthpiece and reed setup from the beginning is one of the best ways to insure success. I usually recommend soft reeds (Vandoren Traditional, 2.5 strength) and a classical mouthpiece (Optimum AL3 or TL3) to someone starting out. Jazz mouthpieces are more difficult to control and require a greater volume of air to get a good sound. Once they’ve been playing for a while, then have fun exploring new gear with them. As a professional, I love gear too, and this is something that you can share with your student.

4. Understand the Relationship

The relationship with an adult student is very different than with a child or young adult. Whereas with a younger student, the relationship is often that of a surrogate parental figure, you meet an adult student on relatively equal ground. Adults need something different from their teacher. Depending on the student, I have served as partner on their journey, conduit of sage advice, therapist/trusted confidante, or all of the above. The same tone that works well with a teenager will drastically backfire with an adult.

5. Be Positive!

It can be all too easy as a teacher to resort to negative reinforcement when students aren’t progressing. However, with an adult, progress very often will move slowly. Even highly dedicated adults always have other commitments that will take precedence over their instrument. I have found that my adult students are putting as much time in as they possibly can. Whatever level of progress they have from week to week, I always try to find something positive to build on, while gently stressing consistency in practice rather than cumulative hours. If a student had a tough week finding time to practice, we might just spend the lesson talking about mouthpieces or horns, or listen to our favorite players together. Remember that their lesson time is something that they look forward to every week, so keeping a positive vibe is ultimately going to help them make progress.

These five pieces of advice certainly aren’t the whole story, but this way of looking at adult learners has been successful in my own studio. I would look forward to hearing others’ thoughts and experiences on the topic at my website,

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