How to Learn an Instrument (or anything) as an Adult – Part 2

PART TWO- The Tools – Time, Motivation, Choices, Repetition

In part one we looked at how your brain and nervous system changes in response to new experiences – in other words how you learn. We looked at the conditions that need to be met for learning to happen. So now we’ve got the basic conditions set up we can get into some specifics and really turbo-charge your learning.

Note: There are a lot of ideas, tools, behaviours, and thoughts here. You don’t have to do everything, and you definitely don’t have to try them all at once. I’d recommend picking one or two that seem interesting and achievable, and sticking with those for a while (e.g. 30 days) until you’ve really internalised them. 

Making Time

Let’s start right at the beginning: If you don’t make time for something, it’ll never happen. You’ll always find something else more important or urgent to do.

The good news is that you really don’t need huge amounts of time to get good results from learning. It’s a compound effect, that is to say you will get the most results from regular sessions, as opposed to total time. Five minutes a day is going to get you way further than an hour one day and nothing for the rest of the week.

So find a way to build it into your schedule, maybe even piggy-back it onto something else you already do every day, for example straight away when you get home from work. Whenever it is, make that time sacred, put your phone on airplane/focus mode (or even in another room entirely), and anything else can wait. 

Motivation – Why are you doing this?

Learning to play an instrument only happens through consistent, habitual practise, and one of the most surefire ways to give up a habit (or not set one up in the first place) is to not have a clear reason for doing it. It doesn’t have to be anything big – it might be a specific goal like a performance, or an ongoing reason like the many physical and mental health benefits you get from drums, or simply because it’s something that you know you enjoy or have always said to yourself you’d like to do.

So some strong tools to help set up habits are:

  • Positively reinforce/reward yourself regularly

For example keep a daily or weekly checklist that you can tick off each day you practise. Reward yourself every time you meet a specified target (or get a partner/friend to be keeper of the rewards)

  • Randomly reward yourself for larger milestones

Intermittent and unpredictable reward schedules are extremely powerful in maintaining motivation. This is one of the main reasons gambling becomes so addictive. It does really have to be random so either toss a coin/roll a dice, or ideally again ask someone else to be keeper of the rewards and let them decide randomly!

  • Visualise failure

What would happen if you fail at this? Or give up? (Giving up is a very common cause for failing at something).. It might seem masochistic, but visualising failure has actually been shown to be a very strong motivator for continuing with a goal. It engages a portion of the brain called the amygdala, which is related to fear – an extremely strong motivator for action. The trick here is to be mindful of the fact you’re using this consciously as a tool, rather than setting yourself into a cycle of self-flagellation!

  • Take any opportunity to do activities that involve what you’re working towards

If you’re looking for something to watch with your dinner, watch a video of someone playing the instrument you’re learning. If you’re going out, go somewhere someone will be playing it. Speak to people who play and/or learn too. The more you immerse and surround yourself with it, the more obsessed you will get!

What to practise.

Choice number one. Being unsure of what you need to work on is a sure fire way to either waste time, or just not even start practising at all. The quickest route to knowing what to practise is working with a good tutor, but the general idea is to be balanced in your ability across the whole spectrum of being a musician. This could include areas like coordination, technique, listening skills, theory, timing, rhythmic vocabulary, melodic vocabulary, scales, reading, composition/improvisation, and more. Know your strengths and your weaknesses in all areas. Celebrate and bolster your strengths, but also aim to find those chinks in your armour and patch up the holes. It has to be aiming for balance though- only ever playing what you’re good at won’t really make you that much better, but also only focusing on things you’re not good at (yet) can become a slog and suck the joy out of things. Find a balance of doing what you WANT to do with what you NEED to do. 

A good tutor will help you find blind spots (you can’t work on something you’re unaware of), introduce new ideas, and help to remove obstacles – both mental and physical. This might be limitations of technique, or ideas/mindsets you didn’t even realise that have been holding you back. A tutor can also guide you towards more of the balance you need for your current situation, and save you from wasting a lot of energy on something you MIGHT need in future vs something that will help you right now. 

Make your decisions before practising, and have a pre-prepared list you can work through during your practise session.


This is probably the most obvious one, and yet an easy one to not really maximise by way of simply getting bored, distracted, or frustrated.

So some strategies you can use to help with that:

  • Play music you LIKE

Sounds obvious but I’m always amazed by people struggling along with learning material they have no interest in. I do believe the more you learn, the more you appreciate, but you’re always going to be more motivated to ‘get the reps in’ with something you want to hear again and again.

  • Use A Metronome

A musician’s best friend(/blurst friend). Everyone says it all the time, but why? It really has a lot of benefits: Improving your timing along with whatever working on. Being able to track your progress. Ensuring you can find a speed where you can be making the optimum amount of mistakes (see below), and sticking at that speed to get the most benefit (rather than the classic scenario of “I got that right once, now I think I’m ready to try it three times as fast…oh why do I keep getting it wrong now”..own up, we’ve all done it).

Keeping your work on a cadence – i.e. regularly timed and with momentum/the pressure to continue – is more likely to keep you going, and therefore simply get in more repetitions than if you are constantly stopping and starting. If you were to take all the time you spent going “damn I got that wrong I suck” or “this is why I got that wrong” or “I need to start this from the beginning again” and instead use that time to simply repeat  the trouble-spot, you would likely be a lot further along with it by the next session.

Finally, the added pressure of keeping up with the metronome will help prepare you for playing with others, or in front of an audience, as well as raising those stress chemicals to make your brain do the learning overnight! (See part one if this is confusing)

There are lots of different ways to work with the metronome to improve your sense of time along with whatever else you might be practising.

  • Play with music

Enter the FUNtronome (sorry). Whatever you’re working on, use any recorded song you like in an appropriate tempo & time signature (plus key for melodic instruments), and try to match the time feel whilst doing your repetitions. Instead of just doing double paradiddles with a metronome, play them to match up with the rest of the band. Rather than just practising a scale on its own, play it in time with a song you like in the same key. Here you’re starting to make the repetitions into true musical vocabulary, getting a feel for where it fits, where it doesn’t, and – if you’re listening carefully and/or recording yourself (see below) – whether you really “have it” yet or not.

  • Play with others

While it’s a bit of a faux pas (or at least tedious for everyone else) to use rehearsal/jam time with others to get your practise in, playing with others and occasionally dropping in something you’ve been working on is a great test of whether it’s “on-tap” yet or not. I find it often takes around 3 months for something to work its way from the practise room to being usable in a room with others, but it’s sometimes nice to test those waters as you go and get a feel for what really needs more work, and what may or may not have potential in the future. As you go through the learning process with more things, you’ll get a better feel in the practise room for what’s truly “under the hands” and what’s not. 

One caveat to this: judge your circumstances: Private gig? Jam with friends? Sure, try anything. Paid gig? Audience? Do your job and play what you know you can make sound great and MUSICAL!

So you’ve made time, you’re clear about WHY you’re practising and WHAT you’re practising, and you’re playing it enough times to actually make a difference. In fact, Play itself is vitally important to learning, as are making mistakes and your mindset. More on how to use these to your advantage is coming up in part three – see you there!

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