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Too old to learn a new instrument?


Is there such a thing as being too old to learn a new instrument? If you started playing harp or dulcimer as an adult, what were the challenges? Did anyone ever tell you it wasn’t worth it? Who were your strongest supporters? What are the rewards?


We just had the delightful experience of meeting a woman at the Somerset Folk Harp Festival who was an 82-year old beginner. While she was having fun trying out harps, I asked her daughter how she began playing. With an amazed smile on her face, she said it all started one day when she asked her mom if there was some thing she’d never done in her life that she’d always wanted to do. With hardly a pause, the reply came back: “Play the harp.” Surprised and intrigued, her daughter said, “Then, let’s do it!” A little on-line research found them not only nearby lessons, but an exciting focus for her lessons in the Bedside Harp therapeutic harp program. They were both thoroughly enjoying this whole new arena.


I started in my mid-50’s and it was one of the best things I have ever done. Everyone in the Seattle folk harp community was extremely supportive. I soon learned when they said they wanted to hear me play, they really meant it. Everyone was very welcoming.


What I love seeing in adult beginners (of anything) is that they seem ready to let go of old fears, “can’t-do-its” and truly want to embrace something new and wonderful in their life. In my beginner workshops, where I’d say often as much as 80% of the people are middle age or older, I hear things like, “I’ve always wanted to play the harp,” or, “I heard the harp and fell in love with it.” They all say they decided they didn’t want to deny themselves the opportunity to learn to play the harp, to enjoy playing the harp, and so simply do it. Yes, there are challenges (eyesight, arthritis, etc…) but the desire to play for enjoyment or to help others (therapeutic) is strong. Yay for ongoing curiosity, yearning for learning, letting go of procrastination, and embracing the joy of music!


I started playing classical guitar at age 40, and now, at 50, I have taken up the harp. I tried and failed to learn many instruments in my youth. I would reach a plateau and get frustrated. Or I would get distracted by other insterests. Only now do I have the patience and dedication to stay with it.


My very favorite story regarding this topic (full disclosure, I work in the Dusty retail store): A few years ago, the most adorable little lady came into the shop. Age mid-seventies, I’d say. She said “I’ve always wanted to learn to play the harp. Am I too old?” I reassured her that she absolutely was not, and ended up selling her a Ravenna 26. She comes to town several times a year (and always stops by to visit me), and the next time she came in she told me that not only was she loving the harp, she’d enticed several of her friends in and had started a small harp ensemble in her retirement home. Several years on, they are performing gigs! Too old to learn? No such thing. (And now I have a surrogate grandmother in Fargo, North Dakota! :smile:)


While I started to learn to play the harp many years ago (taking a workshop with Sylvia Woods and renting a lever harp for 3 months), my children were young and I had to put the dream away for a long while. I have played the violin most of my life and play mostly Celtic violin, but learning to play the harp has continued to pull at my heart strings! I will be 64 in September and my husband bought me my first harp for my birthday. My DS Crescendo 34 is arriving Friday and I am like a little girl in a candy store, awaiting my new friend! Taking the harp up at 64 and I intend to be playing it for many years to come. :blush:


A tangential subject is people who were told as children by music teachers or parents that they had no musical ear and shouldn’t bother trying to learn music. Several years ago, while I was working the Dusty Strings retail shop, I talked to a guy in his forties who was staring hungrily at the harps. It turns out that he always wanted to play, but had been told he wasn’t good enough when he was a kid. He was just starting to break out of that conditioning, and literally burst into tears in the middle of the store as he realized that the desire for music he had always felt was far more important than the messages he had been given as a child. He was not only able to convince himself that he wasn’t too old, but also that he was worthy enough to learn to play.


I’m dping a series of articles in the Folk Harp Journal called “Harping as We Age”. We’re never too old.


I agree with everyone who has commented on this topic. I have found that I am making slower progress with the harp than with other instruments I play, but it has only been two years, and it is harder for me than other instruments. But it is not about becoming a great Harper; it is about enjoying the practice.


This is an interesting topic, as it is a question I have heard for many years. I don’t believe we are ever too old to learn an instrument. If it is something you love, then the fire should be there to learn. I was 40 when I began accordion lessons and have played professionally for around 25 years. I am self taught on 5 string banjo and played that professionally for about 2 years, and still play for my own fun. In 2007, a close friend of mine told me about the lever harp and what a beautiful instrument it is. I went to a Celtic festival and saw and heard the small harps which captured my soul. I had to learn this wonderful instrument, so I set out to learn, and I did, and now my music partner and I are preparing music to be played on my new Dusty FH26 harp and her beautiful octave mandolin. We are having so much fun with this new music and are hoping to be ready to share it, soon. And, no, you’re never too old to learn an instrument if you really want to learn.


I love all the answers, and this post resonates with a project I started about three summers ago
I offered an adult beginner harp class, and helped those who signed up find rental harps, and wrote a twelve installment healing supplemental approach to adult beginner harp study.

Nobody in the group wanted to stop at the end of the twelve weeks, so we have continued on, and become a truly loving and tight group of people. Throughout the years, they have all experienced great joys and sorrows in their lives, but the common bond of harping has kept them together in a supporting and loving extended family. All of them came to the harp thinking they couldn’t learn an instrument, and while there have been struggles to learn certain things, progress has taken second place by far to the joy and healing that they have all experienced by learning to play the harp. And I arrange music so we have multiple parts for all levels, with each part adding something vital to the piece.

Their ages, by the way, range from 55 to 77.

So I heartily agree- never too old!


What a shame that guy was discouraged as a child. Maybe the way he was playing/singing as a child did not make sense according to adults’ knowledge, experience, or expertise, but if there was a connection inside the child, that’s all that matters. It’s so wonderful he came full circle to making that connection again. How inspiring. Thank you for the story, John.


I love stories of people being reunited with their creative, musical sides, especially after Bad Teaching! (by whomever). The resilience of the creative human spirit always brings tears to my eyes, too.

This is just another reason I love to teach kids 8 mos -four years in Music Together classes, to clearly support their musical development and nurture that resilience that will see them through the rest of their lives!


One is never too old… with the possible exception of wanting to become a truly top-performing classical pianist, where you should optimally start at age five or so. Violinists of the same category should probably start nearly as early. For the rest of us, I don’t see that age matters at all. It may just possibly be easier to learn a new instrument late in life if you already know another instrument from before, even just a bit. But to know that for certain will need more data than I have. Anyway, I know many people who started learning instruments in their fifties, as far as I can tell with as fast progress as most young people. I don’t play harp (I play other instruments), but my GF started learning the harp four years ago aged 50 (after being encouraged to learn the harp, as opposed to just listening, by Irish harpist (and photographer) Brenda Malloy, through a serendipitous meeting on a Dublin street corner - thanks, Brenda!). As far as I can judge my GF has learned to express herself musically much faster than I did when I started playing guitar in my youth. In fact I myself find it easier to improve now than I did when I was younger. Progress started for real when I passed 40… but that may just be me! For me, at least, age helps, not the other way around.


At 60, and after 50+ years of playing the piano, I finally decided it was time to learn to play the harp. It is something I have wanted to do for years. My biggest concern was that it wouldn’t come “naturally” since my muscle memory and eye-to-hand coordination have been so geared to piano for so long. My fears were unwarranted, however. It has seemed to come quite naturally transitioning to the harp! Now I don’t know why I waited so long to try! The primary challenge for adults is making practice time. You don’t have your mother to make you practice, and it can get shoved aside. My husband fully supports my new venture, and a Dusty Strings harp is in my near future {:0)