Today I want to go through a bunch of related questions having to do with being “too late.” Maybe you didn’t start your instrument until high school, but you’re considering a career in music. Maybe you’re 40 and you’ve never played an instrument.
I’m not going to sugarcoat these answers. Most people can still do most things with the proper attitude and work ethic. But there are probably some realities that limit certain options.
The title question is pretty easy:
No. There are many people who started late and are able to audition into good schools and go on to satisfying careers. Most schools are looking for potential. They aren’t looking for people who already have the skills to graduate.
People go to music school for all sorts of reasons: teaching, performing, recording, composing, conducting, and more. The answer to the question will depend on which of these is your reason.
Even if your abilities have not developed to the point of auditioning into the school of your choice, you should take seriously the idea of working hard at a community college and transferring.
For some reason people tend to think this is a shameful option. I know three people who went this route. Music school can be rough. Taking one or two years to improve in a low-pressure situation should not be underestimated.
It’s a very good option in the case of someone that starts late, because the alternative could be to get a degree somewhere that doesn’t help you realize your potential. You might spend your life regretting your choice of college just because the “normal” thing is to go directly from high school to a bachelor’s program.
I’ll also reiterate that when you start shouldn’t matter for going to music school. Everyone is different. Some start late and improve quickly; some start early and improve slowly. I could see someone starting an instrument at 35 and still easily becoming a music teacher after that.
How Early Do I Need to Start to be a Successful Performer?
This is going to depend greatly on what you mean by “successful performer.” There’s only a handful of performance jobs a year that pay well enough to live on. There are the major and minor orchestras, the military bands, and then smaller gigs like pit orchestras.
There are less traditional performance opportunities like constant gigging, soloing, brass quintets, or even becoming a Youtube personality.
No matter how you look at it, the chances of you being a full-time performer on a low brass instrument is tiny. It requires a lot of skill, a lot of luck, and a lot of connections.
All this is to say: the later you start, the less likely it is for you to meet all these criteria. On the other hand, a lower chance is almost meaningless when the chance is already so low.
The best way to success is to have lofty but reasonable goals. Goals are achieved when they are broken into very clear actionable steps. So, if you start trombone lessons in eighth grade, and you only realize how talented you are and how much you love it in eleventh grade, well, think through the steps.
What series of steps in the next five or seven years will get you to be competitive with the kid that has been taking $150/hour lessons every week with a top tuba player since age 7, and auditioned into Julliard right around the time you started playing the instrument?
Are you, for example, willing to do the work to play in tune?
I’m not saying it’s impossible, and you probably won’t even be auditioning for the same jobs. But the top schools are where connections are made, and the later you start, the less likely you are to get into a top school.
Now, that being said, don’t panic. School isn’t everything. I glanced through the rosters of the military bands and found plenty of low brass players that attended state schools (in fact, maybe most did for undergraduate).
I’ve Never Played an Instrument. Is it Too Late to Learn?
No! I’m actually a bit horrified by how often this gets asked. It’s never too late to learn anything. There are people in the band I play in who started learning their instrument in their sixties.
And some of them are better than people who have played since they were kids! Adults sometimes learn instruments faster than kids, because they just have more focus and discipline when it comes to practicing.
You get out what you put in. After a short amount of time, you’ll probably even be at a high enough skill level to play in a community band. There are plenty of community bands out there that play “Middle School” level pieces.
I’m also not saying you have to uproot your life to dedicate hours of serious practice a day. Plenty of people never do serious practice. They just learn an instrument by tinkering through some songs they like. This is great! Find a group and have fun.
I’d say the main obstacle I could see is health related. If you have crippling arthritis in your fingers, then you might not be able to play violin. But honestly, this is health related and not age related.
It’s not too late to learn!
Okay, But is it Too Late to Become Good?
Maybe you found the previous question a bit condescending. You asked it with the intent of auditioning into a good band you know about in your area.
The Middle School level band is okay for now, but they aren’t playing the things that get you excited about music. You want to experience playing Holst or other exciting classics you’ve heard your whole life.
Well, I’d still say it’s never too late. If you’re serious, though, I’d highly recommend getting a good teacher who understands your intentions.
Adult beginners tend to be given only as much correction as needed. This is because there’s no reason to make someone drill Arban exercises or to fix subtle posture/embouchure issues if the intent is to just get a little enjoyment in retirement.
A local teacher who doesn’t understand your intentions won’t recommend books that push you, and they might let bad habits form if they aren’t too bad.
But a good teacher who knows your intent to get to a higher level will get you out of bad habits before they form, teach you proper technique, and give you material that you might need to spend a good amount of time practicing.
But as I said earlier, adults can get to the level of a good high school player quite rapidly. There’s no reason to think it’s too late to become reasonably skilled at an instrument.
People say music is a language. I agree, but that’s also just a metaphor. Adults can become fluent in music. There isn’t something limiting in the brain like trying to sound like a native speaker of a language as an adult.
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