Yes, adults can learn to play an instrument, and to a high skill level. You are not too old. But the process will be a little different than it is for children. Understanding what those differences are will help make your learning more successful.
Adults hold onto their inhibitions more strongly than most children.
I know most children start learning wind instruments during their pre-teen years, which are notorious for self-consciousness, but in my experience, we adults are way worse! We’ve had more back-story in our lives that make us want to present a certain picture of ourselves to others, and we have a hard time letting that guard down. Learning something new, especially something physical, requires a certain amount of vulnerability. You’re going to feel awkward, you’re going to make funny sounds, you’re going to need correction and repetition. The good news is, the vast majority of this happens in your personal practice sessions, away from an audience. If you’re taking private lessons, don’t fret over how you present yourself to your teacher. You are a student; your teacher expects you to be a bit uncomfortable at first and to make frequent mistakes. Take correction graciously - remember, your teacher is trying to help you. It won’t be long before you are handling the instrument with confidence and making beautiful sounds.
Playing as an adult takes more self-discipline.
Child students have several external motivators for practicing: grades, peers, teachers, parents, upcoming performances, tests, etc. As adults, we typically don’t have as many external motivators. If you are taking lessons, your private teacher is an external motivator - you want to do well in your lessons. If you play in an ensemble, you have peers, and you don’t want to sound bad in front of them. Other than a few examples like these, there isn’t much outside of your own desire and dedication to urge you along. No one is looking over your shoulder, reminding you that you need to practice when you get home from work. You’re an adult. You’ll do what do want when you want. Which means you’ll have to set up and stick to a practice schedule on your own. If you’re a pretty self-disciplined person, that will probably work just fine for you. If you’re not, you may consider setting up some accountability for yourself, just to help you maintain consistency.
Adults expect much, then over-analyze the results.
It’s not to say that kids are generally more patient than adults, but in some ways, they can be. Children at least recognize that they are still learning about so many things, and rightly so. They are expected to learn, which presumes they don’t already know. Adults are more often expected to know, so when we have to learn, we want a very quick return on the investment. In other words, we want to play very well very quickly because we think we should be able to. We should. And when it doesn’t come as fast as we want, we figure it must be because we’re not clever enough, not talented enough, etc. Never mind that you’re asking your muscles to perform tasks they’ve not done before, and coordinated in patterns that you’ve never had to calculate before, all while multi-tasking several other skills that you’ve not done before. Sheesh! Give yourself a break! If you already knew how to do it all, it wouldn’t be learning a new instrument.
Once you start making some progress, you’ll find yourself evaluating your performance. That’s fine, as long as you don’t start over-analyzing the results. If you get too nit-picky, you are just asking for frustration to come visit while you practice. Whatever skill it is you’re working on, it will come. Try to step back every now and then and get a broader picture of your progress. Ask a friend or family member to listen to you play. Record yourself, wait a few days, then listen to the recording. I get wanting to reach goals, but it’s important that you take a look over your shoulder every now and then to see how far you’ve come. And beware of the comparison trap - your progress is yours. It is at the rate you are able or are willing to go right now. And there will always be somebody better. That’s not why you started playing an instrument, right? To compete with people you know? So why spend your time and mental energy fretting over how someone you know is doing better than you? (Ah, such a good lesson for all of us, in many areas of life. I’ll let you know if it ever fully sinks into my thick head!)
So, we have a better understanding of how this is going to look a bit different than a child learning an instrument. Now, here are some practical words of advice on your biggest hurdle: practice.
Accept that you need to practice.
I once had an adult who was already doing some playing register for lessons. Just a few minutes into our first session, she informed me that she had “no interest in practicing, so don’t expect me to practice between lessons.” I asked her what she wanted from lessons, to which she said she wanted me to make her a better player. I had to tell her I couldn’t help her. It just doesn’t work that way. You may be smart enough to retain whatever your teacher tells you from week to week, but playing an instrument is both mental AND physical, and the physical needs repetition throughout the week. (And really, so does the mental.) To try to do otherwise and expect improvement is a surefire route to frustration and quitting.
Plan when you’re going to practice, but be open to spontaneous practice sessions.
An appointment is cancelled and you have an extra hour? Go play! I know some people who actually leave their instrument assembled (without the reed, please!) and on an instrument stand under a lightweight sheet. When they have a few spare minutes and think to themselves, “Cool - I could go play through a few songs,” the instrument is ready to go.
Realize that sometimes, your plans are going to be interrupted… and that’s ok.
Yeah, that’s the thing about being a grownup. When the kitchen sink starts backing up and overflowing onto the floor because there’s a clog somewhere way down where your pipes and the neighbor’s pipes meet up and every time they run water, it ends up in your sink, you’re the one that has to call the plumber and clean up the mess. True story, by the way. Stuff comes up, and as frustrating as it is to know that those events (which are not fun) keep you from playing (which is fun), we just have to understand that as adults, we are sometimes presented with very urgent needs that must be attended to. Your instrument will still be there tomorrow. It will be ok.
Not every practice session has to be 45-60 minutes.
Especially if you know that the next couple of days will be so busy that you probably won’t touch the instrument, even a 15 minute session can be helpful. Even just playing through long tones and a couple of scales can be helpful. Something short and fundamental is better than nothing at all.
Aim for high quality practice, not just high quantity.
Don’t get me wrong - the muscles need exercise and repetition, and that takes up time. But be more concerned about accomplishing goals than watching the clock. A shorter, but well-organized practice session in which you have certain things you want to work on and are using solid practice methods to complete will be much more helpful than a long session in which you wander aimlessly through your music, playing through stuff, but never really being intentional about addressing problem spots.
Make yourself perform occasionally.
Give yourself something to work toward. It doesn’t have to be big - it could just be a private recital for a family gathering. It could involve other people. Play some duets or trios at a local nursing home; I promise you, they will love it. Play a piece for offering at church. If you are taking lessons, let your teacher talk you into participating in a recital. If you’ve been working for a while and want to get into playing with a group, take an audition for a community band, orchestra, or jazz ensemble. It may go great, or it may not go perfectly, but either way, you will emerge a better musician. Putting yourself under pressure every now and then can give you extra motivation to prepare, and will give you a sense of completion and accomplishment when you follow through.
You can play an instrument. And you’re reading this article, so you should - at the very least to try it out. Go enjoy playing!