In Music, You're Never Too Old to be New
It was just over two and a half years ago when my husband noticed we had three children individually playing a guitar, banjo, and a violin, which gave him the bright idea of putting together a family bluegrass band. It was decided that we could use a bass and a mandolin to round out the sound, and I found myself volunteering to learn the mandolin. I suppose I assumed it would be a simple task. After all, I was no stranger to music. In fact, I had a bachelor degree in music, spent years teaching early childhood music, held some experience directing everything from bell choirs to adult choirs, and even singing as a principle soprano in an opera company.
Of course, none of this experience related directly to playing a string instrument in a bluegrass band. When the mandolin arrived, I suddenly found myself in a situation I had not been in since starting the flute at the age of 11. I was a struggling beginner. My hands hurt, and my then 7-year-old son could readily outplay me on the simplest songs.
Myth or Fact? Music should be started as a child or not at all, and takes thousands of hours of work for success.
“In the brains of nine string players examined with magnetic resonance imagining, the amount of somatosensory cortex dedicated to the thumb and fifth fingers of left hand - the fingering digits - was significantly larger than in nonplayers. How long the players practiced each day did not affect the cortical map. But the age at which they had been introduced to their muse did: the younger the child when she took up an instrument, the more cortex she devoted to playing it.
Few concert-level performers begin playing later than the age of 10. It is much harder to learn an instrument as an adult.” Your Child’s Brain, by Sharon Begley, Newsweek, February 19, 1996.
The science is settled. There is a window of opportunity for learning an instrument and you have passed it. There is no point even trying to pick one up now. Sadly, this is the message adults have received from a culture that is highly youth focused, and at times, relies heavily on a scientific community that is highly specialized, often only seeing a small piece of a complex human puzzle.
“In a study of 20-year-old violinists by Ericsson and colleagues, the best group (judged by conservatory teachers) averaged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over their lives; the next-best averaged 7,500 hours; and the next, 5,000. It's the same story in surgery, insurance sales, and virtually every sport. More deliberate practice equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.” What it Takes to be Great, by Geoffrey Colvin, senior editor-at-large, Fortune CNNMoney.com, October 19 2006
Which is it? The age or the number of hours dedicated? As a former music instructor for preschool and young children, I remember an advertising slogan that suggested parents give their child a gift today for their 50th birthday through music lessons as a child. There is some truth here, but this either suggests the age of initial music experience alone will make the difference, it is the amount of time dedicated to the task requiring an early start, or both.
The truth of the matter is, a few extra synapses specifically related to the fingers of the left hand matter only at the highest levels of competition, and almost never to the average musician who enjoys music in the community, church, and within their own homes. Additionally, even the study that equates the number of hours dedicated to practice and how it relates to performance level leaves more questions than it answers. Who are these 20-year-old violinists and what were the standards applied? How good were the more average players and how obvious were the differences in the separate groups? It is obvious that hard work matters for the top level performers, but is that the ultimate goal of music for most individuals? How much is enough simply to enjoy it? We can analyze and place every aspect of musical performance under the microscope, but when we do this, are we then losing the point of the art in the first place?
Ultimately, our main question needs to focus on the underlying reason for the existence of music. Is music a competitive sport, or is it instead a form of expression and unity in worship, celebration, families, and communities? There is certainly a place for competing to be the best in a field of study, and those who excel at the highest levels, dedicating their lives to the art form, should most certainly be rewarded with admiration and opportunities. Still, this is makes up only one end of the spectrum, not the wide range music provides in the lives of most of the population, nor should those at the highest end ever become the criteria for participation in music at all.
Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly at first.
In our society we are surrounded by the mass media. Even at the grocery store, the music played has been processed by top experts in the field. Out of tune notes are fixed, balance between instruments adjusted, multiple tracts recorded with the only the best making the cut, and finally, digital enhancements to provide just the right reverberation to make it pleasant to the ear. Everywhere we turn we are shown only one thing: don’t bother doing music if you are not an expert.
What this message is missing is what should be two obvious truths. First, that every expert initially started out as a beginner, and likely played terribly, complete with sour notes and bad timing. Second, the bulk of the musicians whom enrich our lives will not be at the far end of the professional spectrum in skill and specialized management. To the first point, the beginning age of the expert musician may vary greatly, but it is admittedly usually ranging from sitting at the piano as a 5-year-old, to squawking notes on the clarinet in the middle school concert band, but they all started out as struggling beginners. The reason we see their beginning ages often during the childhood years may simply be due to the attitudes children hold towards achieving new skills in contrast to the expectations adults hold, and no other reason.
My 5-year-old daughter is learning violin and was recently very pleased to get a coloring picture where she could color ten balloons because she lowered and raised her left arm ten times, placing her hand in the correct playing position. She didn’t play a note, and the few she does play are pretty scratchy sounding, but she is easily pleased by this simple success. Likewise, when she sings a song, she hits the melody accurately, but there is very little style, and often a few notes a bit out of tune, yet the audience loves her and she is excited to continue.
Contrast this to an adult learning to play an instrument or learning to sing. If she were 42 years old and was awkwardly having to train her hand to hold a violin correctly, she would likely not be basking in the success of those ten repetitions and coloring balloons. If she was singing and had a few off notes, she would be mortified, instead of jumping up and down, glowing in the encouragement she receives. Adults are obviously at a disadvantage in terms of audience appeal in many areas, but more often than not, it is their own expectations of what should be allowed in musical performance that hinders them from enjoying the small successes in the beginning. A child is willing to be content with a squawky performance of “Twinkle Little Star” on a violin, while an adult is not.
The second truth, that the bulk of musicians whom enrich our lives are not at the far end of the professional spectrum, comes into play as well. Perhaps a 5-year-old’s parents will hope she will one day be a virtuoso, but more than likely, and provided she continues into adulthood, she will play in a community orchestra, fiddle in a band, or for her local church, and she will appreciate the years she screeched through her Twinkle Variations. She likely will not have spent 10,000 hours of focused study, but she will have put in a few here and there after school, and gradually progressed through the beginning stages along with her peers. Perhaps she will have dropped it through her young adult life and picked it up later, or perhaps she will instead take her early training in music and apply it to another instrument, passing through the awkward beginning stage a bit more quickly, playing guitar for a Sunday school class, or leading the singing for her son’s boy scouts troop at camp. Either way, she was once an awkward beginner somewhere in her history, but it never once bothered her.
If the likely ultimate goal for most people is to use musical training to enrich their own lives and that of their family or community, is it at all productive for the highest level of performers to be the standard which we measure ourselves against when taking the plunge? Beginning a new task in almost anything is difficult, and music, being a form of personal expression, will magnify this further, but our eyes belong on the long term reason for the venture. In all likelihood, this goal is not to sit in the first violin section of a major metropolitan orchestra, so it stands to reason that it should not matter if we do not have the time to devote a decade of work towards that magical 10,000 hours of practice, nor that we missed out on a few extra neuro-synapses in our left fingers. We only need to be willing to be terrible for a season, then average, then as far as we wish beyond that in order to enjoy making music in our homes and community.
Looking closely at the ultimate goal and realistic expectations.
What many of these studies fail to include are the advantages adults enjoy when beginning musical instruction over children, including an increased attention span and reasoning. Through and adult’s more mature ability to analyze personal weaknesses, he or she can more readily use this to narrow down specific areas to focus on during practice, and then apply this directly with longer sessions of the difficult and redundant exercises necessary to overcome the weakness. However, to fully benefit from this natural advantage, one must also use that same enhanced reasoning skill to see the initial awkward sounds made as nothing more than the first step that all musicians of any age must move through.
If you have longingly looked at the guitar for years, wishing you played, or imagined yourself sitting at your piano playing Christmas songs with your family, or even dreaming of a calm evening playing a harp, yet you have never touched the instrument before, there should be no reason to look first at your age, and perhaps even a busy schedule should not be a negative factor in picking it up.
As for me and my mandolin, it would be wonderful to report that after only a couple of years, I am one of the hottest mandolin pickers in the region, but given my main role as a mother of budding young musicians, leaving limited time for practice, this is far from reality. I am, however, gradually holding my own backing up the increasing skills of our family’s band. I can now watch my youngest daughter’s enthusiasm as I am able to accompany her on the songs she is learning, use my mandolin to arrange chords for songs we have written, or pick out melodies to music, even playing breaks in the band where only a mandolin will do. We’ll have to wait a few more years before I receive the title of hottest mandolin picker, but I’m patient. I’ve already reached goal number one.