Am I too old to start learning an instrument?

Am I too to old to start playing an instrument?

This seems like a natural question for New Year’s Day. It’s the time of year when we music instructors see a lot of new, adult students who are trying to make good on their New Year’s resolution.

For a long time, the conventional wisdom has been that once you’re past the “critical period” for language acquisition – sometime between the ages of four and twelve – you’re too old to learn a new instrument. Game over. Dream another dream.

But in recent years, neurobiologists have challenged the notion of the critical period. The brain, it turns out, doesn’t lock into a holding pattern on your twelfth birthday; it continues to grow, change and regenerate.

This concept is called neuroplasticity and is often summed up with the aphorism “neurons that fire together, wire together.” While learning may be easier and the brain more flexible when we’re very young, learning a new instrument (or a language or a skill or a habit) past adolescence is far from a lost cause. As long as your brain cells are firing, your brain continues to wire – learning never stops.

What I think it comes down to is that kids and adults have very different learning styles. Kids tend to learn new things in giant leaps while adults tend to learn in slow, methodical steps.

Speed is the obvious advantage of the “giant leaps” method, but kids often have to double back to relearn a technique or a concept that they’ve hurriedly glossed over along the way. Adults are more likely to learn a skill thoroughly before moving on to the next one. It’s tortoise versus hare, in other words – and we all know the outcome of that race.

I find that adults learn best when they break things into baby steps (and research on adult barn owls mentioned in an article by the New Yorker’s Gary Marcus, author of Guitar Zero, seems to back me up on this).

Keep your practice sessions short, frequent and focused.

Ten minutes every day is far more effective than “binge practicing” for hours once a week. If you can do three or more ten-minute sessions and space them throughout your day, every day, that would be ideal.

The idea here is that we – especially busy, chronically distracted adults – can concentrate on a difficult and unfamiliar task for only so long until fatigue sets in and we’re no longer learning productively. When you hit the wall of fatigue, don’t try to tunnel through it. Instead, take a break, re-charge and pick up again when your brain is fresh.

Focus is also important. For one ten-minute practice session, play one tune while focusing on your bow hold. In another ten-minute session, zero in on your left-hand technique, or your intonation, or your tone, or your vibrato.

And, of course, as people always say, the most important thing is to have fun. And people say that a lot because it happens to be true.

So have fun! And have a happy new year.

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