Saturday, December 31, 2011

Learning Music as an Adult

Currently I have the smallest group of students that I have ever had since I started teaching. What is the collective noun for 'students'? Stable? Coterie? Herd? Covey? In any case, my very tiny group now includes two adult beginners, one of whom is a retired psychologist and the other a retired electrician. In over thirty years of teaching I have had many young beginners and older beginners: seven years old to seventy. So you could say I have practical knowledge about the subject.

Am I a good teacher? Judging by results, I seem to be doing ok. A friend emailed me to mention that an adult friend of his had tried to take up the guitar, but gave up after one or two unsatisfying lessons. That can happen. My response was, try a different teacher. Of the two adults I am currently teaching, one just started a few months ago. By the end of the first lesson, he was reading simple notation. By the end of the first month he had learned to play a simple piece of music and by a couple of weeks later he had performed it in public. I schedule "guitar nights" every now and then specifically to give students a chance to play for others. Why did he progress so fast? I arrange things so that should happen. If you choose the right sort of things to start with, in the right order, you can progress pretty fast. Later on, things may slow down from time to time as some things just take a long time to absorb. But the initial progress is extremely important to give the student encouragement and excitement. My other adult student has been with me for several years and not only is he playing a lot of concert music (at the last guitar night he played the Alborada by Tarrega, a quite virtuosic little piece, and a fantasia by Francesco da Milano, with good contrapuntal sense), but he has just completed working his way through Aldwell and Schachter's 600 page textbook on harmony. He also composes.

So it is with considerable experience in realm of adult study of music, the guitar in particular, that I read the piece in today's Wall Street Journal. In case that link goes away, let me quote some relevant bits:
Can old dogs learn new tricks? Developmental psychologists have long said no. The so-called "critical periods" theory of learning says that if you want to learn something, start early in life... For years, the strongest evidence for youth as a once-in-a-lifetime period of learning seemed to come from animals. Take barn owls. Shortly after hatching, owl chicks calibrate their eyes with their ears. In a classic study, the Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen put prisms in front of owls' eyes, disrupting their normal capacity to link what they saw with what they heard. Young owls easily learned to compensate for the distortion, whereas old owls could not... My own dream had always been to learn a musical instrument, but every attempt, from grade school onward, had ended in failure. A few summers ago, at the age of 38, I decided to take one last shot.
To my surprise, there was scarcely any scientific literature on whether adults could really pick up an instrument late in life. The problem wasn't a lack of scientific interest in adult musical education. It was a lack of subjects.
To learn a musical instrument, you need to put in a lot of work—10,000 hours is a number that is often cited—and to do a proper study, you'd need a reasonably large sample of adult novices with sufficient commitment. Nobody had studied the outcomes of adults who put in 10,000 hours because so few adults were willing and able to invest that kind of time... First, and most important, take small steps and don't expect overnight success. It's not realistic to expect to develop professional-level skills instantaneously. Whether you want to paint, cook, pick up a sport or learn anything else, your brain will need a heavy dose of rewiring.
Musical instruments, for example, require the brain to coordinate eyes, ears and hands (in some cases, feet as well). Most of us know enough to make allowances when we hear a child play at their first recital, or paint their first painting, but we forget to cut ourselves the same slack. One reason that children sometimes outperform adults is that they don't worry nearly as much about how good they are and how they look; they just get to it.Also, remember the folk wisdom of generations: Practice every day, no matter what. Because you're taking small steps, you need to take a lot of them. Learning a skill depends on building new memories, and studies show that we learn new information most efficiently if we spread our practice out rather than trying to cram it all into a short period (like before a test).And practice strategically, always targeting your weakest skills. Studies show that with everything from chess to typing to soccer to music, deliberate practice aimed at remedying weaknesses is a better predictor of expertise than raw number of hours... It's also crucial to find a teacher who understands how you learn. The best guitarist in town may have once jammed with Carlos Santana, but that doesn't mean he can explain what you need to know, in terms you will understand. [my emphases]
 Let me see if I can adequately get across how much of this utterly enrages me! But before that, I have to say that there is quite a bit of truth here. It is the unexamined assumptions that are so awful. The first is the truly absurd assumption that scientists, specifically "developmental psychologists" and "biologists" are the first  place you go to find out something about learning music. Good god, why? Musicians have been teaching music forever; don't you think they have figured it out? This constant genuflecting to science as being the highest source of wisdom, even in the arts, is absurd beyond belief. Owls? Oh, please! And then the mindless reciting of the "10,000 hours" crap. When he does cite some real truths about learning music, he demeans them by calling it "folk wisdom". "Studies show" is a phrase that I have learned over the years to be extremely suspicious of. What most studies show, in my experience, is that when scientists try to figure out things artistic two things happen: either they are completely wrong, or they "discover" something we have known for a very long time.

The sentence "it's also crucial to find a teacher who understands how you learn" conceals another treacherous misunderstanding. No, it is not crucial to find a teacher who understands how you learn; it is crucial to find a teacher who understands how music works and what helps people--in general--learn. Yes, students are all different, in the sense that they have different sensitivities and capacities and obstacles, but how you handle this doesn't vary greatly from student to student. It really doesn't.

I don't think I have read a single article in the mainstream media this year about music that was not completely misleading. But that is why I started this blog!

How about some guitar music to end the year? Many years ago I had the pleasure of having Manuel Barrueco for a house guest for a few days. Not only a wonderful guitarist (one of the most precise and expressive there is), but a very keen and perceptive mind and a great sense of humor.

Oscar Ghiglia is not so well known as a performer, but here is a small sample. He is, however, one of the great guitar teachers. I spent two summers working with him in his master class at Banff, Alberta in the 1980s. A widely-read, cultured man, and one with with a special gift for the metaphor that reveals the musical expression.

Leo Brouwer is best known as a composer, but he is also a remarkable and unique guitarist. I think his best playing was on an album of Scarlatti sonatas:

Incidentally, when Manuel Barrueco was staying with me I played part of the album for him. He wasn't as taken with it as I was, but then he plays a lot of Scarlatti himself--quite differently!

Enjoy these less known guitarists and my best wishes to all my readers in the new year.


Christine Lacroix said...

Hi Bryan
Thanks for a very interesting post. As a teacher myself (not music obviously) I agree with you when you say :

"No, it is not crucial to find a teacher who understands how you learn; it is crucial to find a teacher who understands how music works and what helps people--in general--learn. Yes, students are all different, in the sense that they have different sensitivities and capacities and obstacles, but how you handle this doesn't vary greatly from student to student. It really doesn't."

My nephew started piano at the age of 50 and progressed quickly enough to amaze his teacher. He takes great pleasure in playing. Generalizations about learning can be so deceptive maybe because motivation plays as important a role as individual differences in talent and ability.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Christine! I taught guitar for far too many years, but I did figure out some of the important things about teaching.

Re motivation: you betcha! And that's why it is frequently rewarding to teach music: because all your students are motivated, or should be.

Marc Puckett said...

Thanks for the heads up about this post! It's very encouraging. Am still shopping for a guitar but since am going for basic functionality that process should be simple enough compared to the choosing a teacher business. There are not literally a thousand guitar teachers who will instruct adults here but a score or more, certainly. A book called 'The Guitarist's Complete Technique Kit' has, at this early stage, served well the purpose of making clear to me the completeness of my ignorance, ha.

Bryan Townsend said...

You might employ a teacher first and get him to help you select a guitar...

Marc Puckett said...

That thought had crossed my mind. Hmm. I suppose if I'm taking seriously the importance of the choice of teacher that ought to be done before buying an instrument. There are, almost literally, a hundred acoustic guitars hanging from the ceiling of the one store downtown.

Elisa Woo said...

I , kind of, feel that finding the right teacher is important. I began cello studies about a dozen years ago. Unfortunately, I had a teacher who could not give suggestions to strengthen all my weaknesses. She was actually a violinist who played in the symphony and she had taught for many years. When I asked how can I make smooth bowing and all she said was,"Well, the professionals can do it so well." That certainly did not help me at all. All I did was to go through the Suzuki program page by page. I stuck it out for a year, and quit. Now, a dozen years later, at age 63, I had decided to either bury the cello or try again. I am so glad I tried again. I have a fabulous teacher who is able to pinpoint every need and I am now playing famous pieces which I thought I would never get to.
What you said about making excitement out of music is probably the best approach. Giving students a chance to play together ( or for each other ) without judgements is important. Unfortunately, in the classical environment, most people are so snooty that they only want to listen to the best and the most talented. Only the advanced students can play in orchestras. Well, not every student who takes music lessons will turn out to be YoYo Ma or Perlman. But, they will still enjoy the chance to play in some kind of ensembles.
I love the fiddle scene. So different form classical scene. They have a completely opposite approach. They feel everyone can play. Everyone can join the group play. Come socialize. Play together. Have fun. That's why fiddlers have so much energy in their music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences, Elisa! I know exactly what you mean about the right teacher. I'm afraid that there are too many mediocre teachers out there. Sorry if you have experienced snobbism in the classical realm. My mother was a fiddler, so I know first hand about the spontaneous energy and enjoyment in that kind of music.