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By Jeff Moore M.S.
There are a lot of myths about playing musical instruments and none so more permanent than those about age, ability, and the adult learner. Many of these myths are contradictory, but they are none-theless accepted by many people as fact. I hope to dispel these myths and show that not only is a guitar, voice, keyboard, and other types of musical education possible for an adult learner, but the adult learner is better prepared to engage in this activity that younger people, more likely to stick to the practice and will benefit enormously from such a pursuit. Read through the age and non-age related myths that suggest the adult learner probably shouldn’t take up music.
Myth 1: Adults are too old to start learning music
Reality: If you can still move, you can participate in some form of musical activity. Studies show that not only can adults learn but that the brain has and can develop reserve capacity and remains amazingly flexible throughout the lifespan. One of the most engaging and focused activities you can participate in is music.
Myth: Music is hard to learn
Reality: Your body, brain, and emotions are keenly tuned to music. You can remember a catchy tune of several notes and pitches for years, but you probably won’t remember a grocery list from yesterday. While music has many difficult technical and theoretical concepts, humans are built to enjoy and produce music. It is this built in capacity and reward of hearing yourself play pleasant melodies and tunes that reinforces the practice and makes it a pleasurable pursuit.
Myth: Musicians are born not trained
Reality: For every musical savant, there are hundreds of trained musicians of equal ability. Music is an art. The analogy is often used that there are no 80-year-old competitive sprinters as if this applies equally to the musical practice. As you age, you cannot sprint—as fast. This has some truth to it. As you age you cannot sprint as fast (or you choose not to); however, learning the guitar has much more in common with painting a portrait than it does a physical activity such as sprinting. Speed is a part of it, but it is fine-tuned motor movement, not gross physical strength. It is true that some guitarists can play amazingly fast. An 80-year-old beginning guitarist will likely not be inducted into the hall of fame as the world’s fastest guitarist. However, an 80-year-old beginning guitarist can learn to play fast and expressively in a relatively short period of time. An 80-year-old can express a lifetime of joy and experience in ways that a 15 or 20-year-old may not be able to. This goes for voice, keyboard too and other instruments. There are obviously limitations. If someone has a physical disability or permanent injury perhaps keyboard or guitar is not the instrument of choice. A harmonica is possible, or bassoon, or piano, or voice….the possibilities are multitude.
Myth: musical training ‘ruins’ good musicians, especially those interested in popular styles.
Reality: This is completely false. What is true is that if you want to be a rock musician, your best starting point is not a classical or jazz musical program at a conservatory. Many classical practices are violated with popular music styles and as in our previous examples, you don’t train for the shotput by sprinting. You don’t train for painting portraits by studying fiction writing. All styles of music are related in that they are music; however, style is important to study on its own. If you want to play the blues, and are 80 years old, don’t start your study with Mozart, or Miles Davis, start instead with Buddy Guy, or Muddy Waters.
So perhaps you aren’t too old after all. Perhaps you are not ‘born’ into the musical art. But you can learn. Think of the benefits, not only are you not too old, in fact, to improve cognitive skills and happiness, music lessons may be the best choice. As humans age, they tend to have a decline in ability to pick out sounds with a lot a background noise, music training helps reverse this. Can music training make you smarter, or do you need to be smart to take music lessons, such as guitar lessons? Studies indicate that music training itself improves IQ and brain function.
Young and old, music training, music coaching, focused practice in music can improve IQ, slow or reverse declines in various hearing and cognitive abilities, but I maintain that there is another benefit. Music is the single most important activity we can engage in as adults. Music is an artistic pursuit. Music is the language of our soul. To play any instrument, allows self-expression unique in human experience. While we wonder at visual marvels, it is sound which touches our emotions more deeply than anything else. Try this for example: Find a blockbuster movie such as Star Wars, or other blockbuster movie. Turn off the sound and watch the move for 5 minutes. Turn on the sound and close your eyes listening to the same scene. Sound provides much more to us than sight on an emotional level. This is why home theater systems provide more of an ‘experience’ than a larger TV screen. Sound, music, appeals to our soul.
I have had people argue with me. “Jeff, I’m 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 years old. I’m too old to play rock and roll, or Mozart. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”
The fact is. You can. While it may be too late for you to play 1000 notes per minute on a guitar, almost anyone can play fast enough to be impressive, to be expressive, to be an excellent musician, with dedicated practice. Regardless of your age (if you are relatively healthy) few musical pursuits are out of reach. And there is more than that. Let’s stay with the example of the returning guitar student. If you can string two notes together, you can play your own music. EVERYONE has music within them. Most music teachers teach other people’s compositions--and yes it is important to ‘learn’ other people’s music, but that is just one side of the equation, you need to play your own music. Most music students end up just mimicking other people’s music because their teacher can’t teach them how to express their own music. From the first day you pick up an instrument, you should be composing your own music. Expressing your soul.
Let’s examine another pursuit: Vocal instruction. Voice lessons can improve breathing, and general health as breathing exercises improve general health and improved general health improves cognitive function. Voice training is important at some level for all musicians, it helps with ear training and as such with instruments outside of voice and it allows greater expression with your given musical instrument, in addition to the above mentioned health benefits.
Hopefully I’ve dispelled a few myths and convinced you to take up the pursuit of music for artistic and health reasons. The adult learner is not only capable of taking up the pursuit of music, the adult learner is uniquely prepared to engage in the pursuit in a way that most younger people are unable to do. Can music lessons make you smarter? With dedicated practice, yes, it engages a wide variety of cognitive functions—training for your brain and body. Can music lessons make you happier? Almost certainly. Music is an artistic pursuit that allows expression of the soul. So, after reading this it’s time to get up— time to improve your life. Time is passing. Don’t let it pass you by.
Jeff Moore B.A., M.S.: is a guitar and voice instructor. He specializes in teaching adult learners how to leverage life experiences to accelerate their progress in guitar and voice.