“You’re never too old to learn” said Fred,
“You can’t teach on old dog new tricks” replied George.

Well they can’t both be right, or can they? Of course as children we were sponges, everything was new and learning was as natural as eating and sleeping. What happens as we get older? Is it different for some than others? Is there something about getting older that makes it harder to learn, or at least different?

Generally people answer questions like this from their own experience, fair enough, the problem is that your experience will be different to mine and to Fred’s and to George’s. That’s why researchers look for more objective data, or at least the subjective data from lots of people, and look for patterns. Here’s a brief summary of what they’ve found.

Your brain is simply a bunch of nerve cells all clumped together in a soft gelatinous blob. Nerve cells don’t do much, they don’t produce anything, kill germs, stuff like that, all they do is transmit electro-chemical signals to other nerve cells. If a transmission happens often enough then the link between the two cells becomes stronger and future transmissions happen much easier. We talk about the cells being ‘connected’.

When enough nerve cells are connected we create a pathway for this electro-chemical signal. When the pathway is well established through repetition, we’ve learned something. Sometimes these connections happen only in the brain and we’ve developed our memory or deeper understanding of something. Sometimes it happens out in the frontiers, the nerves in your spine and limbs, and you’ve learned a new movement, sometimes called a motor skill. Both of these things are important for musicians.

How about our original quandary, old dogs, new tricks etc. I’ll do my best to summarise a literature review that deals with this very question. If you’re interested you can read the whole thing here http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2838968/

A literature review is like a summary of all the research in a particular area. These guys read the research and came up with a few key points.

  • The brains in older people are smaller than those in young adults and the reduction correlates with reduced motor performance.
  • Areas of the brain that deal with motor performance become less efficient with age.

 

Motor performance is simply your ability to move and learn new movements. They also found that all is not lost:


“Although it takes more training time, older adults can eventually perform tasks automatically at the same level as their younger counterparts.”

Our brains will change when they need to. When one part of the brain becomes less capable, another part will take over, it’s called plasticity. They also found that:


“many studies have reported deficits in older adults simultaneously performing cognitive and motor tasks”

and


”older adults learn a new task faster if they previously learn multiple other motor tasks”

So performing these motor tasks is harder if the brain is busy doing something else and we’ll find it easier once we’ve practiced learning other motor skills.

And here lies the essence of learning new skills, particularly if we didn’t have the opportunity to learn them as children.


Learn one thing at a time.

When you repeat one simple task that is very similar to something that you already know it’s much easier to create these connections between nerve cells. Once these are established you can go on and learn another that is similar again, then another, then you combine them, one step at a time. Eventually it comes together.

Not rocket science, or even neuroscience. Makes perfect sense but it’s how you do it that is the trick. What do you learn? When do you know you’ve learned it? What do you learn next? How do you break up these complex movements? How do you construct a set of skills?

I’m not giving it all away here, and there’s too much for a few blogs anyway. It’s all in my Starter Pack course though. The next blog will be about how to practice effectively.

Patrick Curley B. Cont. Music / B. Ed. B. Hlth Sc.

www.LearnCigarBoxGuitar.com

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Comment by Ron "Oily" Sprague on March 23, 2014 at 1:46pm
I think this is one of the reasons you see older folks dominating the CBG movement. They are beginning to learn, through their life experience, that certain things take time. They are a different breed to the generally-younger instant gratification crowd. They know the value of the slow lane. They know that excellence does not normally arise out of thin air, but requires hard work, patience, mistakes made and corrected, and a goal in sight.

I get into this with my kids all the time; they tell me, "You're so good at so many things!" I tell them it has been over 30 years of practice, attention to detail, innumerable failed experiments, focused perseverance, and most importantly (echoing Eric), mental openness and receptiveness. Let whatever it is come. Accept. Analyze. Correct. Move to the next step after getting the previous one down. Have fun while you're building your skills. Improve on each build / lyric / musical phrase / recording. Recognize your humanity through small failures and small successes.
Comment by Patrick Curley on March 21, 2014 at 7:12pm

You're a rare creature Eric, one of the biggest challenges in teaching is satisfying that need for instant gratification, finding different ways to achieve the same goal so that the student doesn't lose interest.

I think it's fair enough though that you'd want to see some results for your efforts. I've been trying to learn the piano for some time now and just learning scales and chords and trying to improvise like I do on a guitar but without much joy. Then I found an arrangement of Beethoven's Moonliight Sonata and found that I can actually play something that makes sense just off the dots. I've put a lot more time in and am getting the results (no concert recitals just yet though).

I get a lot of requests in my course for tabs for the same reason, and again I think that's fair enough. You won't see "play like a CBG god in 5 minutes" on my site though.

Comment by Chris Carlson on March 21, 2014 at 5:27pm
I hear Eric ... It's a long road to travel! There's no instant gratification in this process! "We can only build and play as we move along!
Comment by Bad Finger (Eric) on March 21, 2014 at 4:33pm

In learning, you have to give up the need and desire for instant gratification.  If you can get over that hangup, then it does you well for the future of your continued development.  I tend to be a person who will not do things unless I can see the prospect of doing them very well.  (Don't consider my singing, please).  So I have to continually remind myself to put away my need for being excellent now, right now, in all things I attempt to do.  Instead, I have to develop a road map that will take me where I want to be in an acceptable amount of time.

I gave up on playing piano by the age of 10 because my younger sister was much better than I and I couldn't see myself ever being better than her.  Lucky for me, she never tried to play the trombone.  Maybe if I would have stuck with it. . . ???

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