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Learning New Tricks

Learning New Tricks
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By Kim Akins

I’ve been interested in and thinking about learning to play the bass for a number of years. I took piano lessons as a child, and had played a variety of instruments in school bands through high school, from flute to euphonium to valve trombone. However, I had not picked up an instrument to learn to play it for thirty years. A year ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine who encouraged me to pick up his bass guitar and give it a try. He is a talented guitar player, and was very encouraging. He taught me some good techniques, like how to pluck the strings correctly and some simple scales. He invited me to play his bass anytime I was at his house, and it got to the point where I could play a few very simple songs. I decided to purchase my own bass guitar. After I got the guitar, I promptly lost confidence in my own ability to learn to play.

“You want the whole tamale, but you can’t have it all right away!” So says musician and music teacher Brian Mangini when he works with adult students.   “Adult men in business suits will come in and think that because they are successful in the rest of their adult lives, they will instantly be successful at playing the piano,” he says. “I have to tell them, ‘baby steps, baby steps!’ and you’ll never learn anything if you don’t practice.”

According to The Music Loft (themusicloftonline.com), adult students face unique challenges when learning to play an instrument. “Adults are used to “using” their brains in very specific ways. Since musical skills and techniques require all parts of the brain, adults will often become frustrated quickly.” In order to break through that barrier, adult students must be willing to start from the beginning, and be patient with themselves. Instructors at a variety of music education schools recommend that adult learners be included in lesson planning and are encouraged to be active learners in a one-on-one setting rather than in a class with others.

Part of the reason adult students may do better in a one-on-one setting is worry of embarrassment. As Patricia S. Stevens writes in her article, The Truth about Adult Music Training, “Some adults are uncomfortable learning new things or not knowing how to do things. In their employment or at home, they may feel confident about their abilities and problem solving skills but, in a new situation, they may feel inadequate or awkward. To counteract these feelings of insecurity, embarrassment or inadequacy adults usually overcompensate by trying to do everything perfectly, they ask the instructor many probing questions to try to focus information and requirements, and take their time to accomplish tasks in order to avoid mistakes.”  In a situation like this, Stevens says, it is important that the instructor is able to support the adult student’s intense need for detail and affirmation.

If an adult student has taken lessons as a child that can also influence the way this person learns or feels about learning. It can also be difficult to be in a “student” mindset for adults, especially in a setting where their flaws and mistakes are pointed out. Although an adult may understand that making mistakes is part of the process of learning, it can be hard to keep that in perspective. It may make sense for an adult student to engage in online instruction, or with an instructor who is not a family member or friend. Each student makes the decision based on his or her comfort level with learning an instrument; while some people may have an innate talent for learning on their own, others may benefit from the guidance of an in-person instructor.

As with anything, practice is the key to improving. The benefit that adults have regarding this is that we know it is true, even if we don’t want to acknowledge it. The best way to motivate yourself to begin to learn an instrument, or “speak the language of music” as John Ziegler writes, is to immerse yourself in it. A student should handle the instrument regularly, and practice the beginning steps daily, even if he or she has advanced to a higher level. When working on a piece, Zieglar recommends listening to a recording of it. A student then will gain the benefit of the understanding of a professional musician, as well as develop additional insight into how the to play the music. Although eventually the goal is to play all the notes correctly, Ziegler recommends not worrying so much about that at first, but just get the sense of the music. From there, practice is the key to improving.

Despite the challenges, the benefits of learning a musical instrument for an adult are numerous. Creating music, just like creating many things, offers an outlet for stress. Focusing on learning music and musical techniques allows a person an escape from the stresses of the day.   Using the brain to learn new things is a great way to increase intelligence and improve eye-hand coordination. According to Richard Allyne of The Telegraph UK, “….parts of the brain that control motor skills, hearing, storing audio information and memory become larger and more active when a person learns how to play an instrument and can apparently improve day to day actions such as being alert, planning and emotional perception.”

The connections adults can make between the accomplishment of learning an instrument and learning something new in a job, for instance, contribute to learning in both settings more easily. Using the brain differently, as adults must do in order to learn a musical instrument, may increase the ability to learn a foreign language as well; “When you play a musical instrument you have to learn about tone and about scores and your ability to store audio information becomes better,” writes Lutz Jäncke, a psychologist at the University of Zurich. Finger exercises and movements may help with certain types of arthritis or joint stiffness, a benefit any of us with those ailments can appreciate.

The most important benefit to learning an instrument as an adult is the satisfaction of learning it. Maybe an adult student has a goal. As I move closer to my 50th birthday, my goal was to accomplish something I had always wanted to – learn the guitar, and in my case the bass guitar. Others may want to set an example for their children, play music with friends, or perform. No matter the reason for beginning, the accomplishment of learning an instrument can provide new confidence, new opportunities, and a new way of looking at the world.

You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.

Charlie Parker


The Music Loft; themusicloftonline.com


National Association for Music Education

The Telegraph UK)


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