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A Neuroscientist debunks the Guitar Instinct

March 5, 2012

Here’s a great little tidbit that came across my RSS feed a litte while ago:

Guitar Zero: A Neuroscientist Debunks the Myth of the “Music Instinct and Learns to Play.

The article references a new book by neuroscientist Gary Marcus, and his efforts to learn to play the guitar in adulthood.

To me, the insights in this book are excellent anecdotes to bust the genius myth and give further credence to the power of growth mindset. Marcus points out that there are plenty of great musicians who developed their talents in adulthood:

Patti Smith didn’t consider becoming a professional singer until she was in her mid-twenties, iconic jazz guitarist Pat Martino relearned to play after a brain aneurysm at the age of 35, and New Orleans keyboard legend Dr. John switched from guitar to piano when he was 21 after an injury, then won the first of his five Grammys at the age of 48.

The article also describes a really fascinating experiment that debunks the old saw “you can’t teach a old dog owl new tricks”:

Curiously, one of the most influential experiments on critical periods comes from barn owls who, like bats, rely heavily on sound to navigate; but, unlike bats, they see better than bats do, and one of the first things they do after hatching is calibrating their ears with their eyes, attuning what they hear to what they see. But because this navigational mapping of auditory information depends on the exact distance between their eyes and ears, which changes as the owl grows, it can’t be hardwired at birth.

To study how the owls calibrate their visual and auditory worlds, Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen devised a clever experiment, in which he raised owls in a kind of virtual reality world where prisms shifted everything by 23 degrees, forcing the owl to adjust its internal map of the world. Knudsen found that young owls learned to compensate for the distortion easily, and older owls could not — at least not in one go. But as soon as the 23 degrees were broken down in chunks — a few weeks at 6 degrees, another few at 11, and so forth — the adult owls were able to make the adjustment.

Adult learners as examples to their students

Thanks to an incredible music teacher, Fred Geiersbach, I’ve also had a small experience with trying to learn an instrument as an adult as well. At a previous school, the orchestra director had a policy of offering free music lessons to any adults in the community—on one small condition—you had to play in the orchestra alongside students. One day, on a bit of whim, I told him I was interested in learning to play the violin. And not long thereafter, a violin and a copy of the first book of the Suzuki method showed up on my doorstep. And so I went to lessons, and tried to muddle my way through the first Suzuki book, under Fred’s patience tutelage.

I also remember my first orchestra concert, not more than a month after I started practicing. We were playing a piece I had not really practiced since my repertoire at the time consisted of only 3 or 4 notes. But Fred was wonderful—he encouraged me to just follow along in the piece, and when one of those precious few notes came up, to play it with gusto. It was also a very interesting experience for me to sit alongside freshmen I taught who knew so much more about the violin than me, and would patiently point out where we were in the piece as I got lost.

I would love to report that I was diligent and after years of practice am now an accomplished violinist, but alas, I never mustered the level of dedication to commit myself to the hard work necessary to learn the violin, and not soon thereafter, moved to a different school, leaving behind the practice violin and and Suzuki manual.

I did come away with a great appreciation for Fred’s vision for an orchestra as a community of learners spanning a myriad of ages and occupations. Now, Fred’s Orchestra includes a half dozen or more faculty who are part of the orchestra, some of whom now give their own lessons, including the director of facilities project, who now leads the jazz band, and even the manager of the local liquor store.

I think the example of adults learning alongside students, particularly in areas outside their comfort zone must be an incredible example for students—it helps them to see a completely different side of the adults in their community, helps them see the value in hard work and struggling to master new things, and subtly undermines the myth of genius. How can we bring this model to more of our classrooms?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 5, 2012 2:06 pm

    As rewarding as it is to start music later in life, none of those examples are really novice learners starting well into adulthood – switching instruments or devoting more attention to something that you have done your whole life isn’t starting from scratch at all. Really, it’s extraordinarily hard to be a truly fluent music reader (especially multi-staff) if you haven’t done it since you were a kid, much like languages. Ear training has the same issues, as I learned in music school, after not having any singing or equivalent experience ever. I know folks that can play piano from open orchestral scores or who can internally hear them, and they all started at a very young age. I’m not disagreeing with the general notion that hard work beats talent, but there can be big differences with how far that work can take you, given when you start.

  2. Dawn Hangen permalink
    March 5, 2012 9:05 pm

    I agree with jg. I learned music in elementary school through most of high school, but I have not played an instrument since then. I picked up a clarinet and decided that I would play the instrument again as I did before. It did not happen that way because I cannot remember how to read the music and I do not have enough natural talent to simply play by ear. I do think that students really appreciate having adults learn with them or being able to teach adults something new. The best way to really appreciate what you have learned is to teach that knowledge to someone else!

  3. March 6, 2012 8:14 am

    The guitar is a plucked string instrument, usually played with fingers or a pick.Learning to play guitar is a challenge.But once you know,its Music gives you refreshment,and a feeling of relaxation.A single room,slight light,and a soft music,can take,away all your tiredness,and gives you a fresh mood.In the online lesson,we can start by learning to play G major, C major, and D major chords.You can use a guitar to play anything from death metal to country to classical and everything in between.
    Mandolin Guitars in Georgia

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