- “You cannot teach an old dog new tricks.”
- “When you get to my age, you stop learning.”
- “Learning is a lot easier when you are younger.”
These are all phrases I have bandied around when I talk to older people about learning music later in life. However, on a Music For You Summer Jazz school in August 2013, I met Sharron Stolarczyk, who by her own admission, came late to playing music at the age of 58 and would certainly disagree with all 3 of the opening statements and is living proof that a musical life begins after 40.
Whilst interviewing Sharron about her experiences of being a later learner, I played the devil’s advocate and asked her whether she learned slower now, than she did when she was younger. Her response was a resounding NO. She said that as she had gotten older, she discovered so much more about HOW she learns. Knowing the way she learns, has dramatically improved her approach and the subsequent progress she made. I was keen to know how Sharron learns now and she described the process which works best for her.
1. Spend some time with a smaller group of musicians where the basics of the music can be worked out.
2. Spend a greater amount of time practising on her own, knowing that what she is practising is right.
3. Go to a full band rehearsal to practise the music in context.
As Sharron explained, until she had found the right way to practice which worked for her and decipher the music, much of her time as a younger learner was completely wasted.
At this point, I asked Sharron about her musical learning experiences as a younger person and she admitted that she had received traumatic piano lessons for a very short time. These lessons did not go well and Sharron’s teacher complained to her parents that she was not practicing. It is interesting that some teacher’s assessments of a students’ musical ability takes little of the individual’s preferences into account. Much later on, Sharron came to realise that it was not her musical ability which was at fault but the fact she was more suited to playing the flute. That was also the instrument that she really wanted to play! Personal preference is a real natural motivator in a student!
Bad experiences in our early years often lead us into believing that we are not musical and that thought can stay with us for our whole lives. Sharron was led to believe that she just wasn’t musical. Some teachers can only teach a certain ‘type’ of pupil and subsequently quickly dispatch students who do not fit into this perfect model. The reputations of such teachers are often perceived as being very good because their results with a very select ‘gifted’ few, are so impressive. Music is for everyone.
Sharron is incredibly busy with her musical projects these days and as a result, was not able to make the Excellent Jazz Summer School this year. She plays with Skipton Community Orchestra and Dales Jam and told me about an incredible film project she was involved with. The project was commissioned by the BBC in 2013 and came to fruition in March of this year. Very exciting for any musician.
I asked Sharron what were the problems that some older learners experienced in bands or on courses. She answered immediately. Some older people make themselves old before their time. They tell themselves they cannot do things and then they start to think and act like they cannot learn new things in a new way. She found working in a band with younger people, absolutely refreshing and a real inspiration and kept her young. Structured practising was also easier for her now she knew how she learned she could practice in the best way for her.
Our older minds and bodies are often more willing to give us what we need to learn than we think. Many years ago, I spoke to an experimental psychologist about later learning. John Barrett was inspiring. He had worked with older musicians (ages 65 upwards) and realised that their learning ability was only 4% lower than that of a 10 year old. He also told me about his tuition on the sitar. He never thought he would be able sit in the half lotus position at the age of 70 but after 3 weeks, his flexibility increased and he was able to learn without an hindrance. This is news to me. Should I try now?
The evidence supports the fact that we are able to learn at any age if we allow ourselves time and patience to get better. I find her outlook and approach, refreshing. She lives in a musical place where she was constantly on the edge of her comfort zone. It is the thought I took with me to this year’s excellent Music for You Jazz Summer school. I followed her lead and I put myself outside my comfort zone in all areas and pushed myself beyond where I would normally. I will tell you all about it in my next post!
There are plenty of tips in my Confident Performer Book too.
So in short, if you are a later learner,
- Work out HOW you learn best and structure your practice for you.
- Put yourself outside your comfort zone to learn faster.
- Learn from younger people to see how they approach difficult sections.
- Join a group to bring structure and purpose to your learning.
- Become involved in some cool projects along the way.
- Remember that your early experiences of music do not define your musical ability ceiling.
- It is never too late to learn anything.
- Our bodies can improve and change if we exercise them.
- What will you learn?