“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!” I can just hear my mother saying that!! And it does sound like a good excuse not to try something new! And since I grew up with a very old dog, an Irish Terrier, in the house, and certainly couldn’t teach HIM anything new, I assumed the saying held.
But now I don’t think so. I don’t see any particular way in which age should cut off learning – if the ‘old dog’ WANTS to learn. (Teaching and learning certainly aren’t the same thing, and no one really learns anything until he/she is ready! And then the teacher will appear.)
At the age of 75 I have just recently started piano lessons!! And I am loving it – even though I can’t project to live long enough to put in the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell says you need to become expert at anything. I don’t have to be an expert; I just wanted to learn something about something new.
Early on in my piano lessons, I had a small ‘aha’ experience: we were working on intervals between notes, skipped notes, which would be intervals of two, and thirds, and fifths. Then there was a cute little practice tune, which included lyrics: “This is my fifth and maybe you’ve heard, Beethoven’s fifth was only a third.” Yes! I immediately hummed the first few notes of Beethoven’s Fifth, and could hear that the interval was only a third! Who knew? I always assumed that Beethoven’s Fifth was the fifth symphony he wrote!
And more lately another such experience: I had been practicing chords, mostly with my left hand, and was having trouble partly because those fingers aren’t so strong – and when you are adding chords to the melody, you have to be thinking about two things at once. (Don’t worry – I’ll learn that too!) But I had discovered one chord, which involves two adjacent notes, that I didn’t like. It sounded jarring. I told Ma’am Edna, my lovely piano teacher, that I didn’t like it. “That’s dissonance”, she said. Of course!
But even if dissonance doesn’t sound nice in isolation, it still contributes to the whole of the music. Remember that when you meet up with someone who seems to make a dissonant response to whatever situation!
As a child I was told I was hopelessly unmusical, and I accepted that. In one music class in maybe grade 3, the teacher arranged us in small semi-circles around the piano, with the worst singers closest to the piano. I was put in row three of five, while my two close friends were in row 5. Of course there is a certain logic to putting the kids who need the most help closer in, and I suppose one shouldn’t really feel bad about being placed in the middle row, but of course I did. I can’t remember who actually said I was hopeless, but now, having spent a life in teaching, I think that was a uselessly mean, limiting thing to tell a child.
So I’ve got some baggage to put behind me. And I am especially happy whenever I make a mistake – get the chord wrong, hit a wrong note in the melody – when I can immediately hear that it is wrong! Maybe I’m not SOO hopeless!!
But it’s more than just overcoming old limitations. Music is known to have all sorts of benefits to our brains and psyches. Ma’am Edna says it can stabilize and calm down children with behavioral problems. It helps people shift into the right brain. Background music facilitates concentration and learning. It is now known to help people with Alzheimer’s; music seems to be one of the last things that lingers in your brain, and so to some extent the music of the past will awaken the past in us. Even singing out loud everyday is known to have health benefits and of course improves moods and wards off depression.
I think I’ve missed a lot of possible music in my life. But then again, it’s never too late to try.