Marcus's experience fits with other recent research into the way humans and animals learn that has overturned the notion that it will always be difficult for older creatures to learn new skills because their brains lack the “plasticity” of youthful minds. As it turns out, they just need a little more time. One well-known study in the field found that older owls could not learn to adapt to major changes in their environment as quickly as chicks, but when the changes were introduced in pieces, they adapted just fine.
"It may get harder as you get older," Marcus says, "but there’s no good data that says you can’t learn when you get older." He says there was little formal research supporting the theory in part because too few adults had the time or inclination to devote thousands of hours to disproving the idea by mastering piano or Mandarin in middle age. So he became his own guinea pig.
The message of Guitar Zero, Marcus says, "is that if I can do it, you can do it." Here are some tips he picked up on his journey:
- Make a commitment. “Getting good at something requires you do put the time in," Marcus says. That may be difficult for people in middle age who are still working and raising kids, he says, “but if you give up a bit of TV watching each day you may find you have an extra 30 minutes and if you give it that time, you will make progress. Retirees are in a perfect position to do it.”
- Mix it up. “The trick to getting good at anything is to fool yourself into being willing to practice,” Marcus says. "You have to find ways to vary the practice you do to avoid getting bored.” As he learned guitar, Marcus would vary the backing tracks, tempos, and musical styles he played each days to keep his practice fresh.
- Don't give up. Marcus concedes that there are some differences between the adult mind and the youthful brain. Adults need to take things more incrementally than kids, focus on new skills step-by-step, be patient, and, perhaps most important, resist frustration. Remember how your kids sounded at their first recital? If you're new to the violin, there's no reason to think you should sound any better your first time out.
- Focus on improving. “Always pay attention to your weakest points when you practice,” Marcus says, and remember that this is the key to progress.
- Make it intergenerational. Learning an instrument alongside a grandchild can be a great experience. “Retirees may have to work a little harder to maintain pace with the kids,” Marcus says, but the results, and the journey, are worth it. Consider a Suzuki-based program in your area that encourages both the child and adult partner to learn together.
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