Adult be­gin­ner

Grown-ups may have pa­tience and re­sources, but it does not get eas­ier to mem­o­rise mu­si­cal notes.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By Clara Chow

AYEAR ago, at the age of 35, I started learn­ing the bass gui­tar again. It was my sec­ond at­tempt. At 27, I had taken weekly lessons at a mu­sic school, but did not progress very far be­yond the dis­tinc­tive riff of Cream’s Sun­shine Of Your Love be­fore work, en­nui and, even­tu­ally, mother­hood got in the way.

So last year, I re­solved to pick up the in­stru­ment again and found a new teacher – a fe­male pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian ac­tive in the lo­cal mu­sic scene, who was able to come to my home for an hour-long ses­sion ev­ery Mon­day morn­ing.

I fig­ured that if the teacher came to me while my kids were at school, I had no ex­cuse about hav­ing no time to learn. Be­sides, Teacher Wendy un­der­stood the prob­lems a woman play­ing bass faced, hav­ing smaller hands and shorter arms than most male bassists, and boobs that got in the way when you strapped on your gui­tar.

What I wasn’t pre­pared for was that, af­ter a hia­tus of eight years, I was, in fact, start­ing from scratch and hav­ing to con­tend with more hur­dles. I was now that prover­bial old dog, try­ing to pick up new tricks, all paws on the fret­board and mak­ing a mutt’s din­ner out of the funky bass ex­er­cises my teacher eased me into.

Whole morn­ings were given over to get­ting the tim­ing of the notes right – with Wendy clap­ping out com­pli­cated “ooh-chicka-pop” rhythms and slow­ing mu­si­cal bars down to man­age­able speeds for me – while I tried to make my fin­gers do my bid­ding.

My mem­ory not be­ing what it used to be, I re­mem­bered notes wrongly and stum­bled over sim­ple se­quences. I played so out of time that, had I been in a band, I would have been half a song be­hind ev­ery­body else.

In re­cent years, much has been made of people pick­ing up and mas­ter­ing mu­si­cal in­stru­ments in their adult­hood.

Alan Rus­bridger, edi­tor-in-chief of The Guardian news­pa­per of Lon­don, pub­lished a book last year about his ex­pe­ri­ence of mas­ter­ing the no­to­ri­ously hard- to-play First Bal­lade, Op. 23 by Chopin in 12 months (he even­tu­ally suc­ceeded af­ter 18 months, prac­tis­ing in spare mo­ments, in­clud­ing in a Libyan ho­tel while ne­go­ti­at­ing the re­lease of a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent). Gary Mar­cus’ Gui­tar Zero (2012) is an in­fin­itely read­able ac­count of the New York Univer­sity psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor’s quest to learn the gui­tar in his 40s dur­ing a sab­bat­i­cal, cul­mi­nat­ing in a per­for­mance at a mu­sic camp with teenage band­mates.

As one ar­ti­cle on NPR.org puts it, about how it is never too late to learn an in­stru­ment: “For an adult be­gin­ner, it can some­times feel like try­ing to learn Ara­bic and ice skat­ing at the same time.”

Mar­cus, in his book, gives the ex­am­ple of how bi­ol­o­gists have found that adult barn owls, which use sound to nav­i­gate and cal­i­brate their eyes with their ears, are less able than younger ones to com­pen­sate when their en­vi­ron­ment is ar­ti­fi­cially shifted by 23 de­grees. The old owls, how­ever, could cope bet­ter with this dis­tor­tion when the tilt­ing was done grad­u­ally, over long pe­ri­ods of time.

Fur­ther, Mar­cus cites how the gui­tar fret­board can be con­fus­ing to the grown-up brain, in that there are a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ways to play the same note and scale on its strings, as op­posed to the sys­tem­atic, lin­ear way that piano key­boards are laid out. In­deed, while my back­ground in play­ing the piano helped to a cer­tain ex­tent with my pitch, it didn’t help much when I had to mem­o­rise where notes lay on the frets.

Be­ing an adult be­gin­ner, how­ever, did have ben­e­fits. For one, I was in charge of my own learn­ing jour­ney, as op­posed to be­ing forced sul­lenly to go for my weekly piano lessons and be­ing rapped on the knuck­les for bad play­ing as a child. I prac­tised as of­ten as I wanted to – which was not very of­ten, maybe once or twice a week, some­times not at all – but en­joyed my prac­tice ses­sions much much more as a re­sult.

With the re­sources I didn’t have as a kid, I sought out new ways to help me with my play­ing: iPhone metronomes, play­ing along to YouTube record­ings and a rather handy web­site that tran­scribed the chord changes to any song posted on­line (just sup­ply its URL) so I could fig­ure out the basslines to cur­rent hits. I un­der­stood bet­ter on an in­tel­lec­tual level how notes and chords re­lated to each other, and how a bass line was con­structed, whereas the­ory used to be just a bunch of squig­gles on man­u­script paper to be filled up and en­dured as a pupil.

Com­pared to younger rock gods, my mid­dle-aged body needed more rest in be­tween prac­tis­ing (shoul- der ache is a killer). This, how­ever, turned out to be a good thing, at least, ac­cord­ing to one neu­ro­sci­en­tist I read on­line.

Dr El­mar Sch­meisser, quoted in an ar­ti­cle by Amer­i­can folk mu­si­cian Dick Hen­sold, ex­plains that it takes a while to “syn­the­sise mol­e­cules” in or­der to trans­fer mu­si­cal pat­terns from short-term to longterm mem­ory, and for synapses be­tween neu­rons to grow in or­der to build new con­nec­tions and learn new pat­terns.

Ex­trap­o­lat­ing from this, putting a song aside be­fore re­turn­ing to it again helps to give it time for your brain to grow pieces that will help you mas­ter it. Al­though, in my case, I think not prac­tis­ing just gives my brain a chance to for­get the piece.

Still, I kept plug­ging at the bass. Some days, we mud­dled through 12-bar blues, 1970s funk and Bruno Mars. Other days, I blazed through riffs I was al­ready fa­mil­iar with as a lis­tener, from the mu­sic of my teens: the ur­gent thump­ing rage of Smash­ing Pumpkin’s Bul­let With But­ter­fly Wings and the glo­ri­ously sat­is­fy­ing hair-band in­tro­duc­tion of Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine.

A year on and I am still no Kim Gor­don. Al­though, I sus­pect I might do OK in a pop-punk band. I’ve tried jam­ming with an in­for­mal bunch of mu­si­cians, only to get so self­con­scious about play­ing in front of oth­ers, I went home with­out tak­ing my bass out of its bag.

But adult­hood has also taught me pa­tience. De­spite the neuro-psy­cho­log­i­cal in­for­ma­tion that I am fond of read­ing about adult mu­sic learn­ing, I am wait­ing for the ac­cre­tion of skill by mag­i­cal os­mo­sis.

Re­cent re­search by Aus­tralian re­searchers showed that kids be­tween seven and nine, who en­vi­sioned them­selves as adult mu­si­cians when they started learn­ing an in­stru­ment, went on to play it bet­ter and stud­ied it longer, com­pared to those who didn’t. I see my­self get­ting good at this af­ter 30 years – an in­vest­ment of a mere 1,560 hours, if I prac­tise only once a week; the Gran who can.

At the end of the day, learn­ing mu­sic as an adult is partly about neu­ro­phys­i­ol­ogy, partly hope and spirit. It is mind over mat­ter – if you don’t mind sound­ing bad, it doesn’t mat­ter. – The Straits Times, Sin­ga­pore/Asia News Net­work

School of rock: This writer blazed through riffs she was al­ready fa­mil­iar with, from the mu­sic of her teens such as the in­tro­duc­tion of Guns n’ roses’ Sweet­ChildO’Mine.

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