Learning A Musical Instrument As An Adult

Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto

About a year ago I began to play the piano.  Like many people I started to play in first grade but stopped after 3rd grade because I didn’t have a good teacher.  But it was a gateway instrument that led first to the saxophone, then the clarinet and finally the oboe, which I’ve been playing now for 50 years.  Problems with fingers #4 and #5 on my right hand due to too much computer keyboarding led me to take up the piano once again as a way to head off any possible issues with focal dystonia.  Right hand fingerings on the oboe for the low C, C# and D# notes were getting problematic and I was having pain in my hand and right arm.  The piano seems to have fixed this, along with changing some bad keyboarding habits.  But learning the piano hasn’t been without challenges.

As they say, youth is wasted on the young.  The principal challenge to adult learning of an instrument I believe lies in the fact that our brains are so cluttered.  As a child, the brain is a blank canvas.  Yes the brain is more malleable, but at least as important is that children, at least ones in households without the “busy” disease, have hours of unstructured time available to them with no responsibilities to worry about, and minds uncluttered by the cares of daily adult life.  Even adult brains are surprisingly adaptable. Music performance requires that the brain has to be 100% focused on the task at hand.  The only other thing requiring this level of focus and attention in my experience is the creation of computer software.  Both are great mental stimulants and by employing both I’m hoping to stave off at least some of the mental degeneration that comes with ageing.  But learning new music, such as memorizing oboe pieces, and learning a new instrument does take longer as I get older.  I’m finding that the increasing length of time is not due to age however, it’s because I don’t have hours of unstructured time available to practice.  Meditation briefly before beginning practice helps clear the mind, but during practice some days it’s a constant struggle to maintain complete focus.  Being forced to focus though is good mental discipline.  There’s a reason a lot of code gets written between 11pm and 4am- the house is quiet, wife and kids are asleep, and the phone doesn’t ring.  Learning a foreign language is another great mental stimulant, but I’ll save discussion of that for another time.