A dinner conversation

January 29th, 2012

I was having dinner with a musician friend the other day, and the conversation turned to the subject of when is an optimal age to start playing the guitar.

The friend said something to the effect that anyone who starts playing the guitar after age 14 should really give up as it’s already too late by then.

I, of course, had to differ with him.

I know many players, mostly ex-students, who started playing at age seventeen, eighteen, even twenty, and who managed to get to a high level of playing.

But he had a point.

It is true that when it comes to learning, children do have an edge over adults, for a variety of reasons.

Children tend to be hands-on. They are less prone to theorizing and questioning than your regular adult, they just play, which means they learn a lot faster and more intuitively.

Children are also not afraid of making mistakes, of doing things ‘wrong.’ If there’s one thing that stands in the way of learning, it’s the fear of making mistakes. If you’re afraid of falling, you’ll never learn to ride a bike.

On top of that, children generally have more time on their hands to practice (unless they happen to have a soccer mom as a parent) so they practice a lot more than your average adult who usually have more commitments and less time on their hands.

In a nutshell, kids are able to learn faster and more effectively because they’re not saddled with the usual baggage that adults have to contend with.

But there’s another reason why people who start earlier tend to be better players.

That’s because they have a head start over someone who started later.

If you start playing the guitar earlier, you’ll generally clock up more hours playing the guitar than someone who starts later than you.

This is the 10,000-hour rule revealed by the great purveyor of common sense truths and half-truths, Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers.

In the book, he asserts that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill or to achieve success in any field.

As anyone involved with the teaching of skills would say, “Duh!” (And Mr. Gladwell had to take 336 pages to reveal this awesome fact.)

10,000 hours is just an arbitrary figure thrown out by Mr. Gladwell and the researchers he cited. But we all know the actual number of hours needed to master a skill depends on the complexity of the task.

If it’s flipping a hamburger, it’ll probably take less than ten minutes, if it’s in playing a Bach fugue on the guitar, it could take more than 10,000 hours.

Coming back to the person who started playing at age ten, if the person practices on the average one hour a day, by the time he reaches thirty, he would have practiced 7605 hours (365 x 20 + 5 leap year hours).

Now, if a person starts playing at age twenty, and practices three hours a day, he would have practiced 10965 hours by age thirty. (356 x 3 x 10 + [3 x 5] leap year hours)

You decide who will probably end up a better player.

I’m probably oversimplifying the case, but you get the idea.

And I did not take into account the first factor, that of approach.

This is an even more critical point than that of the second– that of merely clocking up hours on the instrument – because if you have the wrong approach, it really doesn’t matter how many hours you practice.

As I mentioned earlier, children tend to learn faster simply because they’re freer in their approach.

They don’t have any of the baggage that afflicts older players (unless they happen to have an overzealous teacher), baggage such as doing things right, following proper procedures, they just play and that’s why they’re able to develop such a free and natural technique.

But older people tend to get bogged down with extraneous concerns, concerns about doing things right, concerns about rules, about following the strict dictates of their teachers religiously.

Under these constricting conditions, it’s no wonder many find it hard to play or develop a natural technique on the instrument.

The basic premise of the AOV is that virtuosity is a natural instinct, all of us already have it within us, and all we need to do is release it.

And the way to do it is not to impose any strict rules on the body but to free it up, to allow our body to teach itself.

I’ve found that if you approach playing the guitar this way, you will naturally develop a very free and relaxed technique, and whether you’re ten or twenty or even thirty, you will get all the speed and dexterity you want within one year of learning to play the instrument.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you do not develop this facility within that first year, you would probably never develop it – unless, of course, if you bring yourself back to a more natural and freer approach, the one advocated in the AOV.

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