That darned brain plasticity thing

When I had decided to re-start my piano studies, I spent a lot of time on the Internet, doing “research”. One reason was that I spend a lot of time on the Internet (it is a part of my profession, actually) and another was that I simply had nowere else to go and noone nearby to discuss these issues with. There is noone in my vicinity that plays the piano, nor is interested in this.

Of course I soon landed in a few discussion boards … I read a lot of articles … other online stuff. I learned a lot of fascinating terms that I had never heard before, at least not in English – like sight-reading, recital, masterclass, progidy. And “brain plasticity”. What was that?

It is a popular term among piano students and piano know-hows. It is a good explanation, and also a good excuse, and also something nice to wave in the air when you want to add some extra dignity to your words. But I want to warn a bit about it. The first thing you should know is that these “scientific facts” change over time, and one day they might be as true as the statement that women are mentally incapable of higher university studies or that it is physically impossible to run an English mile under 4 minutes or climb the Mount Everest without an oxygene mask. For long it was an established fact that certain skills were totally assigned to certain areas in the brain, and once such an area was destroyed, the knowledge and the skill was lost forever. Today we know that it is not entirely true.

Recent research indicates that you don’t lose your ability to learn new skills when you grow older – but you learn in a different way. I like that. I mean, the thought that you are incapable to learn after the age of 15 is rather depressing, isn’t it? So during the rest of your life (some 80 years or so) you are supposed to do what? Prepare your funeral? Holding laments over everything you did not learn before the gate closed?

Besides I am a living proof that the importance of this brain plasticity thing is, if not rubbish then at least highly exaggerated. When I made my restart as a pianist, I was really rusty, I have already written about that. I practically had to begin from the very beginning once again. But today I play much better than ever before and I think it is much easier to learn new pieces than it was when I was a school kid. I play pieces I used to joke about 30 years ago as “impossible”. I am light-years away from professional concert pianist standards, but I am also far ahead of my teen years. According to this brain plasticity theory, this should not be possible. I could, as best, come back to my former standard but never surpass it.

But I definitely also admit that I learn differently today. I have noticed that my ability to understand music never has deteriorated during the years, on the contrary. I am simply a much better listener today. Remember, I wrote that I thought Beethoven was boring …

I remember, though, that I was a marvellous student when in middle grade. At the age of 11, I could read the book all the way through in almost one sitting and remember almost everything afterwards. There was a rumour about me that I did nothing but study when I was at home, that was why I always did so well at tests. Well, that was not true. I only prepared for tests the evening before. My brain simply was very receptive, my ability to focus was very good. Then, when I came to adolescence, this changed. I had to struggle harder the older I got to learn things. So it was true that my learning capability changed over the years. I have also written in this post that my first years as a piano student was a success story where I learned everything rapidly but then I sort of hit a wall, boom.

But I do not want to accuse just my ageing and stiffening brain. There were many other factors playing a role here. I strongly believe there is too much emphasis on this brain plasticity thing, therefore too little on these other factors. Factors that you, actually, can counteract if you are just aware of them.

If you want to learn like a child does, you have to think like a child and be like a child. But maybe it is not totally necessary to be a child. On the other hand, like I said before, maybe you don’t have to learn like a child either. After all, as an adult you have other advantages – like experience and a critical mind. On the other hand again, experience and critical mind are often exactly those things that prevent us from learning. We have to be aware of that, so that we use these characteristics to our advantage and not the opposite.

I also think that the major reason why “noone, ever” can become a successful concert pianist if starting late in life, is that it is nearly impossible to find enough motivation and energy by then. Because it is hard, incredibly hard, no doubt about that. If you want to become rich and famous there are certainly easier ways. And when you are an adult, life is filled with duties, responsibilites and interests. I may stick my neck out quite a lot here, but I believe it is possible to start very late in life and still “make it to the top” if you like – in theory. The reason it seldom or never happens in reality is not because it is impossible, but because nobody is willing to pay that price.
But I also think it is a pity if anyone does not even dare to try, if you feel this is your true calling and passion in life. I am convinced that we are our own worst enemies in this case as we set our own boundaries, and yes, Henry Ford was absolutely right in his famous statement:

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right“.

You can always remember all those pioneers in human history, who boldly went where no man had been before (yes, I am a Trekkie). If they had not, we had never climbed down from the trees. (If you like to call that progress, that is.) The fact that nobody has done a certain thing before is no proof that it cannot be done.

So, if you have a passion for playing the piano, if you really love playing the piano and if you also think practicing is great fun and an interesting challenge, there is no reason not to do it. Certainly not the worst excuse of them all: I am too old. After all my ramblings here in this blog you may also have discovered my belief that practicing becomes fun and interesting when you know it pays off. So this “I am too old, my brain cannot learn anymore” is a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than a universal truth. Just suppose, just for a moment, that everybody had said “you will learn faster and more efficiently the older you become” – do you think that would have made a difference? I do.

I wasted all my school years believing that I could not play piano very fast. My fingers seemed too slow. God knows where I got that idea from – anyway, it turned out to be false. I can play very fast if I like to. However, I did not realize that until a teacher pointed it out to me. I have also spent all those years until now believing I cannot memorize. In this post I described how I discovered a method of working around this “curse”. Voilá – I can memorize! It is not even difficult anymore!

Recently I found this article which is inspiring reading as it describes pretty well a situation we adult amateurs recognize. But again I see this strange expression about brain plasticity. My suggestion is that you take any statement about brain plasticity very light-heartedly from now on. It is probably just as true or untrue as you want it to be. And if you cannot learn in a certain way, there is probably another that suits you better.


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