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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My best piano teacher

I want to introduce you to the best and most important piano teacher I’ve ever had. Jimmy, my faithful friend and companion – here he is:

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So, how can a dog be a piano teacher, you ask? Well, most dog owners know that a dog can teach lots and lots about faithfulness, unconditional love and the importance of living in the present moment. So did Jimmy. He was a shetland sheepdog, and they are very loving dogs, very sensitive to signals and easy to train. If you use the right methods, that is. Yelling and harsh punishments don’t go well with a sheltie. On the other hand, they are very suitable for “clicker training“, a method with growing popularity. It is fun for both dogs and humans. The principle, if you just don’t bother following the link, is simple: you have a gadget called clicker, a little thing that makes a clicking sound – you can use any signal gadget including your own voice, but the point is that you teach the dog that each time this sound is heard, it means he will get a reward. Often a treat, but some dogs prefer to get access to a toy or something like that. Anything that the dog really wants.

When you train the dog, you click when he is doing something you like, and then he gets his reward, and if he does something wrong, you just ignore it. This is also called positive enforcement – you encourage and enforce behaviours you like, and ignore the undesired behaviour until it vanishes. Your student, the dog that is, will think this is great fun. Like playing a computer game. Both Jimmy and my other dog Frodo – still around, thank God – jumped with joy whenever I showed them the clicker. Work? No way! Let’s play the clicker game! Come on!

Jimmy learned more than 20 commands in a short time, and also showed great talent in agility. He also got the chance to try some herding, and it turned out he had all the instincts needed to herd the sheeps. But in that case I needed no clicker, which is interesting – to be with the sheep was the best reward for him. We had to drag him out from the sheepfold when his training session was over, he did not want to quit.

The herding instructor was good, by the way. She told us that in order to make the dog “ignite” for herding, it was absolutely forbidden to bash him when he was in the sheepfold. All we must do was to praise him. Praise him for everything he did in there, including peeing at the fence and scratching himself behind the ear. We were equipped with a light plastic staff in order to protect the sheep in case the dog would be a bit too enthusiastic and try to bite them. (You just put the staff between the dog and the sheep.) Not that it was necessary in Jimmy’s case – he turned out to be natural talent and knew almost at once what to do, and not what to do. In his whole life, he never was aggressive to anything or anyone.  But I still remember the instructor’s constant call to all the course participants: “Don’t forget to praise! Praise, praise!”

So what I learned from my dog was that no progress is so small that it is not worth praising, and that the real key to dog training is to maintain their enthusiasm. An experienced, “clicker wise” dog gets very active whenever he sees the clicker. He starts to test all the kinds of behaviour he can come up with, in his wild attempts to get that click, so he is extremely alert and active, and you cannot get a more attentive student. A dog that gets punishments for wrong behaviour, though, will feel fear when it is training time. He knows it can be painful. His best strategy will be to be as passive as possible, and to hope for the training session to end quickly …

I don’t think I need to tell you which method gives the fastests results. Anyone with the slightest grain of intelligence can figure that out …

Or?

Or?

This is where it becomes interesting. Now we are talking piano again. When I had decided to start playing the piano again, and was determined not to make the same old mistakes once again, because this meant too much to me, I first had to identify what these old mistakes really were, of course.  And then find a way to solve the problem.  I happened to look at my dear dog, always at my side, and suddenly I sort of heard that herding instructor again, her voice echoing in my head: “Don’t forget to praise! Praise, praise! Let him know that nothing bad can happen to him!”

From all my training sessions with Jimmy I also knew that you cannot work too long with a dog. Sooner or later he will get tired of it, and then he will just stop listen to you and start sniffing on the ground instead. It is his way to tell you he has had enough at the moment, he will not learn anything new now. To insist would just be harmful, because he must never feel that training is something negative …

Then I recalled all the moments I had been sitting at the piano, critizising myself: “there I go again! Why can’t I learn this? Oh, I suck, I must be the most untalented piano student in the world …”
I know this is quite common behaviour. We all do it, more or less. First, self-punishment has been regarded as a virtue since long, in order to get enlightment. The flesh is weak and blah blah blah. I am just a lousy little sinner, please forgive me, God. Second, in the absence of that strict teacher we all believe is so good, we have to be that teacher ourselves. And third, I suppose we think that by being so strict and self-critical, we mark how important this is. No half-hearted dabble here, thank you very much!

Our school system is designed this way too. When the children first enter school, they are usually curious and enthusiastic, but after a few years they certainly have learned the lesson: this is no playground! He we work! Blood, sweat and tears! And the most crazy thing is that we believe this is how it should be, even though we already have seen the happy spark fade away from children’s eyes and be replaced by desillusion and resignation. Even though we have been there ourselves.

Discipline! You need strong self-discipline, or else you are a weak person, a bad person! Yes, isn’t it strange that we easily understand how worthless it is to train a dog this way, but we do it to our children and ourselves, maybe with the poor excuse “but piano playing is more complicated than retrieving a ball!”
Come on, the principle should be the same no matter what you learn. I am a living example that this is true.

I remember when I read those innocent words Per wrote when he offered piano lessons: “it is fun!”  He really wrote that, he thought practice was fun. I thought “noo, my dear, it is not. Playing the piano is fun, though. But practice – that is for fakirs.”

Now, after all these years, I suddenly got this insight: does it really have to be hard and boring? If I had trained my dog following the same principles I used for practicing piano, he would have learned basically nothing. And he would have been miserable too, with bad self confidence and no desire to learn anything more. What if … I looked at it from his point of view? What if the same principles that worked for him, could work for me?

So, as a human piano student I don’t need a clicker and a treat with liver taste. But I need encouragement. I decided to focus on my progress instead of my mistakes. To let my piano be my own “sheepfold”, a place where nothing bad could happen. Otherwise I would never “ignite”. My modest starting point was to practice 10 minutes a day. More than that could be too ambitious, I thought. So I had to sit at the piano for 10 minutes, at least, and not leave the piano until I had made a short summary on my progress. I had to find something every time. I lowered my ambitions to nearly-although-not-quite-zero and then I praised myself a lot for having sat down even that day, for having turned a page, or for having improved one lousy bar a little bit. Anything that made a positive difference, no matter how small, was worth my attention. Mistakes? Flaws? Ok, I renamed them “improvements to come”. It was a good name, actually. Had a more encouraging flavour, so to speak.

When I tell people about this, my “dog method” as I call it to honour the one who enlightened me, I sometimes get funny reactions. It sounds too simple and too silly. Many ambitious piano students even seem to get a bit provoked by it, because they want to feel that hard word pays off, self-discipline is a virtue, no pain no gain and all that usual rubbish. Hey, I practice 12 hours a day until I faint – please tell me I am a very good student! Look at me, I bleed!

Here I also must point out that pushing yourself hard is not the same thing as self-torture and self-bashing. When you really have ignited your enthusiasm you will be able to push yourself very hard, even complain loudly about your suffering, and still enjoy the pain. It may seem a bit masochistic to an observer, but nevertheless – it is a good feeling deep within. Like pushing hard at the gym, that feeling is also quite good sometimes, right? But first you must light that fire and make it burn steadily. Then you can start pushing, because then you are like the happy sheltie in the sheepfold – the activity has become self-rewarding and then you are safe. Same with mistakes – of course you must observe and work with whatever needs to be improved, but don’t let mistakes be “the proof of your worthlessness” as they used to be for me.

But never let yourself down. Never forget that self-praise. (Just don’t ask anyone else to join in – you may appear totally unbearable in that case. This should be very internal.) I write this, because this was the method I used to get going again, and it worked.

I really mean it. It worked. When you leave the piano in rage, feeling like a failure, you will not likely go back there next day with more enthusiasm. That was what happened to me when  was young, that is what happens to far too many and that is why people quit. When you feel progress, that something is happening, that you are going somewhere – never mind how modestly – you will be eager to go on. You will be like the dog who anticipates yet another treat (with or without liver taste) and who cannot wait for the next training session. Just by avoiding self-critizism and self-bashing, instead telling myself I did well, that piano chair seemed more and more attractive to me. It was a place for success, instead of failures. And my poor 10 minutes-a-day did not fade out like they used to do. Instead they got extended.

This happened 5 years ago. Today my fire is burning,  I don’t have to persuade myself to practice, I don’t need to seek motivation. Instead I often leave the piano most reluctantly because I have other duties and obligations. (Oh, that tiresome phenomena called Real Life!) But I can honestly say that it is harder not to practice than to practice in these days. When I turned 50 earlier this year, I had two big wishes for birthday gifts: 1. A Beethoven bust to put on the piano. 2. To be allowed to practice as much as I ever wanted that day, without getting disturbed or interrupted.

While my peers in the same age go on exclusive holiday trips to celebrate the big 50, I asked for piano practice time. I know I am crazy but I don’t care … anyway, both my wishes were fulfilled and I had a very, very happy birthday.

Jimmy left us in deep grief August 15 this year, 2016, after a period of tough illness. But he blessed my family with his wisdom and devotion for 11 years, we are grateful for that. I dedicate this post to the kindest, loveliest, wisest angel that ever has walked this earth on four little paws – my best friend. Without you, I would never have started to play for real again.

I miss you so much.