Am I Too Old?

Every adult learner asks this when they start to play.

It is understandable. There is rampant ageism. It is true that many concert pianists play on into their 60s, 70s and 80s … some even longer, but they usually started out as child prodigies.

There are two deeply entrenched beliefs in the world of classical music:

1. You can only become really good if you learn as a child
2. The skill that you develop is a result of the unfolding of inborn natural talent

These beliefs are widely held (often unconsciously) by teachers, critics, and by performers themselves. They are propagated by the schools and conservatories, and by the writings of great musicians.

And they are both WRONG!

It is worse. They are self-fulfilling. Slow starters believe that they have no “talent” and give up. Adults see how slowly they are progressing and how bad they sound, decide they are too old, and give up. This is so sad, and so unnecessary.

I am not denying that children have advantages. Someone that starts at 5 has 40 more years to develop their skills than someone who starts at 45. They are also used to working hard to learn new things, they are not comparing themselves to world-class performers, and they don’t feel stupid if they don’t “get” something right away.

Whether they have any biological advantage is more questionable. It is possible that some changes to the nervous system – stimulated by practicing – are only possible at a particular stage of a child’s development. But the evidence is weak. The jury is out on this question.

At its most fundamental level, acquiring new knowledge and skills means creating new connections between neurones. That is a growth process, and children may have an advantage there too. We all know how a child’s cut or bruise can heal in a fraction of the time that an adult’s would take.  On that basis we might think it reasonable to suppose that they can grow new inter-neuronal connections faster too. But reasoning like that (by analogy) is sloppy and often misleading.  THe latest research is showing that the adult brain is much more “plastic” than has been thought for decades.


Nor am I denying that talent exists, or to be more accurate, that inborn differences affect how quickly you can learn a skill, and what standard you can ultimately reach. But the point is that it is irrelevant. Genetic differences might be responsible for an all time great pianist like Vladimir Horowitz or the ease with which they learn might be the encouragement great pianists needed to stick at it. None of this is of any consequence to most people. The point is that hardly anyone gets even  remotely close to their full potential for anything. Most of us muddle through our lives achieving but a tiny fraction of what we are capable.

I believe that almost everyone is capable of becoming a professional standard pianist. You need only normal intelligence, hearing, and co-ordination.  I believe this because of the huge improvements I have made since the the age of 52, despite being unexceptional in intelligence, co-ordination, or inborn musicality.  But you also need the determination to do the work. Fortunately the qualities I have in abundance are persistence and stubbornness, and it is impossible to say whether they are due to genetics, upbringing or other experiences.

And the argument applies only to complex skills such as piano playing. In many sports where size, speed and endurance are more important we find that genetic endowment plays a bigger role.  No matter how skilful you might be if you are only 1.5 metres tall you are never going to become a top basketball player, and if you have the physique of a string bean you can forget being a weightlifter. Yet even in sport there are plenty of examples of apparent no-hopers, with few obvious natural gifts, who through hard work, self-belief and dedication (and perhaps some luck?) went on to confound their critics and become successes in their fields.  And if you are still not convinced, look at what para-olympic athletes can do.  There are swimmers with no arms that go faster than many hard-training, able-bodied club swimmers!

None of this means that anyone can become a professional pianist. It takes a lot more to become a professional than merely playing well. Reaching a high enough standard of play is not even half the battle.

The conventional wisdom now is that it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours to reach a top-class level. And that applies whether the skill is computer programming, golf, chess playing, or mastering a musical instrument.

That emphatically does not mean that simply spending 10,000 hours at your instrument is enough. According to the proponents of this idea it has to be 10,000 hours of mostly the right kind of work: something called “Deliberate Practice”.

Because it is hard to keep up the necessary intensity of focus it will typically take 10 years to accumulate 10,000 hours of the right stuff. And to do that you have to really love what you are doing.

In my next article we’ll look a bit more closely at exactly what Deliberate Practice is. Later we’ll look into how and why it works, and look (critically) at the evidence for  and against this new model of skill acquisition.

One response to “Am I Too Old?

  1. I said: “We all know how a child’s cut or bruise can heal in a fraction of the time that an adult’s would take. It is reasonable to suppose that they can grow new inter-neuronal connections faster too.”

    My friend Rob says this is not reasonable at all. Skin and nerve tissue have quite different physiology. We should not suppose anything about the one from what we know of the other. He is a doctor, so I should believe him!