Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning

Peerless "Manhattan" Archtop
Gary Marcus is a cognitive psychologist at New York University. He's written this fascinating and useful book with a catchy title, Guitar Zero, about his experience as a middle-aged, non-musician learning to play guitar. His experience shows us how you can beat the curse of the "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" syndrome.

Marcus' chief line of research is into how we learn language, how and in what ways our brains change as we acquire language skills. But learning our first language is something we do when we are very young, and as we grow older, learning a new language is really hard for most of us... Just one more example that seemingly confirms the old saw that says "you can't teach an old dog new tricks." Music is another arena in which this also seems to be true; it's often said that if you want to be a good to great musician, you must start learning at a young age.

However, as a professional in the field of cognitive sciences, Marcus is familiar with a growing body of recent research that suggests that old dogs can learn new tricks. So, he decided he'd be the guinea pig in his own experiment... all his life he'd wanted to learn to play a musical instrument, but every attempt from childhood on had ended in failure. At the age of 38 he decided he'd give it one last shot and learn the guitar by applying his knowledge of how our brains are trained to a new skill through practice and study. He'd log his experiences along the way and write a book about it.

Marcus shares the lessons he's learned from making himself the subject of his own research. For example, there's another old saw that we've all heard, the one that says, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice." Actually, that's not enough: One of the key lessons learned is the concept of deliberate practice. In deliberate practice, you ruthlessly address your weaknesses and practice to overcome them... That is hard and painful, it's just not as much fun as it is to keep practicing the stuff you are already good at, but if you want to advance to mastery of a skill, you have to be deliberate about overcoming your weaknesses. In this book, Marcus tells how he held himself to this standard day in and day out, and how it ultimately payed off.

You can read the first chapter for free at NPR, it is excerpted here.

Image of Peerless Manhattan Archtop guitar courtesy of Jazz Guitar Zone.


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