I hear this all the time. People say kids learn faster. They talk about how children’s brains are more “moldable” and that kids “absorb things faster” at a younger age.
I think this is BS.
I really do. And it makes me sad because I think it’s a perception that keeps a lot of adults from even trying piano. It just becomes an excuse of “well, I’d love to learn but it’s too late now.” It’s never too late to learn. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. Let me tell you why.
But Look How Fast Kids Learn Language!
I hear this all the time, people marvel about the amazing speed that kids can learn a language. From the outside, it seems pretty incredible, but lets break it down and really think about it.
Imagine you’re a baby. You have nothing to do all day. You don’t go to work. You don’t worry about bills. You just sit in your crib and think about how to talk. All day. Every day. And you’re immersed in the language. Everybody that talks to you talks in this new language, so that’s all you hear. And not only that, but they talk in this slowed down “baby talk” which makes it even easier to understand. So is it really that surprising that in three years they can talk in complete sentences?
Now lets look at an adult (let’s call her Betty) trying to learn a new language. Betty gets home from work at 5, makes dinner, drops the kids off at basketball practice, and then sits down for a half hour to look over her Spanish. And even as she’s studying her Spanish, her mind is only half there, she’s also worried about bills and reminding herself to pick up the kids at 8. So how much is she really learning?And even with studying only a half hour a day, she’ll probably be talking in complete sentences in the new language in a month or so! The baby’s sittin’ in his crib 8 hours a day learning language, and it takes the baby 3 years to talk in complete sentences!
Imagine Betty had the same environment to learn as the baby did. Imagine she went to China and everyone that spoke to her for the next 3 years spoke in Chinese. And they spoke really slowly. And they would point at a ball and say the Chinese word for “ball.” And she didn’t have to worry about work and kids, she spent 12 hours a day learning the language. She’d probably be fluent in 6 months.
Anyway, my point is, kids don’t learn faster because they are
young, they learn faster because of their environment. Most adult learners aren’t consistent with learning piano. The first couple weeks they practice a lot, but then life gets busy with work and kids and the consistent practicing stops. Betty doesn’t have her mom bothering her to practice like kids do. Betty has responsibilities that get in the way. Practicing piano isn’t a priority anymore.
At the end of the day, most kids learn faster because they simply spend more time practicing, it has nothing to do with dendrites, nerve endings, or brain structure. If adults make enough time in their life to practice consistently, they would learn just as fast as the kids. Actually, they would learn faster (more on that later).
Kids Are More Excited About Learning
The other thing is attitude. Kids are excited about learning piano. They hear someone play and they want to be just like them; they have role models. And when they’re practicing a song they’re jacked up about, they’re going to practice it harder and be much more mentally present. Not only that, but they have people they want to impress. They want to learn a song well so they can show Mommy or Grandpa or their friends at school.
The average adult learner isn’t that excited about learning. A lot of times it’s more of a “well, I think it would be nice to learn how to play an instrument” instead of “I can’t wait to learn piano!” It’s almost an afterthought, or a hobby, not something they wake up thinking about. But if an adult is really passionate about learning piano, they’ll be able to learn pieces faster. They’ll put the time and effort in, and they’ll do it for themselves. But only if they’re truly passionate.
There’s a Skewed Perception of the Age of Kids
When we see a kid play, we don’t really think about “piano age”, meaning how long they’ve been playing piano. Lets say there’s a 5th grader who’s been playing piano since kindergarten. Most adults would just look at him and say “WOW, this kid is really good at piano, and look how young he is.”
But is he really that young? Yeah, he might only be 12 years old, but he’s been playing piano for 6 years! Imagine anything you’ve done for 6 years, I bet you’re pretty good at it! But for whatever reason, people don’t really think about kids in terms of piano age. Its more like “look how good he is and he’s so little” even though physical size has no impact on how well you play. It’s just a perception thing.
People always think of Mozart as this child prodigy. Yes, he was an amazing pianist by the time he was 7, but he practiced 8 hours a day from the time he was 3! Most people practice an hour a day (probably not even). So Mozart practiced 8 times the average amount. Meaning after a year of practicing, he has the equivalent of 8 years of practice! So by the time he was 7, he’d already had the equivalent of 32 years of practice! Of course he’s going to be amazing!
People Misinterpret the Science
Here’s, in my opinion, how the myth got started. Scientists hooked up a baby to a brain scan machine, saw a big red blob on the screen and said “Yep, this means the baby’s learning faster.”
What? That doesn’t tell you anything about what the baby’s learning. It doesn’t tell you what the baby is actually able to do. It just measures total brain activity. And all that really matters is how you actually play, not how much of a red blob shows up on a brain scan machine each time you hit a note. Or maybe the scientists got it right, but the media needed a news story and “Brain Scans Show Babies Learn Twice As Fast” sounds better than “Brain Scans Show There is More Activity in Baby’s Brains, But Doesn’t Actually Show What They’re Learning.” That led to this mantra of “babies learn faster,” and most people just accept it as truth instead of actually thinking about it.
We Forget About The Advantages Adults Have
Even if kid’s brains are more moldable, adults have advantages that can far outweigh the kid’s advantage. Adults have learning tools they have developed over their 12 plus years of school, mentors, and personal experience. Kids often just run through practice sessions without much rhyme or reason. Adults have the mental capacity to break down exactly what needs to be learned so they can focus on the most important things. And there are a ton of other skills like goal setting, using your resources, and time management that can help adults learn faster.
Here’s an example. Every adult at some point in their life has had to memorize a long list of things in school. If you had 50 flashcards to memorize, you probably started out going through all 50 flashcards over and over. It took you forever to learn all the flashcards. Eventually though, you learned that if you took 5 at a time and memorized those 5 before you went on to the next 5, you could speed up the learning process and memorize the entire stack in half the time! This concept translates to piano. It’s much faster to learn a piece by breaking it up into small chunks than by playing through the entire piece over and over. Adults will instinctively know that. Kids, on the other hand, are still developing that skill.
I played piano from kindergarten up until 5th grade, when I quit. I had a good teacher and I was decent, but I wasn’t blowing anyone’s mind. I focused on sports throughout middle and high school, and didn’t get back into piano until college. I had an amazing piano teacher in college. I practiced a lot, but more importantly, I practiced efficiently.
My teacher set me up with a plan to extend my technique, and a series of pieces to systematically develop my musicality. Instead of learning pieces by repetition, I discovered different ways of practicing that allowed me to learn much more material in a shorter amount of time. Since I was an adult, I had the mental capacity to think about how I was practicing and what was working and what wasn’t. Then I could change for the next practice session.
I didn’t have that as a kid, so during those first 6 years, I couldn’t make as much progress. Long story short, I improved more in 1 or 2 years in college than in the entire 6 years of practicing as a kid. This is why I believe what I believe, because I’ve had the experience. I could be wrong about this whole thing. I don’t think I am, but I could be. But regardless of whether I’m wrong or right, it’s still a better attitude to believe you can learn something instead of saying “I can’t.”
At the end of the day, you can either choose an attitude that’s going to help you accomplish your goals or you can choose an attitude where you worry and second guess yourself. But that’s your choice. I’d love to know your thoughts on this, whether you agree or disagree, let me know in the comments.