What happens when a smart, educated, but musically inept psychology professor attempts to learn guitar and write a book about it?  You get a fascinating glimpse of what it takes to learn music and the challenges it poses for the beginner, learn a whole lot about how and why humans learn complicated skills, and come away inspired that anything might be possible if you put in the time and effort.

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As a professional musician who doesn’t even remember learning to read music, I was not once bored by this account that is accessible to people who know nothing about music.  Since Marcus learned even the basics of music as an adult, his take on something as simple as a scale is thought-provoking.  As one unfamiliar with the pop and jazz traditions, most of the names and songs mentioned were unknown to me, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book (and the names I did know usually came with an explanation – go figure.)  Guitar Zero is an engaging account of Marcus’s journey first to find if it is even possible to learn music as an adult, and then inspiringly, to become a musician who could improvise and compose (if not make big bucks).  His story acts as a skeleton on which to hang all sorts of information related to music and the science of learning.  He discusses such questions as whether kids are better than adults at learning music and other complex skills; what’s the best way to teach music; what makes good music; what makes a good musician and which skills are necessary and which are not; whether talent exists or practice is all that matters; and whether or not music is closely related to language and as such whether we are born with some predisposition for music making or not.  He discusses each of the questions with plenty of examples, studies, and opinions of accomplished musicians of all kinds.  With 27 pages of references for a 234 page book, this is no mere “how I did it” account, which leads me to one of the main reasons the book works so well.

 

It takes a colossal amount of humility to learn something as complex as music for the first time when you’re nearly 40.  Marcus never mentions this (how can you mention humility without destroying it?), but he has a good share of it, as evidenced by his willingness to be the underdog with group of 11 year olds for the chance to play in a band.  That is something most adults would never contemplate and I believe such an attitude of childlike acceptance is part of why Marcus was so successful and why so many famous musicians accepted his requests for interviews and helped him on his journey.  The book is also blessedly free of anything close to profanity, which for a modern book about (much more than) rock music, is exceedingly rare.  Not to mention the fact that if anything is to elicit cursing, surely learning to contort your fingers on a fretboard for the first time (not to mention everything else involved in learning music) is one of them!

 

Guitar Zero provoked so many thoughts I cannot possibly share them all, but here is an attempt to get a few down.

 

 First, I must apologize for calling him “musically inept” at the start of this review.  As a child Marcus may never have had a teacher willing to stick with him despite his lack of talent, but he was always an avid listener, and as he concludes at one point in the book, listening is the critical foundation necessary for learning any kind of music.  From this perspective, he had a leg up and was by no means ignorant, though he lacked formal music training, but as he also points out, in music, lessons are optional.  Many famous musicians never had a lesson in their lives, or never learned any music theory, or learned it late in life.  In this and other observations Marcus is spot on, much to the embarrassment of professionals like me trained in the classical tradition, but he lets us down gently, which I appreciate.  For example, he starts the section about teaching music by lavishing praise on a gifted Suzuki teacher and naming all the elements of her teaching that make her great.  Only after several pages of praise for this teacher and her students does Marcus go on to name a few of the drawbacks of Suzuki training.  It’s worth quoting:

“Another drawback of Suzuki instruction is that it typically tends to teach children little or nothing about improvisation.  Much as in the classical conservatory tradition, the emphasis is largely on playing the great works as the great musicians played them, rather than developing a student’s own ideas, and while there is indubitably value in that, there is also considerable value in each individual student learning that he or she can make his or her own music.  In my own case, the discovery of the joys of improvisation have outweighed virtually all else, yet many musicians trained in the classical style (be it through Suzuki or lessons at Juilliard) feel that they have never learned to improvise.  I can’t help but feel that they are missing out on some of the greatest joy that music can bring.  Another common complaint about Suzuki, which worries me less, is that children trained in that method often don’t learn to read music; true, but to my mind not as essential (as I will explain later.)”

I find his words painfully accurate.  As much as I appreciate my music training, I have often felt only half a musician because I don’t compose or improvise.  (Thankfully Marcus doesn’t call me half a musician, he just says I’m “missing out”.)  Being an excellent sight-reader gave me a number of gigs and was indispensable in orchestral playing, but I still felt the lesser musician amongst my Irish-American friends who could play for hours from the music in their heads.  If you put me in a room without a music stand, I could hardly play a note, and in that I was not alone.  What’s worse, the more you know about music, and the better you play, the more you know any improvisational and compositional attempts you make to be vastly inferior.  I’m reminded of my English students in Japan who could hardly speak a word of English, but not for lack of knowledge.  The all knew the mistakes of any poor kid who dared open his mouth, but could do no better themselves.  In this case I think ignorance is bliss.  You must practice production early on in the process of learning something, or you will be forever trapped by your increasing knowledge of how inept you are.  Here is where I wish I had Marcus’s humility.  Who cares if what I compose is junk?  It won’t get better if I don’t practice!

 

And speaking of practice, Marcus doesn’t find the 10,000 hour idea of Anders Ericsson (made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’) to be very convincing.  He gives an impressive list of counter examples: some people just get it faster than others.  Some people never hit the big time despite the hours.  Good practice is still essential, and Marcus defines it in a more helpful way than “perfect practice makes perfect.”  He defines effective practice as targeting your weaknesses and learning new skills (as opposed to just rehearsing what you already know.)  What’s more, the set of complex skills needed for making music requires significant changes in the brain, and that takes time, both of intensity and duration.  He realized his only hope of learning to play would be to become immersed himself in it.  A few minutes, or even hours once a week wouldn’t cut it.  You just forget what you learn in the space between sessions and have to do the work over again.  Here’s one quote related to what happens in the brain as you practice.

 

“Alas, the only known way to defy the speed-accuracy trade-off is through practice, using the only technique that the brain can bring to bear, a process known as automatization or proceduralization, in which the brain makes a transition from explicit or “declarative” knowledge, which can in principle be verbally articulated (albeit slowly), to implicit or “procedural” knowledge, which can be executed rapidly.  As knowledge becomes proceduralized, we sometimes feel as if we know something in our fingers or muscles but lose the capacity to explicitly explain what is going on.”

 

The last thoughts I’ll share (if you’re still with me) are more question than opinion.  In the teaching section Marcus concludes that the teacher is more important than the method.  I find this terrifying.  Does a method only work if the teacher is talented?  I guess that answer is fairly obvious, no method can survive a bad teacher, but if it’s not method, but teacher, is teaching teachable, or not?  How many students have bad teachers because most teachers wanted to be performers, not teachers, and what’s that doing to our kids?  If the teacher is more important than the method, would parents make the best teachers because they know their kids the best?  Marcus cites a study that kids learn best when the have success 80% of the time.  If it’s too easy or too hard they get bored or frustrated.  It seems to me as a parent you have the best chance as gauging the 80% for your child, and it surely seems that this study spells doom for classroom teaching.  How on earth could you keep each kid at 80%?  Of course the idea of teaching your own kids begs the question of how much musical ability the parent needs.  For a teacher to point out a weakness or share a more efficient fingering, the teacher must know at least a little bit more than the child.  How much more?  Suzuki uses the parents to help kids practice effectively (and regularly, which is also key for making progress) by keeping them one step ahead of their child and it works.  Do you just need to know when you’ve reached your limit?  Remembering the observation that lessons seem to be optional, and it seems that anything goes as long as the student has drive.

 

And speaking of drive, what makes someone put in the thousands and thousands of hours to learn music?  Marcus squarely refutes the Freudian idea that we make music to win girls.  Music making brings a high that is far above sexual fulfillment.  Hurray for him!  I can’t do his arguments justice here, but it was refreshing to read such a clear and scientific explanation of why Freud’s ideas are simplistic and misguided.  Marcus concludes (and I heartily agree) that the reason why we make music is a far more complex and subtle question, and it’s worth reading the book to find out.

Thanks to Monica who let me borrow the book!

Posted by harp on Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Edit
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Some days everything seems to go wrong and other days everything seems to line up.  Most days are a bit in between, but here is an account of one day to give you (and my future self) a glimpse into daily life here in our new home in Emmen.

6am Stephan’s alarm goes off. I’m already awake because Joseph needed a snack.  He just want back to sleep so I do too.

6:15am get up and follow my morning routine:

Get dressed. Do a quick sweep of the floors. Process my physical inbox for five minutes. Water the plants.  See the chives, marjoram and tomato grow!!!

10 minutes of “nesting” or making the house a bit nicer than it was the day before, today I wiped the coffee table, de-cluttered the window sill and arranged the candles there, found a home for some oversized sheet music that had been sitting around since the move, etc.

6:45am Joseph wakes up.  I drop what I’m doing (nesting) and greet him.  He pees on the potty.  We dump it in the toilet together and play a little.  I get us breakfast.  Today he ate two little slices of bread and three scoops of yogurt.  I had toast.  I wipe up the high chair and table and notice Joseph grunting so I put him on the pot.  Success!  For some reason he also grunts before having to pee.  We take care of the pee, say goodbye to Daddy as he goes off to work, I do the dishes and we play a little together and nurse (I don’t remember how often we play and nurse but it’s here and there and whenever).  I finish my morning routine:

Open all windows to air out apartment (so humidity doesn’t get high enough for mold to continue to grow)

“Swish and Swipe” bathroom (wipe surfaces and toilet, brush toilet bowl) – 4min

8:30ish I start to work on my “important daily cards” where I alternate 10 or so minutes on a task with 10 or so minutes of focused play with Joseph.  This morning practice was first up so I got out my harp and worked on adjusting the bray pins until Joseph crawled over to me and I gave him a little harp lesson.  He loves the harp.  I’m trying to teach him to be gentle.  He actually seems to have learned a bit how to be gentle and has a better plucking technique than he did before.  It used to be the “grab five strings and pull with all your might never releasing the fingers” and now it’s “grab one to three strings and pull sometimes releasing the fingers and making a nice sound.”  I call the improvement, especially since he’s only had three lessons.  What a smart kid!  I tell him he can’t bother me while I’m practicing (it’s only 10 minutes!) and he listens until I’m almost done then when he comes to grab the strings while I’m doing a run-through of a piece I tell him “no” while I’m playing (that takes brain power!) and he starts crying.  Fortunately I’m at the end of my practice session and we can make up.  Total time the harp is out: 15 minutes.  Not up to conservatory standards but I’ve learned how to make the most of the minutes I have.

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Posted by harp on Friday, April 29, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Edit
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Long ago in the innocent days of pregnancy I agreed to play a concert in October with the thought that I should have life with a three-month-old down well enough to see how working as a musician might work with kids.  Well, the date changed to September and the organization has been complicated, but I successfully performed the concert on Saturday.  The jury is still out on whether it’s worth it or not.  I enjoyed having a reason to practice (though moments at home that can be used for focused work are few andfar between) and I enjoyed rehearsing with the musicians.  It is quite an ordeal to get the whole family to Strasbourg (about 2 hours of travel time door to door) and I’m not sure what I would have had to pay a babysitter for an all-day affair three weekends in a row.  Joseph and Stephan were happy to have some father-son time, but it wasn’t easy on any of us.  It’s hard for me to concentrate these days, and concentrating on rehearsal when you can hear your baby screaming is no easy, nor pleasant task.  That said, it all went rather better than I expected, but the whole system trusts chance a bit too much for my comfort level – even with faith in a good God.  What if my son got sick when I had to play the concert?  Would I abandon my son or abandon the concert?  It’s not a happy thought.  As it was, I was sick and terribly exhausted from a night of less than three hours of sleep and having had no nap all week.  I was up at 5am with Joseph feeling like calling in sick, but that’s not possible for a musician.  The show must go on.  You have to be ON at a certain time and date, and that’s that.  That’s why they pay us the big bucks.

So, about those big bucks.  It’s always so hard to justify them to myself and others.  In high school professional pay was great, but I always thought it must be hard to live off.  I’ve long wondered just how much I get an hour for a gig if I factored in all my expenses and time.  The question is even more important now that I have a patron (my husband) and a dependant and it’s possible that my time is more important than the cash.  I determined to take meticulous notes of the hours and dimes I spent for this gig so I could evaluate it rationally after the fact.  I don’t know how to factor in the cost of my husband’s time (two Saturdays and a Sunday gone) or the stress of playing a concert half dead.  I’d like to add a couple hundred Euro for that, but musicians don’t get sick leave or maternity time or any benefits at all, and I don’t know how to factor those costs in either.  Nor do I know how much amortization of the expense of my harp to factor in or how much of the cost of the fives strings I had to replace while preparing for the gig (at 10 Francs a pop).  So, I’ll just give the bare numbers and we can know it’s actually a bit worse than that.  Fortunately, Europe pays musicians better than the US does so my hourly rate turned out to be a whopping 9.03 Euro an hour.  That doesn’t include the commute or lunch break.  If I include the commute, because as a musician without regular work, the place a concert is means time away from practice and other gigs and is not consistent, then the sum is a voluminous 7.06 Euro an hour.  For those not in the know the Euro is dropping now so those numbers correspond to 12.11USD (11.89CHF) and 9.47USD (9.29CHF).  I think I’d have to pay a babysitter more than that.  It’s a good thing Switzerland doesn’t have a minimum wage or I’d risk making less than it.

Is it fun? Yes and no.  Is it worth it?  Hm, I wonder how long it would take me to recover the cost of music school at that rate?
Posted by harp on Monday, September 27, 2010 at 12:46 pm | Edit
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We’d been thinking about it for quite some time, but we finally acted and we couldn’t be happier.  Take a look at our new baby! (More)

Posted by harp on Friday, February 19, 2010 at 7:08 pm | Edit
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