The Lessons Behind Why It's Never Too Late to Learn

Earlier this year, I was looking for an outlet and respite from work, so I decided to take lessons and learn to play acoustic guitar. I grew up in a musical family – all of us played an instrument and sang at church and in school choirs – so turning to music seemed a natural choice, even though it hadn’t been part of my routine for a long time. 

A formal living room similar to my piano teacher's, albeit with higher ceilings. Photo credit: , October 3, 2013

A formal living room similar to my piano teacher's, albeit with higher ceilings. Photo credit:, October 3, 2013

In fact, it had been over 30 years since I took piano lessons from the Vienna-born, classically-trained, diminutive Mrs. Troy in her low-ceilinged, 18th century cottage filled with silk-upholstered antiques in the New England town where I was raised. Like my teacher and her home, my piano lessons were very proper: she assigned scales, exercises and pieces by Bach, Mozart and Schumann. At each session, I played while she gently corrected me and marked up the expensive sheet music with her perfect penmanship.

I was a good student and by all accounts a fine player by the time I went to college and gave up the piano. But I retained a good ear, have natural rhythm and can still read music. So I thought returning to music would be fun and entertained a not-too-distant future vision of pulling out my guitar after a nice evening meal and playing some old Joni Mitchell or James Taylor harmonizing with my husband.

Mark Cutler in his studio. Photo credit: The Providence Journal/Freida Squires, December 17, 2013

Mark Cutler in his studio. Photo credit: The Providence Journal/Freida Squires, December 17, 2013

By sheer good luck, I found my way to the East Providence studio of Mark Cutler, formerly front man of The Schemers, a wildly popular 1980s rock band from Providence, RI. His studio is cluttered with guitars, electronic equipment, computers and mismatched furniture. In his dark T-shirt and jeans, Mark is the real deal, a charming, talented musician and songwriter who has never stopped making great music, with a rich singing voice that marries Tom Petty with Bob Dylan and guitar playing to rival Eric Clapton. Fortunately, he loves to teach people how to play guitar and write songs, which he does when he’s not performing solo, writing film scores or leading his new band, Men of Great Courage.

But as I all too quickly realize, learning to play the guitar with Mark bears little resemblance to my past formal piano instructions. Each week, he shows me new chords and strumming patterns and how to play some classic songs, like the Stones’ Dead Flowers or Don Gibson’s I Can’t Stop Loving You. He scribbles notes on lined paper and hands me song lyrics annotated with basic chord changes. We play together the songs I practice – I try to keep a simple beat while Mark improvises and makes his strings sing. I long to do that, but the 10,000 hours needed to produce this kind of mastery, as Malcolm Gladwell references in Outliers, are a long way away.

I can’t yet say that this is fun. Actually, it’s work that requires daily practice. I’m often frustrated because I want to go farther and faster than my current knowledge and skill allow. Mark is a kind and patient teacher, but I’m embarrassed in front of him when I play wrong notes or veer off rhythm or can’t remember a chord progression. I feel like I’m learning a foreign language. (Well, I am – it’s called "Tablature," which is shorthand notation for fingering fretted instruments, and it doesn’t look anything like the staffs and staves and notes that I remember from my days with Mrs. Troy.) Uncharacteristically, tears well up when I can’t make my fingers stretch to reach the right strings or hold my wandering fourth finger on the E.

I’ve been reflecting on what it’s like to learn new things as an adult and how different that is from learning as a child. I don’t remember studying piano to be as difficult – maybe my mid-life brain is simply less malleable than when I was younger. Many of us in the arts community strongly believe in lifelong learning and I’m experiencing on a very personal level how the act of learning something entirely new as an adult, though challenging, has great merit. University of Stirling (Scotland) emeritus professor of education John Field reports that lifelong learning, among other benefits, is “associated with better health, higher levels of social and civic engagement, and greater resilience in the face of external crises.” 

New research by UK neuroscientists Victoria Knowland and Michael Thomas confirms that that the brain is most responsive to input during early to middle childhood and “plasticity” does wane with age. But they conclude adult learning is optimized when these seven key elements are in place:

  1. Practice, which is essential to achievement.
  2. Motivation, both self-directed and supported by others. 
  3. Learning from a real person with real materials, which is more effective than passive presentation (i.e., sitting in front of a computer and watching a videotaped lecture).
  4. Starting with the fundamentals and moving on to “higher order” skills.
  5. Providing a quiet learning environment.
  6. Making connections with pre-existing knowledge that the adult student already has.
  7. Ensuring rest and a good night’s sleep.

What does all of this have to do with the cultural workplace? We’re constantly asking our staff members to learn new things or embrace new ideas – we upgrade to a more complex database management program that we expect our teams to master; we urge participation in professional development workshops or conferences to enhance skills in any number of areas, like management, fundraising and marketing; we adopt new modes of conduct that shift internal cultures and expect everyone to follow. All of these require active learning and the right environment in which to learn. 

Our 1964 Gibson B-25 beauty.

Our 1964 Gibson B-25 beauty.

According to a May 2010 report by The Maritz Institute, the right adult learning environment can foster “behavioral change and improved performance” in the workplace. That environment, as underscored in Knowland’s and Thomas’ more recent research, recognizes that learning is a process requiring time for assimilation (aka practice). It also requires drawing on past knowledge to build bridges between the known and unknown (like me trying to find connections between piano and guitar playing). Social interaction is key, as is bringing emotion into the learning process and engaging multiple senses to create a deeper, more memorable experience. (It seems my welling up on occasion is a good thing!)

As we encourage learning in our teams, let’s make certain to provide a supportive environment to learn and give our people the time and tools to make the learning stick. And give me six more months and I’ll let you know how things are going with the guitar. It really is never too late to learn.