There exists in my adult students a special phenomenon that I have affectionately labeled The “Should” Syndrome. Symptoms of this syndrome include excessive self-doubt, narrow judgment regarding what is going well with their playing, and when their frustration is at its peak, passive aggression toward their teacher when she tries to give them a compliment. It is always interesting to note the difference in attitude between the kids I teach and the adults I teach. Some of the adults enjoy music as much as the kids do, but there is always an air of self-consciousness about their age and what they don’t already know (read: what they “should” already know by their age). Mistakes in lessons are immediately followed by apologies. Comments are made about how they may be “too old” to still be trying to learn this. They lament, “I would be good at this now if I had just started playing when I was young.” Etc., etc., etc.
Kids, on the other hand (especially the younger ones), rarely apologize or even acknowledge their mistakes. An eight year-old who gets a new guitar rips it out of the delivery box and immediately starts banging on it and sliding his fingers around the fretboard, experimenting with the different sounds even though he doesn’t know anything about the instrument yet. This is because he is too busy being interested in this new, alien thing in front of him than he is with what the world’s expectations of him regarding that thing are. A thirty-eight year-old often comes to their first lesson waiting for instructions and not doing anything until the teacher instructs them to, for fear of looking silly. Ultimately, this is not such a bad thing, but they don’t feel free to experiment and connect with their guitar on their own level because this way might not be the “correct” way. I see this in my more experienced adult students too, as well as my musician colleagues. Once you’re older, your personal responsibilities and psychological demons start to cloud your connection with your art. As adults – both beginners and professionals – we are all familiar with the following scenario:
It’s a weekday afternoon and I need to squeeze in some practice time in the only free hour I have today. As I pick up my instrument, I remember for the third time that the rent is due tomorrow and I’m still waiting for that one check to clear. There’s nothing I can do about it now, but it’s still bothering me. I begin to warm up by playing some scales. As I play and some notes don’t come out as well as I would like them to, I begin to tense up my hands and body. Then the tension makes it even harder. I watched a YouTube video of a ten year-old prodigy playing faster-than-lightning this morning. I’m at least a decade older and I can’t play these scales nearly that fast. My mistakes don’t just feel physically uncomfortable now. I feel silly for making them, as if someone is in the room with me and judging me for being a bad person.
Speaking of being a bad person, I got into a fight with my significant other yesterday and said some mean things, and along with the rent, that’s on my mind too. I look at the clock and I have half an hour left. I still feel silly about those mistakes with my scales, but now it’s time to move on to the pieces I’ve been working on. I still don’t like my sound right now, but I know I have to get this work done.
The phone rings as I’m ten minutes into working on this piece. There’s an issue with a project I’ve been assigned to at work and I need to put down my instrument and go to the computer to solve it. I could fix it later, but my boss will probably want it done right now, and I don’t want to look bad. I’ll need to practice everything another day, even though my sound is still not great and I only have a few days before my next lesson. When will I ever sound like that kid in the video? What am I even doing with my life?
Young children don’t go through this thought process when they play. Children do not have all of the subconscious biases about how the world “should” be, like adults do. They do not separate the everything in their environment into strict categories, like adults do. They do not have a defined idea of who they are yet, so they do not exclude possibilities and pursue their interests without hesitation. (A friend of mine who teaches elementary school told me a story about how on the day before winter break, she had her students cut out and color pictures of holiday objects. The choices included Christmas trees, menorahs, etc. When a boy from a Jewish family chose a Christmas tree, she inquired as to what made him choose Christmas symbols rather than Hannukah ones. The boy stared at her, puzzled by the question, and said “I just think that the tree is pretty”. What many adults would assume he “should” choose did not even occur to him!)
Because of this openness, children have an extreme advantage when it comes to learning anything, and they absorb information like a sponge. The advantage to starting to play music when you are younger, then, is not because people eventually become “too old” to learn – the advantage lies in the fact that the more time you spend studying music when you are a child, the more time you’ve spent building a connection to music without ever questioning your worth at it or having to deal with adulthood’s endless distractions. This connection causes a snowball effect of positive experiences, which slowly creates a positive self-image regarding music for an individual once they have reached adolescence and eventually, adulthood. By this time, they are not trying to learn music – they are a musician.
What is the solution, then? Obviously, we cannot do a System Restore on our minds to make ourselves stop thinking like an overly self-aware adult.
Recognize that even if the voice inside your head has some unhelpful things to say, you can learn to silence it and just enjoy the music. Think about all of the things that you enjoyed as a little kid with unbridled passion and how you approached those things. Have fun and stop the adult voice in your head that says your picture is “wrong” because you didn’t color in the lines. Play like a child…
Rianne M. is currently giving guitar lessons in NYC to adults and children, and occasionally blurs the line between them with her teaching styles. Contact us today to schedule a lesson with her!