March (music) Madness

I am in love again…

With an ukelele… and singing lessons.

I stopped by the Manoa School of Art and Music because it was in our neighborhood shopping center, the door was open and I thought I might ask about art lessons. It turns out that there are no art classes at the moment, so I impulsively signed up for both voice and ukelele…

This is not as crazy as it might sound. In a previous lifetime, I used to sing and fiddle in both early music ensembles and Celtic bands.  But since we moved to San Diego in 2000, I just wasn’t able to find the right combination of non-neurotic musicians and a synchronicity of schedules. So for the past decade or so, I’ve just focused on other things.

I wasn’t sure how things would turn out.  It’s been more than a decade since I’ve sung and I’ve never played anything that is chord-based.  But it turned out that I wasn’t very rusty at all — things came right back and my vocal range is still fairly close to what it used to be decades ago.  AND, although the ukelele tuning and fingering is very different from a violin (or mandolin which I can also play), I picked the basics up in our first lesson.

Teaching an old dog (or lady) new tricks

I’ve been doing some reading on aging brains and the capacity to learn.  I have noticed that I don’t remember things as easily as I used to and that I have to use tricks (like a basket for the housekeys) to keep some things running smoothly.

According to an article in the New York Times, older brains have a hard time remembering new things because they have a hard time forgetting old things. It is crucial to have BOTH the capacity to learn new ideas AND the capacity to weaken old memories. And the older we are, the more memories we have.  So that explains why I forget the Japanese phrase for good afternoon that an exchange student taught me last week, but I still remember a number song in Spanish that I heard when I was 7… those old memories were laid down when I had little else in my brain to get in the way.  But now, I can blame all those other things crowding the language file in my brain for interfering with my ability to recall how to say, Good Afternoon in Japanese. (Konnichiwa is good day… Ohayo gozaimasu means good morning….I learned those words in college, but good afternoon?.)

But brain overload does not explain why when I took a class on Art History a couple of years ago, I sailed through with very little studying even though I had never taken that kind of class before.  The explanation for my good grade in Art History is precisely because my brain is filled with memories.  And the older we are, the better we get at making connections.  So while my young classmates were just trying to absorb all the names and dates and countries, I was making connections between art styles and historical events, between music and architecture and politics… and since I had context already, the art pieces just fit into what I already knew and enlarged that picture. A+

AND, there are other researchers who have noticed that adult learners still have the capacity to learn, and learn with precision and accuracy, albeit at a somewhat slower pace than children. They postulate that the main difference is focus. Yes, younger brains are more plastic and have less junk cluttering up the filing cabinets, but they also benefit by the quality of focus given to what they are learning.  The average child learning a second language is in a classroom, has homework, and spends a lot of time just focusing on learning.  The average adult might take a class, but also have to go to work, make sure the bills are paid, the garbage goes out, the car has enough gas, the groceries are taken care of… the average adult has more on their plate to divert their attention than the average kid.

So what’s a busy adult with a full brain to do?

1. Do short bursts of study more frequently.  So instead of practicing the same chords over and over again for an hour, I should play the chord sequence a couple of times, then listen to the song I am learning, then do some fingering exercises, then do something else.  Apparently, when we focus too intently on trying to memorize something, we tend to push the issue and learning becomes harder.

2. Focus on the outcome instead of the structure.  So, for singing, one should focus on the sound quality rather than the placement of the soft palette or for a golfer to focus on the motion of the swing instead of the hand placement.

3. Find ways to incorporate your new knowledge into your daily life.  Seek out people to practice Japanese with. Sing those songs while washing dishes and make dates to play golf.

4. Enjoy the process.  If it’s not enjoyable, then why are you doing it?  There’s no test, no grade, no requirement to learn anything else once you graduate from school… so why bother?

Because it’s fun!

And that’s what I’m having now!

(This was previously posted on

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *