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Gary Marcus' Unnatural Talent

Friday, February 03, 2012

You have to have an innate gift to be really musical. Right? Not so fast, says cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus. His new book, "Guitar Zero," looks at how anyone – even a 40-year-old cognitive psychologist with no apparent musical talent – can learn to make music.

Gary Marcus will appear with guitarist Gary Lucas on Feb. 12 at The Cornelia St. Cafe. For more information, click here.


Gary Marcus

Comments [21]

Elias Cohn from Washington, DC

So here is the thing...This guy's playing is still really really bad. Does no one realize this?
He may have other studies to prove that adults can learn things but his personal experience does not prove that adults can learn anything. If anything it proves the opposite. WHY has no one pointed this out?

Feb. 16 2012 02:41 AM
Chris from NYC

This is really interesting!
I'm a professional guitarist (you've never heard of), and make most of my living as a musician and songwriter.
Regarding music, learning and memory, even though in my early 40s now, I still all too vividly recall how absolutely painful -- physically, mentally, spiritually -- it was to learn guitar in the 5th grade. But this did not outweigh the DESIRE, the spark, the muse. It's cost me money, and relationships, but music has been the only constant, the only reliable, and the real joy in my life.
I discovered a latent talent for drawing and painting in my 30s, and continue to develop my talent and express myself in that medium.
I fully support those who discover an artistic passion later in life, and have only words of encouragement for you all. In fact, I believe those of us with life experience have much more to say, and possess the ability to express themselves in a deeper and more sophisticated way. Learning a new language / instrument only takes: desire, passion and practice, and this is not exclusive to any age. Go for it!

Feb. 03 2012 10:32 PM
june from NY, NY

I was given a Ukelele by my brother (also self taught)roughly a year ago. I am in my early 50's and never played a string instrument. The F chord was a major hurdle for me, I taught myself with online tutorials (Ukelele Mike) and must have driven my neighbors nuts, tackling (very ambitious) "Over the Rainbow". I had no goals in mind but shocked my family 9 months later whipping out "Tip-Toe Through the Tulips" with 4 finger knuckle-busting diminished chords.

Concurrently, I learned new digital Adobe software programs(complex and non intuitive) and would pick up my uke to take breaks or strum while listening to tutorials and reading. I rewarded myself with history and science/physics documentaries which is another subject I found myself drawn to late in life.

I also do practice yoga after a youth of running marathons, tennis and general heavy duty gym rat-ness and conclude that the more you learn--the better you get at learning; mentally and physically. Aging makes it more so enjoyable for me because I choose my objectives out of curiosity as opposed to obligation.

Feb. 03 2012 02:49 PM
Jennifer Kohut

Just listened in. As a professor of remedial math for college freshman I am on my constant guard to remember how hard it is to learn something new. I started piano lessons about 5 years ago and one day as I struggled with a particular line of music my teacher commented, "What's the problem? It's so easy!" In my frustration I stopped playing looked at her and said ,"Okay factor x-squared + 5x + 6, it's so easy!" She stopped, looked at me and said, "Point taken!" The point I took from that is to remember just because it's easy for one person doesn't mean it's easy for another. I have to work extra hard because I lack a certain musical ability and I live with people who can pick up any instrument and play it well after a few tries. But I have learned a wonderful lesson later in life that you don't have to have a natural ability to become reasonably good at anything, you have to have a desire, and a willingness to accept you won't learn as quickly but you can learn.

Feb. 03 2012 02:45 PM
Elaine Schenk from Queens, NY

My sister's inability to carry a tune (singing or paying violin) was a standing joke in our family when we were children. But in her 40s she found a teacher where she lived in Colorado who firmly believed that there's no such thing as a "tin ear". He taught her to sing in tune. At a family reunion she sat down and played a simple song on the piano and sang along in perfect tune, and our jaws all dropped six inches.

Everything is due to motivation on the part of the student, and the right attitude on the part of the teacher.

Feb. 03 2012 02:40 PM
Jim B

Damn, John, you steered Prof. Marcus away from my question!

Feb. 03 2012 02:40 PM
Gary from Port Washington

GO MODAL: The best advice for some one starting an instrument at a later point in life is to start with a modal instrument like a hammered dulcimer. A modal instrument just has the eight notes of the scale: Do Ra Me, etc and you will be playing something. A harp also would be a good starting instrument with just eight notes and the octaves. On a piano, you have all 13 notes, black keys and white, a modal instrument will only have the notes of the scale. Another option is an auto harp where you can hear the chords and changes by pressing the buttons for the chords.

Feb. 03 2012 02:36 PM
John from NJ

Interesting book subject and discussion. As a guitar player for over 30 years and more than half of that in public performance I found Guitar Hero's use of the visual to teach rythm to be completely wrong.

A great deal of what I learned as a musician came from countless hours of and /practicing/playing/recording feedback of actually hearing the notes and feeling them through the instrument. Using a method of playing back one's performance (in my day cassette decks) were the best method for learning.

Jamming/Playing with other musicians also yielded a great deal of learning. The rest from years of experience.

Prof. Markus; based on your research does this "wood shedding" and learning the ropes approach not work for older people?

What do you think of the newer performance methods of playing music on such things as the iPAD where once can control the actual instrument scales etc.

Feb. 03 2012 02:28 PM
Susan from New York

I have always planned on learning to play the harp at age 50 because learning new things is really important for aging well and staying mentally sharp. (I have 3 years to go!) Breaking things down for adult learners is really important. Dr. Stephanie Burns has a lot of information about adult learners and specifically learning guitar.

Feb. 03 2012 02:28 PM
Mary WanderPolo from Montclair, NJ

I play 7 instruments (if you count the "rhythm bones" as an instrument) and learned to play 5 of them after the age of 40. I'm reading Gary's book and think there are two important take aways from the research he has done: 1. Practice, practice, practice and 2. play with others, jam with others, and don't be afraid to make mistakes!

Mary WanderPolo, Montclair, NJ
Come jam with us at 6pm on 2/10 at the Unitarian Congregation in Monclair, open community jam!

Feb. 03 2012 02:27 PM

After attending an old time music camp last summer, I was inspired to take guitar lessons at age 65. It was the best decision I ever made. It's not easy, but I love every minute of it. It's always invigorating learning something new.
The NYC Guitar School accepts students of all ages with supportive instructors. Once I have a working knowledge of the guitar, I plan on taking banjo lessons. Steve Martin look out.

Feb. 03 2012 02:27 PM
Carol Kuruvilla

Can the same methodical learning method be applied to learners who want to pick up a new language in adulthood? Is it possible to become fluent? Since Gary is involved with the language center at NYU, he might be able to shed some light on this.

Feb. 03 2012 02:24 PM
Casey from MARYLAND

Haha! Not Bad Gary!! you proves the point, where there's a will, there's a way.

Feb. 03 2012 02:23 PM
Ragnar Johnsen from bedminster, nj

At a ripe age of 65, I finally started taking drum lessons, and I love it! This is something I have always wanted to do, so it is never too late.

Feb. 03 2012 02:22 PM
Cate from Brooklyn

I taught classical piano for almost two decades, and by far I preferred adult students. It was always initially awkward, because they were years -sometimes several years -older than me, but their commitment and determination were unshakeable, and really admirable.

I taught myself guitar years ago and found it helpful to strum along to favorite (easy) songs. I didn't keep it up (or the piano) but I wish I had.

Feb. 03 2012 02:22 PM
cyndy consentino

Try Jorma Kaukonen's Fur Peach Ranch for awesome guitar lessons!
Jorma is a guitar vituoso. He is a founding member of both Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna.

Feb. 03 2012 02:22 PM

Oh, kids. PRACTICE NOW!!

I wish I'd known.

Feb. 03 2012 02:19 PM
Ken Braun from Nutley, NJ

Hendrix practiced constantly even after he achieved great success. Look at all the photos of him playing guitars in hotel rooms or walking alone around someone's country garden with an unplugged Stratocaster in his hands.

Feb. 03 2012 02:19 PM
Ed Jankiewicz from Flemington, NJ

lifelong guitarist, recently took up string bass (at age 50) and definitely there is some age-related impairment to learning, even with a tremendous amount of transferable skill (musical notation, rhythm, near-perfect pitch, sense of harmony) developed over 40 years of playing the guitar. The mechanics are so different.

Feb. 03 2012 02:15 PM
Jon from Manhattan

I took guitar lessons as a child, starting at age six and with the pull of playing baseball during my summers quit at age ten. (Clearly the biggest of my childhood foibles.) I have several guitars in my possession and toy with the idea of taking lessons to regain my long-lost skills. what are my prospects of achieving some semblance of virtuosity?

Feb. 03 2012 02:06 PM
Jim B

Is Prof. Marcus similarly optimistic about late starters composing music as well as playing it?

Feb. 03 2012 02:05 PM

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