How to Learn an Instrument (or anything) as an Adult – Part 1

Jamie and Sam both start learning drums at the same time. Neither have played before, and yet after three months of exactly the same tuition, Jamie is still struggling with things Sam had mastered in the first few weeks. 

It’s true that everyone learns at different speeds and has different backgrounds, but I think everyone would prefer to be Sam in this situation than Jamie.

Most people at this point would go straight to saying Sam is ‘more talented’, or the Jamies of the world might say they’re too old to learn something new.

As it turns out, there are many reliable, scientifically proven tools to make anyone’s learning process faster and more effective. Learning is something we all do throughout our entire lifespan: you definitely can teach an old dog (well, human) new tricks. 

Information is easily available nowadays, but really learning how to learn effectively is rarely – if ever – spoken about. As a result, many people often resign themselves to learning being an uphill struggle, and either give up or simply don’t want to learn anything new.

In this guide I’ll take you through the processes behind how we learn, practical ways to get better results from your time and improve motivation & mindset, how to be (more) creative, how making mistakes is a vital part of learning, and more.

For example, did you know:

  • There’s a way to get 5 minutes of practise done in 30 seconds by doing absolutely nothing
  • ‘Talent’ is a myth
  • There’s a specific amount of mistakes you should be making to make the most progress
  • Being off-balance before practising something could help you remember it better
  • Learning that feels difficult will stick more than when it feels too easy – so if you’re feeling stupid, or slow, or feel like you’re forgetting things, then you’re actually on the right track?

This four-part series is a culmination of a year’s research into the science of learning, over a decade’s experience of teaching people of all ages, numerous conversations with other educators, and many years of being an avid learner myself. Although some of the advice here might seem trivial, weird, or nonsense, it’s backed up by peer-reviewed scientific studies (references coming soon!) alongside my own experience as a tutor, performer, and student.

Across the four parts we’ll look at:

  • The science of how we learn
  • Making time
  • Motivation
  • Deciding what to practise
  • Repetition
  • Play
  • Mistakes
  • Mindset
  • Objectivity
  • Plus a whole load of extra tools that can help you learn!

I’ve written this guide because I see some people make tremendous progress while others don’t, some tie themselves in knots and berate themselves instead of actually learning, some who give up before they’ve really given it a shot, and all sorts in between. Ultimately, I know that learning an instrument can be incredibly fun and rewarding, and want everyone else to share this experience.

Many people want to learn something, and can be told all the information in the world, but still not actually know HOW to learn.

And once you really, truly know how to learn, it’s a transferable skill to anything else in life.

PART ONE – “the science bit”

First a quick explanation of how we actually learn anything. If you’re not interested in this then feel free to skip down to the tools, but honestly, it’s pretty straightforward to understand, and when you do it can put the different tools into context and help you decide (and remember) what to do, when to do it, and, most importantly, why!

How do we actually learn anything?

It’s down to a process in our brain and nervous system called neuroplasticity. This is the process by which our brain and nervous system changes based on experience, and it happens in every person throughout their whole life. To borrow an analogy, if you imagine the new brain as an empty field, every experience we have treads a path into the grass. These paths link two areas together, and over time if those paths are used over and over again they’ll get upgraded, paved, turned into roads that can be travelled down very quickly, easily, and reflexively. For example those ‘areas’ could be A: make a certain sound, B: receive food. You do A, get B as a result, and very quickly your brain knows to do that when you want food. Or another example is learning to walk: at first you just fall over as soon as you stand up, but as you learn to use certain muscles to stabilise yourself when you wobble those reflexes get strengthened and sped up to the point that you don’t need to think about it at all.

To illustrate the point that this happens throughout your whole life, while learning to walk will happen very early on, you’ll probably experience the same process when/if you learn to ride a bike, and then maybe even later in life learning other balance skills such as Yoga.

Every conscious behaviour or action we do (nearly) is reinforced by this process throughout our life, by the strengthening of connections between neurons in our brain. When we’re young, our brains are said to be in a very ‘plastic’ state – that is to say new ‘paths’ can be laid down very easily – hence why children seem to learn new things very quickly. Over about the age of 25, though it was once thought that the brain was basically fixed (“you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”), time and time again it has been shown that neuroplasticity is not only possible but is happening all the time, it just requires a few criteria to be met:

The roads will be paved as long as you get the right staff in, and get them the tools they need.

So what are these tools and conditions?

One of the first things to understand is that the real rewiring happens not when you’re doing the work, but the next time your brain is at rest. So, don’t expect to perfect something when you’re practising it, just do the work, make mistakes (see below), and know that you’ll see the results down the line, not today.

Doing the work (practise) by itself isn’t quite enough for adults to learn something new – the adult brain will only want to go through the effort of rewiring itself if it decides there’s a good enough reason to. If everything is working fine, you can do what you’re asking it to and it feels easy, then nothing needs to change, right? It really works on an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy. So how do we convince it to change in order to get better at a skill? Something needs to be wrong, it needs to realise that it can’t quite do what you’re asking it to.

It turns out the trigger here is a certain cocktail of chemicals in the brain (neuromodulators) such as epinephrine (aka adrenaline), dopamine, and acetylcholine (don’t worry, I’m not going to test you on these later). Luckily you don’t need to inject these into your head, your body is very good at releasing them by itself, and they’re associated respectively with feelings of being alert, motivated/interested, and a little stress/strain; if you were completely relaxed why would your brain feel the need to change anything? 

  • If something is stressful or you’re making mistakes, then the brain marks this time period as something to come back to and sort out later on when you’re resting. In other words, if you’re starting to feel a little stressed out by whatever it is you’re learning, that’s a really good sign for the learning process! How stressed out should you be, and how many mistakes should you be aiming to make? We’ll get into that below, but this process covers the release of acetylcholine, and also epinephrine.
  • Motivation is a big factor that we’ll explore more below, but suffice to say for now that having clear reasons for whatever it is you’re learning is great to keep in mind, and will cover the dopamine side of things.
  • The other big factor is alertness, so try to practise earlier in the day if possible, and ideally with bright overhead lighting, or even outside if possible! Also be sure to look up often. Doesn’t sound very scientific but the simple action of raising your eyes upwards sends signals to your brain to make you more alert (and vice versa – looking down will move towards being less alert). All of these serve to release epinephrine.

You might think that having some caffeine in advance would be a great way to help this side of things too, and if you’re already a regular caffeine drinker then yes, absolutely it is one of the best ways to increase your ability to focus. However, research has shown that actually spiking epinephrine (the effect you get from having caffeine) at the END of a learning session has much stronger benefits in terms of remembering the things you’ve learnt, improving memory and taking less repetitions needed to remember something. (Note: this is something to experiment with for yourself, as if you’re used to drinking caffeine then the lack of focus from not having it in advance might outweigh any benefits of having it afterwards – everyone’s different)

It’s the change in adrenaline levels relative to the last hour or so that make your brain want to remember, and if you think about this for a minute it makes perfect sense that we would have evolved this way: if your ancestors were to do something that put them in a life-threatening situation, they would be better off remembering very clearly the actions that led up to that point so as not to do the same again – those that didn’t see the signs beforehand and so repeated the same mistakes probably wouldn’t have made it!

So, if you can, have your caffeine at the end of the practise session for maximum memory retention. Or alternatively, if you don’t drink caffeine, anything else that raises adrenaline will do the job – for example cold or heat exposure are especially effective here; a cold shower, ice bath, sauna, or even submerging your arm up to the shoulder in cold water. All of these are pretty sure-fire ways of raising your adrenaline. IMPORTANT NOTE: if you’re prone to anxiety or panic attacks, be wary of activities that will raise adrenaline – feelings of anxiety/panic are due to higher levels of ‘autonomous arousal’ (activation of the sympathetic nervous system), which is exactly what adrenaline/epinephrine does!

Paving the roads, when you actually ‘learn’

As mentioned, the actual learning/rewiring of your nervous system – the road-paving – will be worked on the next time your brain is fully at rest. This could be when you go to sleep (presumably) at the end of the day, or it could also be from doing some sort of ‘non-sleep deep rest’ activity. These include things like meditation, yoga nidra, self hypnosis (very different to stage hypnosis!), or simple breathing exercises. This should be done at least a little while after the learning session, not straight afterwards (due to the adrenaline spike mentioned before). Try this for example.

As a final note to help with this general setup of the optimal conditions needed to learn, and it’s one no doubt you’ve heard a million times already – remove distractions! Decide how long you want to work for, put your phone in another room and get on with it. Or if you really need the phone for learning material, metronome etc, then put it on airplane/focus mode, and anything else can wait. It can take minutes to really get into focusing on something, but only seconds to lose that focus!

As a final note, neuroplasticity itself is a general process that your brain & nervous system can get better at over time. That is, as you get better at learning how to learn, you’ll learn everything more easily, from the large to the small. Improvements here have been shown to aid against diseases, age-related cognitive decline, isolation/depression, to improve social connections, and more!

When it comes to learning a physical skill (like playing an instrument) there’s an extra pathway at play here. Whenever you move a part of your body, there are a couple of places that instruction can come from. If you were to raise your arm now, what happens is that upper motor neurons in your brain send a signal down your spinal cord, and that signal is then passed on to lower motor neurons. These connect to specific muscles telling them to contract and, hey presto, your arm (hopefully) moves upwards.

This is all well and good and extremely useful, but a little slow for our needs here. If you’ve ever walked down the street you’ve maybe noticed that you’re not thinking about lifting your leg, shifting your weight, moving the leg forward, lowering the leg, shifting your balance, and then repeating that with every step. This is because once you’ve learnt a movement to the point of it being automatic (or ‘reflexive’), those instructions are no longer handled by the upper motor neurons in your brain, but by another set further down called central pattern generators. These lump all those steps into one pattern and just send the right signals to the lower motor neurons for you, so your muscles can then do the thing. This means you can just think ‘walk’, and off you go. Now your brain is free to focus on more important things like avoiding lampposts and cars.

Perhaps you can see where this is going.

In order to learn to play an instrument, the physical tasks you need to do to make the music happen need to be automatic. That is, be handled by the central pattern generators. When you’re first learning something, it will be slow and clunky as you’re using your upper motor neurons to send the signals down every time to the muscles needed. However, every time you do this, those movement patterns are getting more and more efficient and will eventually be passed off to the central pattern generators, allowing you to focus on other things like staying in time, what’s coming up next in the song, why is the guitarist turning their amp up again?.. etc.

In order to make the most of this process for learning, we simply need to do many repetitions of something, and as mentioned before, make many mistakes as well. We’ll get into all the details for this in later parts!

Hopefully you now have a decent enough grounding in how you adapt to experiences to learn new things. In part two we’ll begin looking at specific ways you can use this to turbo-charge your learning. See you there!

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