I’ve heard it said many times that “I’m too old to learn to play bagpipes” or “I’m past improving my playing”. I do not accept the validity of these two, or other similar, statements. I believe that age is not the barrier to beginning or improving that we allow ourselves to believe.
I base this on both my own experience teaching pipers of various ages and stages, which has been supported by a recent afternoon I attended at the University of Western Sydney, delivered by The MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour & Development at the Bankstown campus. The topic of the afternoon was “The effects of learning a musical instrument in later life”.
There is further support for my belief in a fascinating, very readable book, by Dr. Norman Doidge : “The Brain That Changes Itself”. The ability of an aged brain to adapt, change and learn is often way under-estimated.
Lastly, I myself have experienced some elements of learning later in life, having taken 25 years away from touching a set of bagpipes, between my mid-twenties and 50 years old. While I had a lot of mental pathways intact, I had a lot of work to do to relearn as an older musician. I have felt that experience – and, might I say, been rather successful at improving. I am now in my early 60’s and I am currently playing better than I have at any time over the last 10 years.
In my experience, there are a number of reasons why older learners and musicians don’t improve. I’ll simplify my thinking a little here to make the points. I’ll also ignore those players who aren’t bothered to try and improve, although I wonder how many are of that mind because they believe they can’t improve.
Of course, there is a little more complexity than this blog post will contain.
- First and foremost, we believe that age stops us from being able to learn and advance. In fact, we have that reinforced by people around us all the time. I have heard of a man in his 60s wanting to learn pipes somewhere in Australia being told bluntly “You’re too old to learn”.We see younger people learning quickly and conclude that our own slower progress must be due to age. There is reason to believe that older minds learn differently and may learn new things at a different speed, but the belief that it is an obstacle is a major issue of itself.
- Older people don’t practise like younger people. The younger person that advances quickly typically does practise, even though it may appear not. The trick is in the effectiveness of their approach to practice. Everybody, young and mature, can gain significant advantage from practising in an effective way. I have written articles on this topic as much as 40 years ago.
- Mature people are often distracted from practising by life events – one of the kids is sick, it’s Mary’s speech night at school, Johnnie’s doing his HSC this year so he needs peace and quiet to study. These are life’s realities that restrict practice, but are not because of some characteristic of the older brain.If you practice, even in small amounts, and do it effectively, you can learn and improve.
- A fear of stepping outside of a comfort zone. I know more mature players who have been playing bagpipes for 40 years and upwards and show fear and doubt about trying to do something different. By definition, if you ain’t changing, you ain’t improving. If you’re prepared to trust your (presumably competent) tutor and make changes, you can improve.
- Mature age people seem to want to build the house before the foundation slab has dried. This is a case of more haste, less speed. A young person in my experience, will accept what their tutor asks them to do, and just do exactly that. Many pupils I have taught later in their lives are impatient to play and so don’t stop to take the proper foundation steps to learning and improving.As an example, I will ask a pupil to play the first bar of a tune and stop, so we can focus on and exercise particular things. So often, an older pupil won’t stop, will play the entire first eight bars, and the value of that moment will have been largely lost.Not surprisingly, in this manner, a rickety, unreliable, “not quite right” house gets built.
- Physical disability. The above points naturally assume a body that physically works. Arthitis, crushed fingers, carpal tunnel syndrome and physical damage to the brain are examples of things that could hinder or even totally prevent someone from learning or improving. However, too often I hear “My fingers don’t move as fast as they used to” and similar comments as reasons for not being able to learn. Finger nimbleness comes largely from the ability of the brain to send the right messages to the fingers, which is not as much of an age restriction as we often believe.
Over the last ten years or so, I have developed a methodology for training my pupils which has proven to be very effective in overcoming many improvement obstacles, particularly relating to finger technique. It is a particular way of engaging deeply with their brains during lessons, and which they can take away with them for their own practice, making it more effective in a shorter space of time. Some of my pupils have laughingly nicknamed it “brain frying”, but I believe they would all now say they see the value of it. Note that the methodology involves my brain working as hard as theirs – so, a kind of a “mutual frying”. 🙂 This methodology is as applicable to the more mature brain as to the younger one.
To conclude, before you disrespect yourself by saying you are too old to improve, take note of what I have said and look for ways and opportunities to do exactly that. And if anyone tells you that you are beyond it, treat them with the (lack of) respect they deserve. Remember, your music is your hobby to enjoy your way, not theirs.
9 thoughts on “When are you too old to learn or improve?”
Thanks for this post. I stopped playing for a good number of years and am now 65 and playing ( well nearly) again. It isn’t easy playing the pipes again. The technique is still there somewhere but the blowing seems harder. I will persevere.
Hi Michael. Thanks for your comment.
My own experience rebuilding my blowing capability was that it indeed did take some time before I was comfortable blowing again. During my 25 year break, the whole feel of a set of pipes had changed e.g. a “medium” bag seemed much larger than it was previously. While there is definitely some physical conditioning needed to build up blowing strength again, do look for ways to make the instrument comfortable As an example, I found a medium size bag was bigger than I remembered and therefore did not fit as high under my shoulder as in the past, giving me less leverage over that bag and making the instrument harder to blow for very long.
Glad to hear you’re playing again.
It is encouraging to read your post, Thank you! I played also up to mid – late twenties. I am now 50, and I have always hoped I could return to playing, not much made me happier. I just don,t really know where to start. It is also the blowing the pipes that intimidates me mainly.
Hi Ruth. Thanks for your comment and I’m glad you found the article useful. Even more so that you are considering revisiting playing.
As for where to start – seriously – at the beginning. Pick up a practice chanter, show yourself that you have lost some skill – BUT you have also KEPT a lot. Have a bit of fun reminding yourself of tunes you used to play, the exercises you used to practise and how good you used to be, and still are, at doing useful practice with them.
With pipes, one step at a time. That comes back to you as well, but keep in mind times have changed and the technologies have advanced, so do seek advice with instrument setup, probably from someone who wants to sell you modern drone reeds etc.. (I do not sell products). You will possibly need to play a weaker instrument – maybe only for a while, or maybe forever – but that’s OK.
First things first – try a little enjoyment on the practice chanter. If that appeals to you, you’ll conquer anything else you choose to revisit.
If you want to discuss a little more specifically, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Enjoyed this encouraging article very much. I’m 60 and after many years decided I would play again. In fact just got my practice chanter today in the mail. I still remember bits and pieces of songs and embellishments but the fingers do not want to cooperate. Its going to take a lot of work but here goes..
Hi Earl. Glad you took it up again. It will take work – but not as much as you might expect to get to a reasonable level. It’s absolutely worth it.
Thank you for the article. Quite enjoyable and very relevant to more people than one might expect without thinking too long about it. Keep up the good work.
I was just reading this article and it dawned on me you are probably the Gary Barker from John McDouall Stuart Pipe Band . My name is Scott Smith, you may or may not remember me, I started maybe less than a year before the split, with you going with Bobby Horne and myself with Dickie Hepburn.
Anyway, good to hear you are still going strong. You are right too in saying you are never too old, I have had a 50 year layoff where I have not even touched the practice chanter but back at it now and playing as well as I ever did even at 66
Hi Scott. I remember you well (and your flowing reddish locks).
I took a 25 year period off playing. If you want to share experiences in restarting, let me know.
Where are you playing?
All the best.