In Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. Gary Marcus chronicles his following his dream of learning to play guitar despite his age (almost 40) and his inability to keep musical time at all. I reserved this book as soon as I saw a blurb about it, because I was intrigued by the concept of learning a musical instrument as an adult, and in my case in, when I had entered middle age. I have aspirations to get myself a banjo and learn to play.
Gary (a fine name now that I think about it) covers a great deal of ground within this book which is a pretty interesting read. As a brain researcher he quickly goes over a few studies, before deciding that though the brain is changed by the study of music, there is no specific area of the brain that is devoted to music related activities. His quest will require that his brain rewire itself in many areas to handle the complexity of playing the guitar. He also spends some time weighing the merits of whether humans are hardwired with an affinity to music. The bottom line is that though we are programmed to learn language, creating music is not a natural result of our makeup.
Even though piano has always seemed more highbrow than guitar to me, Gary points out how chords and individual notes are much more complicated to understand and to execute on the guitar. I guess the difference is that you can get a lot more mileage out of a small number of chords on the guitar if you need to, while playing piano is not as interesting until you can make use of a good number of keys. He goes into some detail about the individual skills that must be mastered to play the guitar well, such as training the ear to distinguish intervals.
The author talks about the importance of deliberate practice (as studied by Anders Ericsson). Deliberate practice is constant self evaluation, where you apply effort to correct your shortcomings, as opposed to just playing what we already know or broadly goofing around with the instrument. I find this concept fascinating and have seen in mentioned in many books about achievement such as Outliers by Malcolm something and other places as well. Thinking of a personal application, I compare it to where people have a choice of studying the bible by reading it cover to cover every so often as opposed to sitting down and deciding what theme or passage is important to understand better and then deep diving to get a real handle on the insights there. Throughout the book the author considers the relative merits of this deliberate practice and innate talent.Both it seems are important.
Gary tries to decide whether music is an evolutionary development that improved the genetic survival of musicians or does it have some other value? I like his conclusion that music allows us to enter into a flow state where we are elevated by the musical experience.
He goes over the different styles of teaching guitar, and also looks at whether lessons are even needed. It is apparent that efforts to keep practice interesting are crucial, because the most important task is to keep learning. The perfect mix of familiar and new material is important to prevent boredom or frustration.
An interesting part of the book is the author’s participation in a rock and roll camp, for youth 8 to 15. I enjoyed his nervousness in waiting to be picked to be in one of the bands formed on the first day, which would work to develop their skills, to be able to perform on the last day of the camp. His account of how everything came together was fun, especially the camaraderie that developed within the band.
In one chapter the author discusses what makes for a good song and in another talks about the skills that make a true expert musician stand out from your average one. These chapters might be important for those who are going to learn to play the guitar.
This book has many similarities with Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, a book that follows the effort of an American to prepare and then compete in a national, and then international memory competition. Some of the same issues of adult learning are touched upon, but with much more interesting asides and more quirky characters. I hope to do up a review of that book soon.
When Gary completes this year and a half quest to gain proficiency in playing the guitar, he meditates on whether it was all worth it. He concludes that it certainly was, that there is something to be said for the mixture of musical enjoyment, the flow that comes of being immersed in the sounds and rhythms, and the physical challenge of learning and developing. I was a little surprised that in working up to this conclusion in the end, that he even considered that maybe the effort was futile since machines or computers can now or soon will be able to perform music better that humans can. I think that there is an important inner balance that is achieved by being to perform skillfully with our hands, be it in crafts, or with a musical instrument, especially given our current isolation from the handicraft of our ancestors. I am glad that Gary Marcus comes to the same conclusion.