SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. If you ever had the urge to make music but never had lessons as a child or quit before you could learn, don't despair. Most professional musicians started out when they were young, but neuroscientists and music teachers alike say that it's never too late. As it turns out, the biggest hurdles are not stiffening hands or an ageing brain. The totally fabulous Brigid McCarthy explains why.
BRIGID MCCARTHY: For adults, the urge to play an instrument is often awakened by a great piece of music. For filmmaker David Murdock, it was a tune called "George's Dilemma."
Mr. DAVID MURDOCK (Filmmaker): I was probably about 25, and I got really interested in a trumpet player named Clifford Brown. And the more I listened to him, the more I thought, well, maybe I could play this one.
(Soundbite of trumpet)
Mr. MURDOCK: So I bought a trumpet, and I started teaching myself how to play.
MCCARTHY: He was living in a tenement building on 109th Street in New York City.
Mr. MURDOCK: It was hard for me because to really play well, you have to cut loose and blow. So I would do things like blow into the pillow or go into the closet and blow into my clothes. But once in a while, I would really just practice loudly.
(Soundbite of trumpet)
Mr. MURDOCK: One day I came home from work, and I found that my door had been totally demolished. The doorframe was splintered, and the door was practically ripped off the hinges.
MCCARTHY: So Murdock called the cops.
Mr. MURDOCK: This policeman answered the phone, and I said, my apartment's been broken into. And he said, what'd they get? And I said, well, they didn't get much, but the thing I'm really upset about is they took my trumpet. And he says, oh. You play the trumpet, huh? I'm like, yeah. Been playing long? I'm like no, you know, a few months, teaching myself. And he was, oh, teaching yourself, huh? Probably one of the neighbors.
MCCARTHY: And that, Murdock says, was the whole investigation. He never got another trumpet. He figured that was his last chance to learn it.
Dr. NORMAN WEINBERGER (Neuroscientist, University of California, Irvine): A lot of people believe that the brain isn't very plastic after you reach puberty.
MCCARTHY: Norman Weinberger is a neuroscientist at University of California, Irvine.
Dr. WEINBERGER: In fact, the brain maintains its ability to change, that's plasticity, to take in new information and organize it with old information and do new things throughout lifespan. Now, is it as easy to learn something when you're 65 as it is when you're 5? The answer is no. But can you do it? Yes.
(Soundbite of piano music)
MCCARTHY: For an adult beginner, it can sometimes feel like trying to learn Arabic and ice-skating at the same time. Think about it. When you're hunched over the piano keys or bowing a violin, you're using your muscles and most of your senses. And your brain's working really hard. You're reading the notes on the page, counting out the rhythm, trying to keep a steady beat, and make it sound like music. That's why unlike language, there's no single music center in the brain. There are lots of them.
Dr. WEINBERGER: When brain scans have been done, actually in musicians, you find an enormity of the areas of the brain that are actually being activated.
MCCARTHY: Children are growing new brain cells all the time. So when they're learning music, some of those brain cells are devoted to playing their instrument. Adults, on the other hand, have to work with the brain cells they already have and create new connections or synapses between them.
Mr. SCOTT HAWKINS (Piano Teacher): Ability is so low, I think, on the list of what's required.
MCCARTHY: Scott Hawkins is a piano teacher in Silver Spring, Maryland. He says for his adult students, attitude is everything, especially patience.
Mr. HAWKINS: I think often adults come in with these exorbitant, perhaps unrealistic, goals about what they want to achieve at the piano in the amount of time they want to achieve this at the piano. We want to skip steps 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and be at 6.
MCCARTHY: And unlike children, no one's forcing them to practice. So they never get around to it. But adults have advantages, too. They can see and hear things in the music that completely escape children. David Conrad is one of Scott Hawkins' students. He's been taking lessons for several years. When learning a new piece, he spends hours analyzing the music before he sits down to play it. He wants to understand the chords, and the rhythm, and the structure of the piece to figure out what the composer is trying to say.
(Soundbite of piano music)
Mr. DAVID CONRAD: I started working on a Scriabin prelude. And one of the things that I have to do when I approach this is I have to be very patient with myself.
(Soundbite of music)
MCCARTHY: David Conrad and his son, Simon, started piano lessons together when Simon was 8 years old. David wanted his son to see him struggle. But he wasn't quite prepared for the fear.
Mr. CONRAD: I played in church one time where I almost fell face forward into the keyboard. What happened? My eyes went blurry. It was like looking through the windshield before the wiper's gone. Things like that will happen to me when I'm playing in front of people. And it used to happen when playing for Scott, which is totally ridiculous. Right? I'm learning from Scott. It took me several years to get over that.
MCCARTHY: Scott Hawkins says fear of failure is a big issue for his adult students.
Mr. SCOTT HAWKINS: We don't want to be seen as incompetent or struggling with a task because we're so competent in so many areas of our life. We do so many things so well. To start with something that we don't do well is, I think, it's is a real challenge.
MCCARTHY: Still, for those who are willing to practice and settle for something less than virtuosity, there are real payoffs. Playing music is great mental exercise and can keep brain cells alive that would otherwise wither and die. David and Simon Conrad have had their musical setbacks over the years. But they haven't quit. Simon, who's now 16, still takes lessons occasionally. And a few months ago, he started teaching himself the saxophone. His dad learned some jazz chords. So now, when Simon needs a break from his homework, they play duets.
(Soundbite of piano and saxophone music)
MCCARTHY: It may be hard and humbling. But to play music with someone you love or pursue a lifelong goal can be infinitely rewarding. For NPR News, I'm Brigid McCarthy.