I was in my early thirties when I took up piano lessons. Since I was a teenager, it has been a dream of mine to play the piano. I began my journey by searching for a teacher. I first tried learning on an app. There’s nothing like a teacher that’s an algorithm. However, due to the gamification of learning, I didn’t end up learning much. I, then, decided to enrol in a school.
I must have visited four schools. I took trial lessons: from group to individual classes. The piano teachers I met were all performers. They could play really well, but they were not teachers, per se. I discovered the reality that in certain industries–especially music–it is best to start young. The same could be said of language learning. It is said to get ‘more difficult’ as you get older.
But is it actually more difficult? I remember trying to learn the piano when I was a teenager and it was far more difficult back then. Part of the reason was that my acoustic piano was really loud and I couldn’t practise at home in peace. I had chosen the wrong instrument. The acoustic piano was the one that I was recommended to buy; when in reality, an electronic one would have been more appropriate. It meant that I could practise at any hour. I could adjust the volume and it wouldn’t bother my neighbours.
Learning doesn’t stop once we graduate from school. Neither does it begin or end at school. We have to take charge of our own education–and as adults, we can do just that. We can make decisions regarding what we want to study, how we want to study and why we want to study it.
Age has never been a boundary. Nor should it be. While it is true that more emphasis is given towards learning in our developmental years, it should never stop there. In fact, in those years, much of what we study is pre-prescribed for us. We do not get to choose. Those decisions are made for us on our behalf.
So what if you have to start in your 30s? Are you dead, yet? I highly doubt it. Given our life expectancy, we still have decades and even half a century or more ahead of us.
It is never too late to learn what you always wanted to and never had the chance to. That is the first lesson of Saraswati.
The Goddess of Learning
To learn is to grow. It is to take that tiny seed inside of you and nurture it so that it can blossom. It is to hone in your ability by repeating the same lesson over and over again. If you decide to play the piano, for instance, you have to play the same song over and over again.
At first, it is very difficult and you’re very slow at it. With time and repetition, you realise you have improved tremendously and you have no idea how it even happened. There are times when I have played a piece of music and thought, “Hey, two days ago, when I played this; it sounded like pure noise! Now, it sounds like a tune!”
Once I realised that I was capable of more than pure noise, I began recording small snippets and sending them to my friends. It was through the recording process that I understood the lesson of being as perfect as one can be. At the same time, I know that when I play the song again–for some reason, it will be different. Each time I play the song, I am interpreting it all over again.
My mood, my frame of mind, my general enthusiasm (or lack thereof) has an impact on my ability to play. At the same time, I know the most important thing is to show up and play. Even if I put on a bad show for no one else but myself; the important thing is always to show up and play. If you don’t show up, then there’s not much that can be done.
You may happen to have a spark of genius and play really well sometimes. But without hard work and continued practise, our natural abilities grow rusty. I remember many years ago, I studied Hebrew in Jerusalem. When I first started, I was behind all my peers. I couldn’t read or write. That was my handicap. Everyone around me could read and write, but not speak or understand. I failed every test for the first few weeks. I felt terrible about myself, questioned my own intelligence and so on.
The breakthrough came when I switched teachers. I made a request for a different teacher as I was behind on my reading and writing. By switching teachers, I also had more time to focus on my speaking and listening skills; which improved very fast in comparison. After a few months, I could speak ‘market Hebrew’. It was enough to survive and get by in my daily life.
My peers were all still well ahead of me in reading and writing, but I discovered my own aptitude lay elsewhere. I had a voice and I knew how to use it the market. It was the perfect skill for bargaining and striking up a good deal.
Changing teachers can be a profound milestone on our learning journey. But that is only if we were committed and determined all along. Later on, I remember that some of teachers who had ‘scolded’ me were surprised by my sudden progress. The only thing was that it wasn’t sudden at all. I had been working away at it and simply needed a different approach to have that breakthrough.
The breakthrough always comes. It comes because the obstruction has either been removed; or we have found a solution that allows us to overcome the difficulty that we were silently enduring–sometimes without even knowing what the difficulty was. Once we have our breakthrough, we never look back.
We play each day. We take joy in our difficulties knowing that we can overcome them. We know that each person is unique and talented in a different way. At the same time, we know that no matter how talented an individual is, there is no substitute for hard work.
You will have to show up and play. And play your heart out.