Critical Learning Period in Young Students

March 15, 2021, 3:44 PM · I'm currently reading Norman Doidge's "The Brain That Changes Itself" and in it he talks about the critical period of brain plasticity that starts around age 5 and ends near puberty. In this period language learning and many other tasks are significantly faster and easier as the brain maps for both languages are combined into one larger map, whereas adults trying to learn a second language have to develop an entirely new map from the ground up.

My question is, are the world class soloists and professional symphony players who started violin at a very young age in another league of their own, or is it possible to catch up by someone who started 5 years later in their childhood? For example, is the additional 5 years of violin practice in the critical period of learning within childhood equivalent to any quantifiable amount of practice time in adulthood?

Obviously the quality of practice and degree of focus make a huge difference, which may be easier for a university student, for example, than a 6 year old, but could the 6 year old be laying the foundation in their head for increased potential in the future? Would the 30 year old violinist who started at age 5 be at the same level as a 40 year old violinist who started at age 10 given the same quality of practice?

I know these questions are very abstract and generalized, but in aggregate is there any significant difference that anyone knows about? Are there any examples of players who started later than most and still made it on the competitive field?

Replies (28)

March 15, 2021, 5:55 PM · I've actually wondered the same at various points & brought it up with teachers. I'm not a scientist and it's likely more complicated than this, but the simple answer is that a gifted person can catch up (and often overtake) even if they started later.

I have about 5 examples in mind, a few orchestral players and college students.

Edited: March 16, 2021, 9:16 AM · That's a good question, and it's very hard to test if you were to do it empirically. That's because nature and nurture are so intertwined when learning music.

Realistically for students still in school, how you play compared to peers of the same age can make a difference in your educational and professional opportunities, including scholarships. It also affects how teachers and other people treat you. Psychology can be a big factor in one's progress. A 10-year-old playing a pleasant but developing Mozart gets more enthusiastic support than a 17-year-old who sounds exactly the same.

There is a thread here with videos of famous soloists when they were younger. Take the audio of any now-famous soloist at age 8, and anonymously post it here while asking: “I’m 17 years old. I’ve been studying the violin for 5 years. This is what I sound like now. Do you think I can be a soloist?” See what people on this board say. I think the answer will be revealing.

Edited: March 16, 2021, 9:27 AM · Where you grow up is infinitely more important than what year of your life you started playing when it comes to making a career in classical music.

Who do you think's gonna form an orchestral or solo career later in life:
The kid who started at 3 years old and then went to some IB school with no arts program and never played in any ensembles, or the kid who started at 11 and has a dozen musicals aunt and uncles and brothers and sisters and goes to concerts every month?

March 16, 2021, 10:15 AM · Brandon, I probably laid down some of those networks fairly young, as I had two classical musician parents, was surrounded by music, and started on piano and violin pretty early, with the caveat that my technical instruction was actually pretty subpar, and my attention was not on music, as I didn't like it at all.

So as someone that got serious about music as an adult and has made more progress than I could ever imagine as a child, I believe that I'm drawing on those early networks for better, and fighting against them for worse, but I believe that I still have an advantage over someone that started cold as an adult.

With that said, I think that the naturally musical will be naturally drawn to music as children, whether it be through lots of listening, experimenting on instruments, or probably most commonly, singing. Their mental representations of their left and right hands might not be built up in a way that an early instrumentalist has in their brains, but a lot of the other elements probably have some basic architecture to draw on. I imagine that the more athletically inclined, who have really easy mind-body awareness, have a great advantage in building up those neural networks for their hands as adults, because the networks that have developed for their athletic coordination can be hijacked for musical purposes to some extent and developed in the more specifically instrumental direction. I also wonder how this relates to cases of focal dystonia, where my understanding is that the neural representations get confused by having to be split among too many tasks.

Anyway, this is a whole lot of conjecture on my part, but I would think that the less specific training an adult has upon starting or restarting, the more the adult is at a disadvantage, with other factors of coordination skill being able to mediate that disadvantage in various ways.

It would be really interesting to run a study scanning the brains of people who started violin at various points in their lives and seeing what the brains look like.

March 16, 2021, 11:21 AM · I started the piano at 3 and the violin at 4, and I guarantee you that my brain scan would not impress anyone. Brain science is a wonderful thing and very important and worthy of additional Federal investment but we need to be careful with our eagerness to extrapolate from what is observed and maintain a healthy skepticism when it comes to "experimental error."
Edited: March 16, 2021, 1:12 PM · If brain "plasticity" ended near puberty, there wouldn't be much point in people going to university or conservatory. Brain science is still a wannabee science. The only thing that will stop me from catching up is arthritis (right index finger a brand new pain as from precisely 1 week ago!).
Edited: March 16, 2021, 1:12 PM · Sure Paul. I remember a few years ago when a bunch of pop neuroscience was the rage - Unfortunate that it was the flavor of the day, and all the TED talks should be listened to with skepticism (Or better yet, not listened to at all).

My understanding is that for instrumentalists with extensive training, the areas in the brain associated with motor control for their preferred hands are greatly exaggerated compared to controls, which seems to follow for my largely materialist view of reality.

It seems pretty uncontroversial to me that starting as a child presents distinct advantages, and that old dogs can learn new tricks, even if I was trying to wrap these ideas in the packaging of neuro-pop.

March 16, 2021, 7:13 PM · Greetings,
sorry I don’t have time to check, but what Doidge is saying seems an extremely banal over simplification to me. Cognitive psychologists these days are really pushing people to remain mentally active and constantly confront new intellectual challenges. By doing so we build up mental maps or neuronal networks that greatly facilitate learning anything. One is not starting from scratch with a language. To illustrate this point consider that any polyglot will tell you that for every language learnt the next one becomes substantially easier. One is not starting from scratch but utilizing a whole range of resources that a young child does not have.
Of course, if you don’t constantly build new neural networks by challenging yourself mentally then your mind will, indeed, be pretty much a worthless block of concrete later in life.
March 16, 2021, 11:23 PM · Mozart, Heifetz, and Menuhin started at 3 y.o., but for us ordinary mortals, 7 y.o. might be the optimum starting age, when we know our letters and numbers and can start learning the notation system. Of course the Suzuki method starts earlier than 7, but I wonder about the financial and time efficiency of those extra early years. The big advantage is to learn the instrument when we are growing, physically and mentally. The teen to early 20's is when the motivation kicks in to do the extra hours necessary to tackle the really difficult techniques. For myself, I started a little late, 12 y.o., and then there were unfortunate, unavoidable interruptions at age 19, 22.
Edited: March 16, 2021, 11:44 PM · Frieda makes a very important point here. One of the reasons late starters have a hard time catching up is that they are automatically excluded from many opportunities for better training.

The whole reason I ended up self-teaching for well over a decade is that, when I was as young as 13, I was already rejected by every teacher my parents contacted, with all of them saying I was too old to learn a string instrument. And they weren't referring to professional prospects. One said it would be almost impossible for me to ever sound like anything but a dying cat, and another said I was unlikely to ever get past the first two Suzuki books. There was a perception among some (at least at that time) that someone at or approaching puberty was already too old to develop the necessary fine motor control to play a string instrument at all.

My understanding is that neuroscience has now largely debunked the idea of a critical learning period in childhood.

Edited: March 17, 2021, 12:54 AM · I think squidginess is a more scientific word than plasticity.

However, I do believe kids have a critical learning period, but it's more in the area of social contact (stimulus hunger) and at a much younger age. Extension of this idea to other areas may or may not be speculative.

Edited: March 17, 2021, 1:06 AM · Greetings,
I tend to wears the view that starting age is not the overall dominant factor in learning the violin. Rather it is ‘not making mistakes.’ Heifetz, for example was a classic example of being watched by a hawk by a competent other (father). What complexities this is the definition of ‘mistake.’ What I mean by this, is that the older we get the more ‘mistakes’ we have built into the way we use our self/body. This tension and muscular stress does make it harder to learn the violin for many people. Thus violin lessons for more mature students may well have to include such apparently unrelated issues as inefficient head position in relation to the spine and so on. This also puts the onus on violin teacher’s to have a quite extensive knowledge of the body in general and how it is misused as we age. After that, tan adult who is used to success, choosing their own pace and generally controlling their life more than a child may well make arbitrary decisions to pass the teachers direction to ‘practice this three times a day for one minute’ through a filter of passion so it somehow morphs into 3 hours a day. or , in their hard core zeal they may just just give ‘exercise x’ they saw on youtube a whirl, thereby building in a hindrance that nobody is aware of. I call this the ‘Manchurian Cornflake’ so it doesn7t get confused with the book.
Once we take out the error factor then the factors of time and talent come into play a lot more. one would be lucky to start at 4 with a great teacher but it would be a heck of a lot better to star with that teacher at 12 than a lousy one at 7.
idle thoughts,
March 17, 2021, 1:28 AM · I should have qualified that -- I meant the idea of a critical learning period for complex skills has been largely debunked. It is definitely important to have social and environmental stimuli in early childhood.

I'm in agreement with Buri. The problem for many late starters, though, is that they are also less likely than children to have access to a great teacher, simply because in many places the pool of teachers willing to accept late starters is small and opportunities for instruction in workshops and ensembles are often age-limited.

Edited: March 17, 2021, 1:33 AM · Another factor, possibly, and I have mentioned it in another thread, is that the child is less self-doubting, whereas the adult is far more aware of their limitations - or perhaps the height of the ceiling above them - and this can hinder progress by leading to more despair, if that's not too strong a word.
March 17, 2021, 12:45 PM · I have only my own experience on which to base these observations. I was given my first violin for my 4th birthday and my formal, weekly lessons started when I was 4-1/2 years old. I recall having 3 different teachers before I started at in the "kids' program" with weekly lessons and separate theory classes at the Manhattan School of Music a few months before my 10th birthday. I continued with this for 2 years. I do not recall my MSM teacher making any adjustments to my posture or the way I held my violin.
A few months before my 15th I was given a cello to play with instructions to be the cellist in my father's string quartet in 10 days since their regular cellist would be away. A was reading and playing my treble-clef violin music (an octave down) on the cello before lunch on the first day I played that cello. I launched into bass cleff the next day. The quartet session worked out just fine. My formal cello lessons started about a month later and on that same day I joined the local community orchestra as a cellist - at its first rehearsal.
I bought a viola just before I was 40 and played it in the usual way that a violinist does - because our orchestra was rehearsing the Verdi Requium and there is a movement without violin parts and all the violinists who could play viola were going to participate in that movement. I played the viola in about 7 performances over the next 40 years, when I first decided to get serious about it. At that point I bought Suzuki viola books 4 - 7 (as far as they went then) and worked through them about one-a-day that first week. By the end of that week I was reading viola music the way real violists do instead of like a rehabbing violinist.

From those 76 years of bowed string experience I believe that starting real early (about the same age as I was first able to read words) I carged "neural" pathways for playing these instruments that I likely would not have if I had to really think about it:
Picking up a violin or viola and putting it into playing position just happens for me without a thought.
Putting the bow to a different instrument including a viola or cello and getting it to sound right just happened the first time I tried it - you just do it naturally.
Adjusting intonation according to what I hear and the angle of my elbow just happened naturally (even though it is exactly. opposite for cello than for violin or viola).

I believe these pre-carved neural paths have made a difference in the way I have learned to play these different instruments. Unfortunately I have never discussed this with the 2 other people I have known who also play the same 3 instruments (in fact they also play double-bass).

All the other things I have learned in my life required a different kind of learning. When I have taught violin and cello lessons to adults I have observed that they seem to learn in different ways than the children. They seem to have learned other things faster and want to apply that experience to their music lessons - in my opinion it doesn't work.
When I have taken on a young child, 5 or 6 years old I ahve tried to have one of their parents also participate in the lesson and learn so as to help the child with practice. The parent seems to learn faster than the child for about a month and then the child has passed the parent and I have asked the parent to stop participating in the practice because they will just get in the way.

What I don't know is at what age this learning process changes and how it varies with different people - OR - how adults could be taught to learn as children can.

March 17, 2021, 1:05 PM · Gordon mentioned self-doubt. There's no fixed onset age for that. I've seen children who were very self-doubting, and it had a very negative effect on their violin progress. I conclude that a little bit of hubris/arrogance goes a long way.
March 17, 2021, 1:36 PM · I don't know if the cure for self-doubt is hubris, Paul.

I think the players that can perform just understand and have internalized the reality that they have done it, can do it, and that the work they have put in is a durable reminder of that, and the players operating from hubris are ones that can lose all their confidence in an instant and be really inconsistent performers, because deep down they feel like imposters, even if a shift in their mindsets would actually set them straight.

I feel bad for the kids that were pressured to deliver by their parents, or have a really negative sense of self that doesn't allow them to see their ability and all the work they've put in. I think self-compassion is a much better tool than having to put on a suit of psychic armor.

March 17, 2021, 3:09 PM · I'm not convinced that the neural pathways that enabled Andrew Victor to pick up viola and cello quickly are necessarily the result of starting young. They may also be the result of playing for many years.

I didn't start young. I didn't have lessons until I was 33. When I was in my late 20s (having played violin/viola for more than ten years) I tried out a friend's cello, got a decent sound out of it and automatically adjusted my intonation immediately, was able to play several 2-octave scales reasonably in tune in 15 minutes, and could play through Suzuki Book 3 cello pieces within half an hour, the only difficulty being that I sometimes crossed strings in the wrong direction.

Edited: March 17, 2021, 3:28 PM · I view the violin, viola and cello as tonal instruments very much like tonal languages like Chinese. Adults may learn languages that are not tonal in character and might pass as a native speaker with enough immersion in the language. My understanding is that an adult, coming from a non tonal language, who is learning a tonal language might get good enough to be understood but will never be mistaken as a native speaker. It’s all about the development of the ear for minute distinctions in sounds and inflection. You need to start young to get good at it.
I often wonder if this is why a mid teen can take up a non tonal instrument like a piano or guitar and get quite good so that it sounds like they played it all their life but a mid teen, with rare exceptions, starting from scratch on tonal instrument will not approach the sound of an player who started at say 6.
March 17, 2021, 9:11 PM · Christian, I said "a little bit" of hubris or arrogance. When you get up on stage with your violin in your hand, you have to believe you can do it. You have to believe people will want to hear you play.
March 17, 2021, 9:25 PM · I wouldn't call that hubris, unless you take a moment right before the oboe gives you the "a" to wing a prayer to Zeus along the lines of "Just watch this and weep, punk".

Then I would call it hubris.

March 19, 2021, 7:28 PM · With regard to languages, I have observed that, if in an immersion environment, it is very easy for an 8-year old child to learn a new language in a few months with no accent, i.e., with a perfect native speaker accent. For 11-year-old children, some can do this, while others cannot seem to pick up a perfect native speaker accent. For children 13 years or older, even in an immersion environment it is very rare to start learning a new language at this age and be able to speak it exactly the way a native speaker does.

On the other hand, as Buri says, the more languages you already know, the easier it is to learn new ones. Even if you don't sound exactly like a native speaker, it is very possible to become fluent enough to enjoy communicating in the new language.

Edited: March 19, 2021, 7:58 PM · James,
although the evidence would suggest that second/third language speakers will not sound like native speakers this is not quite so simple. I spend a lot of time studying polyglots and how they learn languages because it is the educational field I work in. They never achieve NS level in vocabulary and certain usages simply because that is not possible, but they almost invariably are mistaken for native speakers because the part of language learning they do which is almost never taught in conventional education is to not only master the pronounciation but also study by mimicking the situational and emotional content of native speakers.
I do, in fact, sound like a Japanese person when I speak Japanese until the point wghere I make a blooper and my counterpart thinks ‘a, gaijin da!’
March 20, 2021, 1:59 AM · In response to James: I do not believe it is all that rare or exceptional for a mid-teens starter to sound just as natural on a string instrument as someone who started in early childhood.

Here's a case in point. I took this video from my music stand at a chamber music workshop a while ago.

This was early in the rehearsal day, only an hour or two removed from sight-reading, and was our first uninterrupted run-through of the movement, so parts were not completely learned and there are some noticeable ensemble issues.

With that in mind, can you tell who in this ensemble started late? What if I told you that no one in the group started before age 15, and one member started as an adult? What telltale signs of a late start, if any, are audible here?

Each of us had played actively for 15 years or more, and it turns out things do become more natural over time, until it really becomes hard to tell the late starters from other competent amateurs. Normally, when people think of late starters, they tend to think of students who haven't been playing for more than a few years, rather than musicians who may have already played their instruments for over half of their lives.

In my view, competent late-starting upper string players are not rare exceptions if you can find three among the people attending one summer chamber music workshop.

Edited: March 20, 2021, 8:22 AM · The original post mentioned the period of cortical plasticity that is present in childhood, and closes at about age 8-10, probably coincident with maturing myelination of the brain. I too have wonder whether musical exposure generally, and violin playing specifically is advantaged if started during this period.

Evidence seems good that this is a factor by inference from visual development. The common visual condition of amblyopia is treatable by correcting the media (e.g. congenital cataract) or refractive problem (far sightedness) of the “bad” eye, and patching the “good” eye to essentially force cortical service to the impaired side. This can save a patient from a life of essential blindness in the “bad” eye, but the window of opportunity closes at about age 10. The auditory and motor cortex functions needed for the violin may also be enhanced by challenging them in this critical period.

My conclusion is that starting earlier is very likely better to develop the required cortical pathways, but that the basic necessary pathways are probably also ready and available even in matured brains - ie the late starter can catch up with practice. Some plasticity may even persist and be recruitable - there are many examples of adults that lose cortical function (by stroke, injury etc.) that can recruit and improve functions they need to work around the deficit, but these rehab stories always include what hard work it is.

Now off to practice with my 63 year old cortex...

Edited: March 20, 2021, 1:56 PM · It occurred to me while watching a programme on Calcutta that Ravi Shankar's case might be interesting. It's difficult to say when he really began playing music seriously (initially he was a dancer), but it seems to have been after the age of 10.
Edited: March 20, 2021, 2:20 PM · So there you are. The ophthalmologist among us has presented a convincing thesis that the later one starts violin after, say, age 12, the more one's learning process will be akin to stroke rehab.

I've intentionally over-interpreted (i.e., abused) Charles's post to make the point that there might be information in the literature of stroke rehabilitation (a sizeable area of medical science) that could be brought to bear on refining violin pedagogy for late starters.

March 20, 2021, 8:51 PM · It's not just about the brain itself. I've taught enough kids at every age to see what happens at about 9--13 or so:
-The child starts to reject parental interference. Kids will accept parental guidance at 4,5, and 6, but this seems to naturally decrease over time.
-Parents seems to naturally disengage from practice supervision, other than simply telling the student to practice. Parents have other things to do, the child starts to progress beyond the parental skill level, and since they are paying a teacher, they feel it's out of their hands.
-Kids eventually develop other interests that provide serious competition to the tedium of instrument practice: sports, dating, other hobbies, grades.

The typical learning environment and degree of parental involvement for a 6-year-old is, at least in the US, very different from that of a 12-year-old. Obviously there are exceptions; those don't mean much to most people.

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