Critical Learning Period in Young Students
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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!).
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).
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.
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.
I think squidginess is a more scientific word than plasticity.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I don't know if the cure for self-doubt is hubris, Paul.
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 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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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