Godtalk: Learning later in life

Published on 26 Jun 2014

In his column for the FT this week Harry Eyres writes about taking piano lessons again after an improbably long time since his last one. 

“I wasn’t sure what to expect from my lessons,” he says, “but I thought fingering, accuracy and rhythmic sharpness would be on the agenda.  Not a bit of it.  We have hardly gone into fingering and he seems positively to relish wrong notes.  He is almost entirely focussed on the quality of sound I make, which is too hard and restricted.  This is turn has to do with the freedom (or lack of it) of my hands and arms.

I found I was sitting too close to the keyboard and too high.  At first I was thoroughly disorientated.  I had felt relatively comfortable sitting snugly close to the keyboard, in my restricted way.  Close to the keyboard meant close to the keys with less possibility of striking the wrong one.      Now I feared I might throw a lasso to reach the high C.  But at the same time I realised my wingspan was much greater than I thought.  I could –in theory – let my arms swing free, transcribe great circles in the air.

Arms are one thing – broad brush; hands were quite another, even more complicated and involving finer adjustments.  Could I detach the thumb more, strengthen the bridge of the four fingers and knuckles so they didn’t collapse and buckle (especially the weak little ones)?

The intricacies of technique – this new kind of technique which had almost nothing in common with the old one I had been taught  - seemed endless and daunting. The first effect of my new round of lessons was to make me feel I couldn’t play anything at all. I couldn’t play the pieces I thought I could play, because my technique was all wrong. I couldn’t play the new pieces because it takes more time when you are older and  time is more precious.

Gradually things have improved. There have been clearings in the fog, even passages of enjoyment, when something has clicked, and I can hear my sound has gained richness, moments when previously impossible bars have mysteriously become playable.

There have been setbacks too.  I have regressed alarmingly, back well before puberty.   I even had something approaching a tantrum  when my teacher told me to spread a chord that I thought I could play perfectly without spreading, and what is more, was written in that way.

Learning later in life is hard.  There are a number of reasons for this, but the most obvious is that late learning always involves some unlearning, freeing oneself from the bad habits of decades.  Bad habits have become ingrained, and feel part of one’s being.

A second reason, is even more embarrassing; in middle life one may have accepted a certain weight of self-importance, and discovering the depths of one’s ignorance or incompetence is even more humiliating than it is for a child.

But late learning can also be especially satisfying.  The physical appearance may have dulled but the meaning has become clearer.  Life is not just a linear journey but a constant circling and returning upon itself, so that eventually, as T.S.Eliot put it in ‘Little Gidding’, we may ‘arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.’”

Eyres’ reflection on late learning echoed my own experience of starting piano lessons again when I was already over eighty.  The enjoyment that comes from some modest progress outweighs all the frustration of starting again.  And perhaps most important, it’s a useful lesson in humility, suggesting attention to other aspects of life where one ‘could do better’ as St Ignatius encourages in the Spiritual Exercises.

Peter Knott SJ