Is theory practice really something that you should be including in your daily practice? If you’ve already been playing the guitar for a little while, its easy to think that theory won’t do anything but slow you down. Or that perhaps you are too set in your ways to learn anything new.
Lately I have noticed a pattern happening throughout various online discussion boards when it comes to guitarists who’ve been playing for a while or have learned everything they know by ear. You’ll see them ask a specific question about a certain aspect of their playing and receive a lot of great feedback. But then theres always one or two people who let them know that a just a bit of basic theory could easily explain everything they are having trouble with.
This recommendation is usually followed by responses such as…
- “I wish I had started early. I’m an old man now so…. lol” (later it transpired that this person was 45)
- “I wish I could understand it, but you can’t teach a new trick to an old dog” (this person was 37)
- “I’ll be 63 next spring, and just don’t have enough good years left to absorb and profit from it.”
These kind of excuses always threw me off as some of my best students have been over 75 years old. What gives people the idea that once they reach a certain age that they no longer have the ability to take in new information? Or that learning theory won’t actually do anything to progress their playing?
I’ve Been Playing Without Theory Just Fine
You’re not the only one who started off this way. An amateur composer by the name of Nick also got by for quite some time with just a basic knowledge of reading music. He didn’t know anything about music theory, which means chords and intervals were a mystery to him.
Because of his combination of a good ear, his way with melodies, and his connections to other people who knew what they were doing, Nick was able to compose a few pieces and get them played by an actual orchestra. Through lots of trial and error, not only was he able to orchestrate all the pieces, but he also received a bit of local fame for his work.
He went on to become the Professor of Composition & Orchestration at a conservatory at the age of 27. He would rush through various theory books in attempts to stay ahead of his students. After a few years of both studying and teaching, he went back to his older pieces to include his newfound theory knowledge and realized that he actually quite enjoyed the practice.
You might think this story sounds made up as some elaborate plot to push my adoration for theory. Well you can look it up yourself by a quick google search of a man by the name of Nicolai Rimksy-Korsakov. You know, the person who wrote “Flight of the Bumblebee” (and other great pieces).
It’s true that 27 isn’t considered to be all that old, but think of all he was able to do in the time before he started to learn theory. He wrote two famous orchestral works and he got asked to teach composition and orchestration professionally. If its not too late for this guy who seemingly had it all, music wise, then it’s definitely not to late for a 40-something beginner guitar player!
Is There An Age Limit?
So that was a nice story about a 27 year old, but what if we are talking about someone who is two, or even three times that age? Well let me tell you about a guy name Josh. Josh is not a famous composer from the 1800’s. He is a student of mine who started to take lessons at 60 years old.
Josh had already been playing for a while. He played bass and guitar in a handful of bands around town and had a great foundation in playing before coming to me. What he was looking to do more of was study music theory. He focused most of his practice on that for a good few months and eventually passed an audition to play in a professional band that not only paid well, but was a lot of fun too.
He mentioned to me a number of times that he would never be able to manage in that band if it wasn’t for his newfound theory knowledge. Having even a basic understanding of theory resulted in making him a more proficient and self-assured player.
So can an old dog really be taught new tricks? If its not abundantly clear yet, the answer is an absolute yes. There isn’t a person too young or old, too expert or novice, to start learning music theory.
Often times people think that music theory is something that needs to be picked up at a young age and takes years to understand, but often times it’s the adults that have a better time grasping the concepts. Older students are usually quicker to experiment and find fun and exciting ways to start using theory in their every day playing. And it also helps to have a longer attention span and greater dedication to practicing.
Don’t let yourself fall down the “I’m too old for this” hole, because it’s almost never the case. Just ask my eldest student who decided to pick up a guitar for the first time at the age of 88. She has been having a great time with it!
If you ever see someone try to play the age card to get out of anything musical, feel free to send them this article. Hopefully it will be just the boost they need to try something new and have fun doing it. No one is ever too old to learn!