A year ago, at the age of 35, I started learning the bass guitar again.
It was my second attempt. At 27, I had taken weekly lessons at a music school, but did not progress very far beyond the distinctive riff of Cream's Sunshine Of Your Love before work, ennui and, eventually, motherhood got in the way.
So when last year, I resolved to pick up the instrument again and found a new teacher - a female professional musician active in the local music scene, who was able to come to my home for an hour-long session every Monday morning.
I figured that if the teacher came to me while my kids were at school, I had no excuse about having no time to learn. Besides, Teacher Wendy understood the problems a woman playing bass faced, having smaller hands and shorter arms than most male bassists, and boobs that got in the way when you strapped on your guitar.
What I wasn't prepared for was that, after a hiatus of eight years, I was, in fact, starting from scratch and having to contend with more hurdles. I was now that proverbial old dog, trying to pick up new tricks, all paws on the fretboard and making a mutt's dinner out of the funky bass exercises my teacher eased me into.
Whole mornings were given over to getting the timing of the notes right - with Wendy clapping out complicated "ooh-chicka-pop" rhythms and slowing musical bars down to manageable speeds for me - while I tried to make my fingers do my bidding. My memory not being what it used to be, I remembered notes wrongly and stumbled over simple sequences. I played so out of time that, had I been in a band, I would have been half a song behind everybody else.
In recent years, much has been made of people picking up and mastering musical instruments in their adulthood.
Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper of London, published a book last year about his experience of mastering the notoriously hard- to-play First Ballade, Op. 23 by Chopin in 12 months (he eventually succeeded after 18 months, practising in spare moments, including in a Libyan hotel while negotiating the release of a foreign correspondent). Gary Marcus' Guitar Zero (2012) is an infinitely readable account of the New York University psychology professor's quest to learn the guitar in his 40s during a sabbatical, culminating in a performance at a music camp with teenage bandmates.
As one article on NPR.org puts it, about how it is never too late to learn an instrument: "For an adult beginner, it can sometimes feel like trying to learn Arabic and ice skating at the same time."
Marcus, in his book, gives the example of how biologists have found that adult barn owls, which use sound to navigate and calibrate their eyes with their ears, are less able than younger ones to compensate when their environment is artificially shifted by 23 degrees. The old owls, however, could cope better with this distortion when the tilting was done gradually, over long periods of time.
Further, Marcus cites how the guitar fretboard can be confusing to the grown-up brain, in that there are a number of different ways to play the same note and scale on its strings, as opposed to the systematic, linear way that piano keyboards are laid out. Indeed, while my background in playing the piano helped to a certain extent with my pitch, it didn't help much when I had to memorise where notes lay on the frets.
Being an adult beginner, however, did have benefits. For one, I was in charge of my own learning journey, as opposed to being forced sullenly to go for my weekly piano lessons and being rapped on the knuckles for bad playing as a child. I practised as often as I wanted to - which was not very often, maybe once or twice a week, sometimes not at all - but enjoyed my practice sessions much much more as a result.
With the resources I didn't have as a kid, I sought out new ways to help me with my playing: iPhone metronomes, playing along to YouTube recordings and a rather handy website that transcribed the chord changes to any song posted online (just supply its URL) so I could figure out the basslines to current hits. I understood better on an intellectual level how notes and chords related to each other, and how a bass line was constructed, whereas theory used to be just a bunch of squiggles on manuscript paper to be filled up and endured as a pupil.
Compared to younger rock gods, my middle-aged body needed more rest in between practising (shoulder ache is a killer). This, however, turned out to be a good thing, at least, according to one neuroscientist I read online.
Dr Elmar Schmeisser, quoted in an article by American folk musician Dick Hensold, explains that it takes a while to "synthesise molecules" in order to transfer musical patterns from short-term to long-term memory, and for synapses between neurons to grow in order to build new connections and learn new patterns. Extrapolating from this, putting a song aside before returning to it again helps to give it time for your brain to grow pieces that will help you master it. Although, in my case, I think not practising just gives my brain a chance to forget the piece.
Still, I kept plugging at the bass. Some days, we muddled through 12-bar blues, 1970s funk and Bruno Mars. Other days, I blazed through riffs I was already familiar with as a listener, from the music of my teens: the urgent thumping rage of Smashing Pumpkin's Bullet With Butterfly Wings and the gloriously satisfying hair-band introduction of Guns N' Roses' Sweet Child O' Mine.
A year on and I am still no Kim Gordon. Although, I suspect I might do okay in a pop-punk band. I've tried jamming with an informal bunch of musicians, only to get so self-conscious about playing in front of others, I went home without taking my bass out of its bag.
But adulthood has also taught me patience. Despite the neuro-psychological information that I am fond of reading about adult music learning, I am waiting for the accretion of skill by magical osmosis. Recent research by Australian researchers showed that kids between seven and nine, who envisioned themselves as adult musicians when they started learning an instrument, went on to play it better and studied it longer, compared to those who didn't. I see myself getting good at this after 30 years - an investment of a mere 1,560 hours, if I practise only once a week; the Gran who can.
At the end of the day, learning music as an adult is partly about neurophysiology, partly hope and spirit. It is mind over matter - if you don't mind sounding bad, it doesn't matter.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 18, 2014
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