So, You’re an Old Dog Drummer… Want Some New Tricks?

Habits are hard as hell to break… Especially when you’ve been reinforcing them year after year, gig after gig, to the point they’re no longer just habits – they are parts of your personality.

As drummers, this isn’t an entirely bad thing. Our go-to grooves, the way we tune our toms, even the way we setup our kits is part of our signature, our individual musical identity. Even beyond “what you’re used to,” personality plays a big role in the gear we choose, the sound we hear in our head, the styles we choose to play, and on and on…

But what if you want to learn something new? Or… What if your setup, your gear, your grooves aren’t the product of conscious choices or a personal aesthetic… But just habit – the way you’ve settled into doing things?

I don’t mean to say that having a distinct identity or a certain way of doing things is inherently bad, just that habits can be a trap… They can lead people to believe that anything other than their tried and true method is wrong (and there’s enough variety in this instrument to know that simply isn’t the case), or worse, to convince themselves they can’t break out of routine and do something new even if they wanted to.

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It’s the “old dog” adage in real life – but you CAN learn new tricks no matter how “old” you are… You just have to shift your mindset and embrace a couple of harsh truths:

1. It Won’t Be Easy

The longstanding assumption is that, with age, it becomes harder and harder to learn new things. Most of our personal experience would support this idea – that the older we get, the more “set in our ways” we become, the more challenging new ideas seem, the steeper the learning curve is for… Whatever.

I’ll break out my amateur scientist hat for this one, and say that the idea of decreasing brain plasticity with age isn’t true. A host of relatively recent research suggests that we DO continue to develop brain cells, create new mental connections, and keep on learning well into adulthood and beyond. We can’t blame biology here.

However, there is another side to it. Like playing the drums, developing new skills – and event the brain capacity to do so – takes practice. It may sound strange, but your brain actually has to learn how to learn.

Now, take that little nugget of information and think about childhood vs. adulthood. When you’re a kid, everything is new… You’re practicing learning every single day. You have to. When you grow up, those opportunities for brain challenge become fewer and further between.

It’s not that you’re incapable of learning, it’s that you’re out of practice. The people who remain diligent students their entire lives don’t seem to face this problem – they keep on learning and developing well into old age. It’s when we get out of the habit of challenging ourselves mentally that the actual process of building those neural pathways starts to slow down.

This isn’t just limited to age, either. Settling into your own status quo can happen to anyone. In fact, I’d wager that most people do it in some arena or another (if not many), and simply forget to question what they’re doing and why. That alone leads to this kind of synaptic stagnation. We keep repeating – and thereby reinforcing – the same thought patterns, and they become harder and harder to get away from.

The good news is that, like practicing an instrument, like exercise, you CAN build up those “mental muscles” and get better at learning new things.

For a little more, check this:

Why Learning Is Harder As We Get Older

2. It Won’t Feel Right At First

There’s a lot of talk about learning things when you’re outside of your comfort zone, but the opposite is just as true. When you’re learning, the very act of development IS uncomfortable. It should be.

Changing technique, working through new sticking patterns, changing the heights or angles of a setup – all of it feels awkward, downright irritating at times. It’s in those moments that your brain, and the skills themselves, are truly developing. Press on.

I like to call it “riding the strugglebus” because it is indeed a struggle. It’s not pleasant. It makes you want to quit. Don’t.

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With some effort, the struggle just becomes part of the process. You suck at something for a while and it’s terrible, then you suck a little bit less, then a little less, and eventually – TRIUMPH! As you get used to this kind of cycle, those moments of mental distress let you know that you’re on to something. Oddly enough, it’s a reason to keep going.

This kind of mental discomfort also builds the overall ability to develop new ideas in a general way, and helps people develop broader, more complex understanding of topics they’re already familiar with. To really get the “new pathways” built, we have to shake up some of the old ones.

In this fantastic article, How To Train The Aging Brain, a quote from Dr. Kathleen Taylor:

““As adults we have these well-trodden paths in our synapses. We have to crack the cognitive egg and scramble it up. And if you learn something this way, when you think of it again you’ll have an overlay of complexity you didn’t have before — and help your brain keep developing as well.”

 

The point is, then, that we CAN change and grow, but assumptions about ourselves and the safety of comfort zones convince us otherwise.

Here’s a somber video about the walls we build around our identities:

Experience and research would both suggest that this doesn’t have to be the ugly truth, though, at least not completely. Of course we’re going to retain some of our habits, our background, our upbringing. As we get older, we do solidify more and more of who we are, what we know, what we can do… But there is no “final form,” no eventual, permanent version of any of us.

There will never be a time, as long as you’ve got your faculties, that you can’t learn a new lick, improve your time, explore a new style, improve some aspect of your playing, listening, writing, whatever. The trick is to defeat the frustration that comes with it.

The more you do it, the easier it becomes for both the biological processes of your brain AND your actual experience. Pick something, prepare for some mental stress, and hop aboard the strugglebus toward new knowledge. It doesn’t matter how old of a dog you are.

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