Everything* is learnable

When I was eight our school gave us the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. I think I had a few experiences with playing an instrument before this. I certainly remember learning to play a simple piece of two on the Casio keyboard my parents bought us years before. We did mostly end up using this to play around with the build in backing tracks and make up songs on the spot though. I think there might have been some attempt to get me interested in playing the guitar at one point too.

But this was the chance to commit to some formal study, and the choices we were given was violin or guitar. I gave it some thought, and decided it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I don’t really remember my reasons why, but that was the choice I made at the time, and unlike some of my friends I was given a genuine choice about this.

I continued to have an interest in music. I’d listen to records, my parents introducing me to an eclectic blend of classical, folk, 70s electronica and acid house. I had a tape recorder and used it for all sorts of projects. I’d tape my favourite TV theme tunes by pointing the microphone at the speaker on our set and urging everyone to be quiet. We continued to make up and record the songs with our Casio keyboard. I still have loads of cassette tapes of all of these projects.

So I was interested in music and comfortable experimenting, but I always felt that playing an instrument was something impenetrable to me. Ask me to consider it intellectually and of course I would have said it was something that could be learned, but I didn’t feel that. It felt unlearnable.

It wasn’t until I was 16 and my friends started a band and didn’t have a bass player that this started to change. We played Nirvana covers and the guitarist taught me to follow his chords with repeating single notes outside the practice room half an hour before each practice.

I joined the band and no one treated me any differently than those with formal training. We were working it all out together. It sounded pretty terrible, but we enjoyed it immensely and bonded over the experience deeply. We created something together, and that’s one of the most valuable things I think groups of people can do.

But back to the thing itself – playing a musical instrument. I really felt quite deeply that this was something that was not learnable, at least to me. I have friends from those times who have expressed this quite recently. ‘I’m not musical’. Even more broadly ‘I’m not creative’. They know they could take instrument lessons, but deep down they don’t feel it’s learnable for them.

I felt the same way about electronics, something I was introduced to with a kit I just couldn’t get my head around when I was in primary school. I chose to study it for my GCSE qualifications at 16, had an interesting time with the teaching we were provided with, and although I did well academically I never thought I mastered it.

I never have mastered it, but I’ve built my own musical synthesizers and I just fixed a pair of expensive headphones with a part that cost next to nothing. I don’t just know that it’s learnable intellectually, I feel it.

Looking back, I can really see how my mindset has changed about lots of these things. I really felt there were things I could do, and things I could not at one point. Moving enough individual things from unlearnable, to learnable, to actual achievements has made me take the wider view that most things are learnable.

There are limits to this, of course. One is time, you simply can’t learn everything and some things are very long undertakings. There are contextual limits too – some things are very expensive to access for example. However, my general approach to things personally is that things are learnable until proven not to be. I accept that I’m extraordinarily privileged to rarely hit the contextual limits of this. For people who experience these sorts of constraints much more regularly it must be very difficult to adopt this mindset.

What’s important to me is that this wasn’t an intellectual shift, but an ontological one. Ask my ten year old self if it’s possible for me to learn a musical instrument and I would of course have said yes and even been able to come up with some steps I would need to do so. I didn’t feel it though. I didn’t experience the world that way.

Now I do. I’ve learned some bits of music, but I’ve never got to a decent level playing a musical instrument. I honestly feel that I could. Perhaps I finally should.






4 responses to “Everything* is learnable”

  1. Julia Skinner Avatar
    Julia Skinner

    My ‘Project 70’ is to learn things I have always wanted to be able to do. I have two – learning to play the piano & to do calligraphy.
    I am finding them both a real challenge. I’m left handed so that has added another aspect to both but I am realising that I am not going to really make progress without practising. Even at 70 I am finding it hard to not be able to get going straight away just as I thought in my teens.
    So I have 2 ‘unlearnable’ projects, or have I?!!

    1. Oliver Quinlan Avatar
      Oliver Quinlan

      Sound like great projects! All the more worthwhile for being not something you can pick up and do straight away – where’s the fun in that? =).

  2. Aaron Avatar

    Oliver, I really enjoyed your reflections on mindset and learning. It is always intriguing watching things like 16 Levels of Piano. I think that the issue sometimes is that we do not know the next step. This inability to break things down leads people to talk about supposed ‘magic’. I often think that the real magic is finding the time to take the next step.

    1. Oliver Quinlan Avatar
      Oliver Quinlan

      Thanks Aaron. Great point that I didn’t really consider in this context – that breaking things down is all about the quality of resources or support for learning. I guess seeing something impenetrable broken down enough times makes it seem more doable and this could contribute to the ideas I write about. Breaking things down into manageable and logical chunks is often quite a challenge, and might need some input from someone who knows the area better than you. Certainly don’t think everything is learnable on your own, but there is so much support that can be sought out on many things these days.

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