In my two years of teaching guitar, I have repeatedly encountered a phenomenon in adult students: “Older Sister Syndrome”. Several of my adult students, usually just beginning the journey of learning guitar, from as diverse backgrounds as could be imagined, had an older sibling or family member that played an instrument or sang in adolescence, and is considered “really musical”. The student almost always says this in acknowledgement of the fact that they are beginning guitar later in life, and thus have no chance to be “really musical” like the older sister, or brother, or cousin, or father, to all of whom I have heard this quasi-divine trait applied. Often these students are remarkably quick to learn, and possess innate musical skill from years of listening to and loving music, but they cannot shake the perception that they will never be as good as the “older sister”. This deferential underrating of one’s own skills can be somewhat harmful in the fragile beginning stages of learning a brand new skill; often we can be so self-critical as to kill the spark that drove us to learn in the first place. I find myself advising these students with various reassurances.
1. When it comes to artistic skill, it’s self-destructive to compare yourself to anyone else, especially someone with the advantage of several years of experience. You are beginning your own journey, and can only gauge success against yourself; where are you in comparison to your own week 1, 10, 100? Accepting the strict correlation between practice and improvement, we can take “musical” destiny into our own hands; how good you can be is a simple matter of how many hours you sit down and play the guitar. There is no magical trait that some people (older sisters) possess that make them musical and others (you) un-musical.
2. Everyone will have a different relationship with guitar. Some folks cannot live without it; they eat, sleep, breathe and are defined by guitar. Others want merely to attain a certain level of competence, so that they can play for themselves, or on camping trips, or in preparation for a family event. There is even a portion of people that simply desire a fun hobby, something to occupy a spare hour while unwinding after a day in a cubicle. Maybe your “older X” is from the first group; obsessed and driven, having named the guitar and often sleeping beside it on chilly winter nights. And maybe your relationship will be necessarily different, as you are a working adult in NYC, juggling life’s responsibilities with little time for an all-consuming hobby. This is okay! It’s perfectly acceptable to have a less-than-religious devotion to guitar; chances are the interaction will still be meaningful to you.
3. Acknowledge and take pride in the bravery and diligence exhibited by attempting to learn a brand new instrument. It’s not easy, especially as the years go on and our brains become slightly less spongy to absorb new skills (at least at first!); to know that the work ahead is arduous, and yet plunge headlong anyway, is remarkable and should be applauded. It’s terribly important to recognize your own positive attributes, at least as often as those negative shortcomings. There will always be mistakes and learning curves, and as the level of difficulty increases, the amount of tenacity required is proportionally greater–accept this as the fundamental principle of learning something new, and learn to smile through those mistakes and jump back into the playing!
I imagine I’ll encounter this phenomenon for as long as I teach, for those adolescent impressions and traumas (of whatever degree) are so crucial in the shaping of our adult attitudes; there will always be new students haunted by the really musical older sisters of their youth. But hopefully I can become more efficient in helping them to diffuse these emotional landmines that destroy self-esteem and erode confidence. With a mindful attitude and a decent work ethic, anybody can be musical, even if you’re the younger sibling instead of the elder (see: Mozart, Bach, Allman, Beach Boys, etc).
By Ross Taylor