Ep. 76: What are the benefits of being an adult (even “old”!) beginner? With New York Times bestselling author Tom Vanderbilt

Photo by Any Lane from Pexels


January 5, 2021


We are never too old to take advantage of the cognitive and emotional benefits of learning a new skill. Treating learning as a lifetime sport can roll back the odometer of our brains, expand our horizons, and renew our sense of self and identity. New York Times best-selling author Tom Vanderbilt explains the magic of learning a new skill in his brand new book, Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning.

Photo by Kevin Hatt


Joining me today from the New York City/New Jersey area is New York Times bestselling author Tom Vanderbilt. Tom writes on design, technology, science, and culture for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Magazine. He is an in-demand consultant and lecturer around the world; and has appeared on many radio and TV programs, including NBC’s Today Show, ABC News’ Nightline, and NPR’s Morning Edition. Tom has written several books, the most recent of which is being released today, January 5th, and is called Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning.


  • This book came to be, in part, because of Tom’s observation that we as adults seem to send the message that Learning and activity is for children while we adults sit on the sidelines and kill time. Tom explains when he started noticing this, and how it became the impetus for writing this book.
  • Tom talks about his differentiation between micro-mastery and macro-mastery.
  • Tom’s book details the many benefits of singing, including increased immune function, endorphins, and oxytocin (the so-called cuddle hormone). Singing improves respiratory function; helps the brain regulate heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and many bodily functions; and may even counter depression.
  • On singing lullabies to babies, Tom says: “You just feel the need to do it, as if some primal door has been opened and this long-lost language, this back channel to the heart, one that you wouldn’t normally use with your friends or even your spouse, flickers to life.”
  • “Singing together is preventative health care by other means.” – Tom Vanderbilt, Beginners
  • “Singing, quite simply, is social glue; it helps join people together… Music is the original social network.” – Tom Vanderbilt, Beginners

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Tom shares a song he sang with his choir, Britpop Choir (directed by Charlie Adams), in January 2018: “She’s Electric,” by Oasis.

Closing Words

Thanks so much to Tom for sharing with us today – and through his book – the benefits of life-long learning, of musical learning, and of learning a new skill as an adult – we are never too old to reap the cognitive and world-opening advantages that come with learning a new skill! And, as Tom’s book mentions, studies show that the neurological advantage is not dependent on how well a new skill is learned. So you do not need to become a highly trained, award-winning musician for your brain to experience the re-wiring and increased efficiency effects of neural plasticity. Tom’s book was released TODAY – I highly recommend it – it is called Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning.

As I mentioned in our conversation, I LOVE Tom’s tip for busy parents that they learn a skill along with their kids! I think this can be really powerful on many levels – it gives you and your children an activity and interest in common; you’re able to  fully appreciate the challenges and joys of your child’s activity; you can model for your kids the value you place on learning new things and persevering through challenges and failure – it’s kind of like an antidote to perfectionism; and all the better if your kid catches on faster than you and can coach and teach YOU as the parent! Your kid will love the opportunity to be the instructor to their parent, and it will solidify THEIR learning, so you’ll be getting twice the value out of the lessons you’re paying for them to take! When Tom and I were talking about this, it reminded me of when I started taking piano lessons in first grade. My older brother and I – and our mom – all started lessons at the same time, and I remember my Mom practicing in the evening right after we kids went to bed. I always enjoyed listening to her play and thought it was pretty cool that we were all learning together.

Today is January 5; 2020 is officially behind us, and the new year is brand new. If you would like to take advantage of the fresh new year – or you’re listening to this later in the year and want some more inspiration and ideas on learning a new musical skill, here are few episodes you may enjoy:

Ep. 5 features the charms of the ukulele and why it is such a popular instrument across all ages. If you would like to refresh your skills or learn new skills AND give back to those who have served our country, you can learn more in Ep. 15 about the song Taps, and its relationship to our military, and also how you can volunteer to play Taps for veterans’ funerals. Ep. 33 provides lots of resources for quality music lessons that fit your unique situation; and Ep. 48 features tips from a time management coach on how to make those musical goals and aspirations a reality.

  • Ep. 5 Why is the Ukulele So Popular? with Ukulele Ambassador to Michigan Ben Hassenger
  • Ep. 15 Veterans Day Tribute + Role of Music in the Military: with Jari Villanueva, Taps Historian, USAF
  • Ep. 33 Looking for music lessons that fit your unique situation? Check out these options, with MacPhail Center for Music’s Paul Babcock
  • Ep. 48 Tips from a time management coach on accomplishing (or helping our kids accomplish) musical goals this summer, with Elizabeth Grace Saunders

I would love to hear how music is enhancing your New Year’s goals or plans! Let me know on email, social media, or my website.

Thank you so much for joining me today! Until next week, may your kickoff of a new year be enhanced with music.


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