Music for Seniors

Should I, Could I… Learn to Play a Musical Instrument in My Senior Years?

Ever heard a piece of music and thought…I’d love to be able to play that…I wonder if I could play that? Could be any genre – pop, jazz, classical – whatever you fancy. Well, maybe you could learn to play it and – for maintaining your mental health – perhaps it’s time you gave it a try. Whatever age you are.

For many decades there has been a focus on physical health and wellbeing but what about our mental wellbeing? It’s recently been discovered that the brain is more ‘plastic’ (changeable) than was previously thought. The brain can still change and produce new connections or ‘synapses’ if given the right kind of stimulus, even in later life. It’s all about giving your brain the right kind of exercise. Learning a musical instrument, in particular a string (violin, viola, cello) instrument, has been found to exercise both left and right sides of the brain simultaneously, and this means that learning a string instrument provides the unique ability to give your brain a good all-round workout whilst you’re having fun playing music that you love, so isn’t it worth a go? It takes some commitment to regular practice but it’s worthwhile, as many musicians will tell you.

Norman Weinberger, a neuroscientist at University of California Irvine who has done pioneering research on the auditory system and the brain, says that while it’s harder for the mature brain to learn an instrument, it’s not impossible, and it brings many advantages in later life.

“A lot of people believe the brain isn’t very plastic after puberty. In fact, the brain maintains its ability to change,” Weinberger says. “Is it as easy to learn something when you’re 65 as it is at 5? No. But can it be done? Yes.” You may not be a prodigy, but the ability to play to a good standard is still very achievable, and the advantages you will gain from your studies and the doors it will open to you will by far outweigh the difficulties.

As mentioned, the exercise and stimulation of learning a musical instrument fires up many different parts of the brain simultaneously, so there’s no specific part of the brain alone responsible for musical learning. Instead the areas involved coincide with those that control hearing, memory, communication and parts of the brain used for controlling the hands, which all become more active. Interestingly, all these parts of the brain are well known to be at risk of decline in our later lives. Studies have shown that in students over 65 years of age, after four or five months of playing an instrument even for just an hour a week, the regular exercise meant there were significant changes in the architecture of the brain in those areas. Several studies have shown that practicing a musical instrument can increase memory and language skills, which helps prevent the onset of dementia. Music brings people together and so can bring communities closer, and this also has its advantages. Working to create a musical experience either in small groups or in a larger orchestra is not only extremely rewarding, it’s a way to find meaningful social time in the community whilst also doing your brain some good.

Throughout your musical journey, having the right teacher to support and nurture your progress is vital. But I would say that learning as an older student isn’t so much more difficult than learning as a child, as there are advantages and compensations to being an older student. For example, adults find it easier to concentrate than children and often are able to commit themselves to longer, more focused practice, so if some of the physicality of learning an instrument is tough to master when you’re older, it’s the discipline and drive that adults have which keeps them achieving. Likewise adults tend to have goals and expectations and find it easier to master musical concepts.

I’ve been teaching children for over 10 years now and this continues to be a rewarding experience, but I’ve also been fortunate enough to teach adults in that time. When teaching adults, I’ve felt more relaxed and flexible as a teacher, adapting to the differing needs of my students and providing a range of challenges to suit their tastes. I’ve learnt to be more flexible about the kind of music I use, often making my own arrangements. I’ve taught Frank Sinatra standards as happily as Handel or Bach. I’m looking forward to teaching older adults with the introduction of my ‘over 50’s’ senior strings club’ (starting this autumn, email which will be a daytime group run weekly during term time for those who would like to learn violin (later I hope to offer group viola and group cello classes too). Lessons will take place in a relaxed, social club environment offering free tea/coffee and cake! One of my goals for the class is that students will, one day, not only play the music they’ve been enjoying listening to, but also in time, meet and play alongside other string players in a local senior strings club orchestra. If this article has sparked your interest, then look out for posters at local venues or contact me by email.

Naomi Jacob