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 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 in fact 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. 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 still possible, and it brings many advantages in later life.

“.. after puberty. ..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 achievable, and the advantages you will gain from your studies and the doors it will open to you will by far outweigh the difficulties. So why not give it a try for yourself?

It’s all about giving your brain the right kind of exercise and stimulation. Learning a musical instrument, in particular a string instrument (violin, viola, cello), has been found to exercise both the left and right sides of your brain simultaneously, and this means that it 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 so worthwhile, as many older musicians will tell you.

There’s no specific part of the brain alone responsible for musical learning. Instead the areas involved coincide with those that already control your hearing, memory, communication and the parts of your brain used for controlling the hands, which simply can become more active if you keep them stimulated. 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 one hour a week, the regular exercise and stimulation meant there were significant improvements in the architecture of the brain in those areas. Several studies suggest that practicing a musical instrument can help to delay any onset of dementia.

Music brings people together and so it can bring communities closer and make them more cohesive. Working to create and communicate a musical experience either in a smaller group or in a larger orchestra is not only extremely rewarding and helpful on a wider social level, but on a more personal level it’s a way to find meaningful social time whilst 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 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 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. Also, adults have goals and expectations and find it easier than children to master musical concepts.

I’ve been teaching children for over 10 years now and it continues to be a rewarding experience, but I’ve also been fortunate enough to teach adults too. I enjoy adapting my teaching 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 that I use, often making my own arrangements. For older students, I’ve taught the Frank Sinatra standards as successfully as Handel or Bach. My current class of over 50’s based in Aylesbury has just completed its first year of learning and they are at the ABRSM grade 2-3 sort of standard which is really not only a huge achievement but they have all told me frequently (sometimes weekly after class!) how much they are enjoying the experience. We’ve performed with community theatre in the Noye’s Fludde production in Aylesbury and we’ve also held 3 concerts of our own since our inauguration in Jan 2016. Why not join us? For more information on ‘over 50’s’ strings club’ email, a daytime group run weekly in term time for those who would like to learn violin Viola or Cello (you can come along and try the instruments before you decide). Lessons take place in a relaxed, social club environment offering free tea/coffee and cake! One of my goals for these courses is that students will not only play the music they enjoying listening to, but will also meet and play alongside other string players in a local senior strings club orchestra. If this article has sparked your interest, then contact me by email on or phone 07727 272150 to discuss your interest or to sign up and reserve your place! There are also places available for returning string players of grade 1+ standard.