Part of the Aging Well Through Arts Special Report
Recently, we asked you what you wanted Next Avenue to research about participating in music as an older adult.
Why ask such a question? We’ve learned from our past coverage of the strong positive effects of music that participation in music is a benefit to us as we age in many ways. In answer to the question, “Why should I play an instrument or sing in a choir now that I’m older?” we have a wealth of answers from an assortment of experts.
Why Should I Play an Instrument or Sing in a Choir?
Playing music is good for staying engaged in the moment. “When you’re in a band or orchestra, you’re engrossed in the present because you’re playing music right now, and you’re looking toward the future because you have a concert coming up,” Roy Ernst, a professor emeritus at Eastman School of Music, told Next Avenue in a story about his founding of New Horizons band programs for older adults.
Playing an instrument is good for your brain. “You play three or four notes per second, all the while thinking about pitch, duration, intensity and context,” Ernst told Next Avenue. “All this has to be processed to the brain and then made artistic. Members of an ensemble are concentrating on things like whether they are in tune with the others. The mind is constantly working at a high speed. People say that when they’re playing music, they don’t think about anything else.”
Older adults may learn more slowly than younger counterparts, but they are just as able to learn new musical instruments and skills.
And continuing to play an instrument can prevent age-related neural decline, Nina Krause, a Northwestern University neuroscientist told Next Avenue in a story about the brains of aging musicians. The brains of musicians are biologically younger, she told the audience at the annual National Conference for Creative Aging last fall.
Singing in a choir is good for your mind. Choir singing requires exercising your brain through memorizing words and music.
“Students have the capacity to use their mind when I give them challenges,” said Leon Palad, director of the Community of Voices Choir, which is part of a long study about the benefits of choir singing for older adults. “I don’t pressure them to memorize, but when I ask them what’s the first line of some song, they all respond.”
Choir singing and band participation also increase lung capacity and improve posture. Because you need more air to make a strong, sustained noise, learning to breathe is a crucial part of singing. Older people often hunch forward — sometimes as a result of using a cane to walk — and opening the rib cage to take a deep breath requires good posture and stronger core strength.
Wind instruments can do this, too, of course. For example, Next Avenue reported that harmonica bands are the latest health initiative funded nationwide at 25 treatment centers because harmonicas provide a great lung workout that strengthens the diaphragm.
Playing music with others is also just good plain fun. Clearly, people who participate in choirs, bands, orchestras and group lessons just look and sound like they are having a heck of a lot of fun.
Sally Bonkrude, a board-certified music therapist, told Next Avenue last fall that group drumming is a fantastic way to meet and connect with others on many levels.
“The gift of the drum circle is we all gather together to connect on a deep level. We feel each other’s joys and challenges,” Bonkrude said. If you pick up another drummer’s riff, it helps them feel heard. “You listen in another way,” she explained. “Sometimes things are hard to say, but you can play and be validated. If it’s too emotional, you could play it.”
Let’s assume we’ve convinced you to get a little music into your life. Now we can move on to answering our second most popular question: How hard is it for someone my age to learn the guitar/play the piano/pick up a new instrument/join a choir?
How Hard Is It to Learn an Instrument or to Learn to Sing?
You will be heartened to know that this “common knowledge” is just plain wrong.
Research published in the academic journal, Psychomusicology: Music, Mind & Brain, in September 2016, said that although older adults may learn more slowly than younger counterparts, they are just as able to learn new musical instruments and skills as young people. The article, titled “Age-Related Changes Affecting the Learning of Music Performance Skills for Older Adults” by James Reifinger of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, notes the right teaching techniques — techniques used specifically for older learners — can help overcome any frustration the new musicians might feel.
Neuroscientist Norman Weinberger from the University of California Irvine, whose research was discussed in this NPR story, said that it is harder for a mature brain to learn an instrument, but not impossible.
“A lot of people believe the brain isn’t very plastic after puberty. In fact, the brain maintains its ability to change,” Weinberger told NPR. “Is it as easy to learn something when you’re 65 as it is at 5? No. But can it be done? Yes.”
Where Can You Learn Music as an Older Adult?
Many communities and programs offer learning opportunities for older adults to learn how to play an instrument or sing and that cater to the specific needs of older learners. Just do a quick Internet search on “music lessons for adults” or “music class for adults” in your area. Here are a few national opportunities that we’ve written about at Next Avenue:
And please keep reading Next Avenue over the next few months. We plan to tell you about music camps for grown-ups and tips to prepare for your first music lesson.