Music Matters for Older Adults
Just ask these six people who are in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Next Avenue in 2018.
A piano. A dulcimer. An acoustic guitar. A ukulele. An untried voice that turned out to be true. These instruments have changed the lives of six older adults who chose to embrace music in their later years. Experts explain here how making that choice benefits your brain and enhances your social life as well. Each of these six individuals likely would agree with that. Here are their stories:
'You're Never Too Old To Learn'
The music of a younger man — Charlie Musselwhite, 74, an electric blues harmonica player and bandleader — inspires Willard Harris, 98, who started taking piano lessons two years ago. "I'm working on classical tunes and old Negro anthems, but I want to play the blues," she said. "I went to a music shop and looked at the elementary blues book, and it was just too complicated. That will have to wait," Harris said. Then she sits down at the piano in her San Francisco home and plays Habanera from Bizet's Carmen.
A longtime nursing supervisor who served on the California Commission on Aging, Harris works a couple of days a month as an exam proctor for a law school. She practices piano every day, especially intensely on the day of her weekly lesson. (Watch Harris play in this video, made by Sarangerel Otgonsuren as part of a student film project at the Art Institute of California-San Francisco). To date, Harris has taken part in two student recitals at the San Francisco Community Music Center.
"I aced the first one, but the second one was a dud," she recalled, laughing. "After that, I said I was never going back." She didn't mean it — she went back. "Playing piano is relaxing for me, puts me in my comfort zone, and I like the sound of the music. Plus, this proves you're never too old to learn," Harris said.
'I'm Having a Ball'
Jerry Kramer, of Bellingham, Wash., admits he has developed a condition familiar to others who play music. "Shortly after I started playing mountain dulcimer 17 years ago, I soon became infected by Instrument Acquisition Syndrome," he said. "Now I own several mountain dulcimers. My wife doesn't know how many I have, and I won't tell you, either."
Kramer, 70, played trumpet in high school, but then walked away from music. One evening at a concert, he heard a mountain dulcimer. Impulsively, Kramer decided he had to play one. Kramer describes the instrument's sound as "a quiet voice in its solely acoustic style, with a sweet, sentimental tone." He adds, "However, equipped with a built-in electric pickup, you can rock it with the best of 'em." In 2007, Kramer and his friend Clay Butler formed the Bellingham Dulcimer Club, which now boasts 36 members. They get together to jam once a month.
Kramer, a retired university maintenance supervisor, also builds instruments, including dulcimers, ukuleles, cigar box guitars and diddley bows — single-stringed instruments that originated in Mali and influenced the blues sound. Currently, Kramer is assembling kits so he can help students at a nearby middle school build their own diddley bows (a la Muddy Waters) and then teach them to play. "They have no music program at the school, so this is a club project. And I'm having a ball," said Kramer.
'I Say Try It'
After 40 years away from the guitar, Clancy Kelly is back at it. Three years ago, when he left his job as a project manager for an industrial mechanical contractor, a friend sent him a guitar as a retirement gift. Kelly signed up for classes at Clark College in his hometown of Vancouver, Wash., a suburb of Portland, Ore.
"I wound up focusing on fingerstyle blues, which is the kind of music I like to listen to," said Kelly, 69. "It just has a feeling to it — and though it's mostly played by a soloist or two people, you can't believe it's not more. I'm so glad I'm back with the guitar." He still takes lessons from time to time. Kelly also is in a band, comprised of old friends, that performs rock music and some electric blues around town. "Performing in front of people is an insecurity I have, but you grow when you get outside your comfort zone," Kelly said. "For anybody thinking about trying something new, I say try it. You may not like it, but at least you tried."
'It Appeals to Your Ability to Be Amazed'
Rusty Sealy, 66, started piano lessons at nine but stopped when he hit adolescence. "I didn't come back until I was 62, after I retired from being a lawyer," he said. "That's a big gap of time to be away from an instrument." Sealy, who lives in San Francisco, enrolled in a theory course at the Community Music Center. "I started at what felt like was the beginning, to refresh my basic knowledge. It did not come easily," he said, laughing. Today, Sealy plays classical music and some jazz.
"I'm also working on some jazz theory," he said. "I like the tonal aspects, the sound of music, but I'm more interested now in the ability to use my hands to learn to speak a different language, one that is not a verbal language. And I am more interested now in the process of learning than in the results."
Sealy tries to play an hour or 90 minutes each day. "Taking up a musical instrument later in life is a way of reaffirming your commitment to learn, your flexibility, your capacity for wonder," he said. "It appeals to your ability to be amazed."
‘Playing the Ukulele … Is Lifesaving’
In 2012, after teaching nursing for 40 years at a university, Jan Fox started planning her retirement. "I enjoyed my job, but I decided there must be something else," said Fox, 83. She took up line dancing, which she now teaches, and then a friend suggested learning to play the ukulele.
Fox, who lives in Austin, Texas, did just that. When her instructor suggested Fox take part in a student music recital, Fox decided instead to look for other retirees who play the popular stringed instrument, and form a band. The Uke-adillos are named in honor of armadillos, which are ubiquitous in Texas. The band, which also includes a bass player, rehearses for two hours every Tuesday and plays occasional gigs at nursing homes. "We're known for playing country music and golden oldies," Fox said, "but the ukulele can be soulful, too. You can play it any way you want." On her own, she plays for an hour every evening, singing along at the top of her voice. "I love it," Fox said. "Playing the ukulele is so relaxing and beautiful. It's lifesaving."
‘Singing…Makes Me So Happy!’
After she retired eight years ago from her job as a licensed clinical social worker, Estela Moreno signed up for classes in yoga, tai chi, qi gong and painting. She started exercising. Nothing stuck. She even rented a saxophone, but the class schedule didn't work for her.
Moreno, now 68, had never sung in her life, but after attending a choir performance at the Community Music Center in her hometown of San Francisco, she decided that was what she wanted to do. Today she sings in two choirs, and she took part in a study that investigated whether choirs promote health and wellbeing.
Moreno is a member of the 30 Street Older Adult Choir and the Solera Singers of the Mission Neighborhood Center. The choirs meet once a week. Singers range from 60 to 95 and represent many ethnicities. Neither choir requires an audition to join.
"Our director, Martha Rodriguez-Salazar, says if you have a voice, you can sing," Moreno said. What does she like best about taking part? "Meeting other seniors. Some of us have become friends outside the choirs and right now three of us are meeting once a week to learn guitar," Moreno said. "But for me, singing is the most rewarding, and I love it. It makes me so happy!"