When Margo Thorning was a high school student in the late 1950s, she liked to play bongo drums while listening to jazz records, but it never occurred to her to take a drum lesson. She attended college, raised two sons, and worked as a senior economic policy adviser for a Washington think tank. All the while, the urge to beat out a rhythm persisted. So three years ago, at age 70, she started taking lessons.
“I’m pretty athletic, and I felt like I had a chance to be competent,” said Thorning, a Falls Church resident who plays tennis and rides horses. But drums were a challenge, physically and mentally. “Each hand and each foot is doing something, with a different hand and a different foot at one time.”
Mastering a new musical instrument has a reputation as a young person’s game. Like learning a foreign language, it is commonly seen as something that must be embedded during the formative years, otherwise the learner will be hopelessly behind, if not simply hopeless.
But increasingly, adults are embracing musicianship late in life. Some finally have time after their wage-earning and child-raising years have ended. Some are spurred on by studies showing the health benefits of playing music. Many describe it as scratching an itch they’ve had all their lives. And while some are happy to get to the point of playing “Happy Birthday” for their grandchildren, others achieve a level of competence that allows them to join ensembles and even earn money playing.
“It’s a growing trend,” said Alicia Andrews, assistant director and adult division manager at the Lucy Moses School at Kaufman Music Center in New York City. “In the last few years, more adults are really making music and arts a priority in their lives. ‘Bucket list’ is such a trendy term, but that’s what they say — ‘Playing an instrument has been on my bucket list.’ ”
Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University who wrote a book about learning guitar at age 40, said the idea that older people can’t learn new instruments is false. “There are very few really firm critical periods,” he said. “In general, most things adults can learn, but it takes more time, and they have to do it more incrementally. Maybe they won’t play like Jimi Hendrix, but they will be able to play well enough to satisfy themselves.”
Research shows that music stimulates the brain and enhances memory in older people. In one study, adults aged 60 to 85 without previous musical experience showed improved verbal fluency and processing speed after a few months of weekly piano lessons.
Jennifer Bugos, assistant professor of music education at the University of South Florida who conducted the study, said older people can easily pick up theoretical concepts such as intervals, arpeggios and scales. “But as we age, coordination becomes much more challenging between the hands,” she said.
Beverly Zweiben found that to be the case when she started learning piano 10 years ago.
“I had always wanted to play the piano and never had the opportunity to do it. And then suddenly one day, when I was over 50, I saw a notice by a piano teacher at my place of work offering to teach piano to anyone in any circumstance,” said Zweiben, a retired government worker who lives in the District.
Her initial teacher had a piano with little stars on the keys “because everybody else she taught was a child.”
“I was absolutely dreadful. I had no hand, eye or brain coordination.” But about a year into it, something clicked. “There’s nothing more gratifying than doing something with your hands and out comes something that vaguely sounds like music.”
At Levine Music, a regional music school, many of the 800 adult students are retirees, and over a third come in never having played an instrument. For them, starting after age 50 can be a blessing and a burden.
“There’s definitely an enormous amount of memory involved in learning an instrument, and young people’s memory is much better than older adults’ memory; and certainly eyesight and hearing play into it,” said Lois Narvey, head of performance at Levine.
Older people also tend to set higher bars for themselves, she said. “Kids have no expectations about how well they’re supposed to be doing something brand new. . . . The older people get the more anxiety there is coming, I suppose, from their expectations of themselves. These are, in general, very accomplished people in their lives, so it’s very humbling to be doing something brand new, and they’re very surprised at how much time it takes.”
At the same time, they have a certain edge. Adult learners know themselves and their learning styles better, and they tend to be more motivated, said Jessica Grahn, a music neuroscientist at Western University in Ontario. In fact, she said, their brain limitations may even help them.
“Our brains are less plastic when we’re older, and that’s probably a good thing — rewiring the brain is an intense process,” she said. While children pick up new skills more easily, they also have more trouble with seeing the big picture and controlling their impulses. And adults have an easier time understanding concepts, such as what a scale is and what a chord is, and how they relate to each other. “So your response might be slower, but that life experience is incredibly useful.”
But so much life experience can make beginners painfully aware of botched rhythms and sour notes. “They have been listening to music all their lives, so they know what it’s supposed to sound like,” Grahn said. “It’s demoralizing when you start to play, you see a huge contrast between what you are able to produce and you know other people are able to produce.”
Given enough time and dedication, older learners can generally catch up with younger ones, even if they have to use more brain power to do so, Grahn said, noting that in scans of older people playing the same piece of music as younger people, “We tend to see greater brain activity, which means they’re using more of their brains to process the same thing.”
A lifetime of learning foreign languages does not seem to help, she said. But a math background might, perhaps because the rhythmic relationships and time signatures require an understanding of numbers.
Even when the understanding is there, an older body can have a harder time with the flexibility and stamina required of instrumentalists.
“Most people have some level of muscular tension, and somebody who’s achieved a certain age and hasn’t done anything like play a musical instrument, the hands become kind of clawlike,” Narvey said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Relax’ — they try, but they’re not aware of what patterns their body has developed over so many years.”
Older musicians need to watch how they hold their body, Marcus said: Whereas younger people can get away with bad posture, older ones are more vulnerable to carpal tunnel syndrome.
But playing can also be a good workout. Not only does Thorning have to carry her drums around, but “drumming is really an isometric exercise — in a seven- to eight-minute piece, I’m playing the whole thing; the sax or guitar get to take a break. So it’s a good weight-loss strategy. It keeps you physically fit, and mentally it’s very disciplined. At the end of two hours, my brain is tired.”
She now plays in two different jazz groups and describes connecting with her fellow musicians in a way that could only come with age. “With a drummer, you have to add ‘comp’ — little sounds based on what the other people are doing. I’m told I’m good at comping. Maybe a 10- or 12-year-old might not be as attuned . . . maybe being older helps you become more sensitive to the other musicians, and listen to what the other musicians are doing and complement what they’re doing. You add a little flair, a little splash and dash to the music.”
Many who play with ensembles or take a class say it makes them feel part of a community.
“They love to get together each week and share the music and get together afterward and talk,” said Glenn Sewell, director of adult music education at Levine. “That’s just as important as playing.”
For adults, the instruments in and of themselves often also hold emotional appeal.
Susan Shand, 57, walked into an estate sale in Northwest Washington last spring and became enamored with an East German harpsichord that had been lovingly cared for by its previous owner. She had never played a musical instrument, although she had considered taking up piano. Instead, she bought the harpsichord (along with the previous owner’s sheet music and maintenance logs) and began studying with Narvey.
“I like its sound. I like its Jane Austen style. I like its delicacy,” she said. For Shand, an executive producer for Voice of America who is also working on a book and a master’s degree and is a caretaker for her mother, playing for an hour a day has had an unexpected effect. “I’m completely focused and concentrated. And when I’m finished practicing, I’m so rested, I feel like I’ve meditated for an hour.”
Her playing, she added, “sounds to me like I’m a child, but it’s okay.”
Playing like a child doesn’t bother Zweiben either — she is learning “Slow Dance” by Bartok from a book he wrote for his 6-year-old son.
“It’s very satisfying. Once I’m learning a piece and into it, it stays in my brain and I find myself wanting to get back to it.” And she must be getting better. “My cats have stopped yowling, which I take as a good sign.”