Strike a chord that’s music to your soul

Music is the answer, that’s the message coming through loud and clear from medical researchers, therapists and music teachers – and older people everywhere are embracing it.

From Los Angeles to London, Oslo to Osaka, time-rich retirees are forming rock bands and chamber groups and while some are relearning their skills after decades of musical inactivity, others are taking up a musical instrument for the first time.  And loving it!

For years we’ve observed the long life span enjoyed by so many musicians, with pianists such as  Arthur Rubinstein famously performing publicly into their 90s.  

This anecdotal evidence of the benefits of playing music are now being quantified by many scientific studies.  In one such study, an assistant professor of music education at the University of South Florida studied the impact of individual piano instruction on adults between the ages of 60 and 85. After six months, those who had received piano lessons showed more robust gains in memory, verbal fluency, information processing speed, planning ability and other cognitive functions than those who had not received lessons.

The reasons for cognitive function improvement are obvious – playing an instrument pushes your memory in many different ways.  With some instruments (guitar, harmonica) you may learn to play only by ear and thus not need to read musical notation but you will still need to remember notes and chords and melody – perhaps even the words of songs.

“Listening to music is fine but playing it keeps you a participant and not a spectator in the game of life”

Everyone who takes up learning an instrument late in life marvels at the way in which fingers (or lips) soon seem to remember which chords and notes to play; this is called “finger” or “muscle” memory.

Besides improving your brainpower, playing music improves flexibility of hands, wrists and fingers, builds confidence and self-esteem and gives you a richer social life because few people play music in isolation.

It is, too, a great solace in times of trouble to pick up your instrument and just play by yourself “When you retire,” says Kathleen Nicholson, a therapist who started playing the flute in her early 60s, “it’s too easy just to fall into passive pursuits which can make you feel a has-been when it comes to the sort of meaningful activity that dictated your working years.

“Listening to music is fine but playing it keeps you a participant and not just a spectator in the game of life.”
And there’s a musical instrument for just about everyone, whatever your physical disabilities.  

While researching this article I met an 87-year-old man who is learning to play the panpipes and an 81-year-old who tried the ukulele but found his hands were too arthritic so he took up the harmonica and has turned out to be very good at it.  

This means he can play the blues with other amateur musicians, something he’s always wanted to do and it has also improved his bronchiectasis, to the delight of his lung specialist.

Most over 50s taking up music for the first time opt for more accessible instruments such as the ukulele, guitar and harmonica.

Trevor Gollagher was an award-winning professional drummer for 35 years and has played all over the world and with many well-known Australian groups, including the popular Little Fi and the Delta Kings.  
Today he is equally well known as the ukulele man around southeast Queensland, teaching as well as performing.  

“A couple of people I’ve met through my classes were sad and lonely,” he says. “Through playing music they have made friends and turned their lives around.”  

Trevor’s CDs show just how good a uke can be in the hands of a skilled player but he also makes tutorial videos, available free on YouTube, to help would-be players get started.

Dr Jennifer MacRichie, research lecturer in musical perception and cognition at Western Sydney University, is a strong believer in the idea that the third age in life should be a musical one.

Her research shows how the act of music-making gives the brain a thorough workout because many instruments require precise coordination between eyes, ears and hands in order to play a single musical note.

“With the myriad benefits provided by playing a musical instrument, it would seem beneficial to have a wider variety of musical activities on offer to the older generation,” she says.  

A cursory look at government-sponsored programs, however, shows that teaching music to adults is a very low priority indeed.

Fortunately, thanks to the digital revolution, learning music has never been easier and cheaper, with online tutorials available for almost every musical instrument.

Some serve as samples for paid on-line tuition, often offering one-on-one structured programs.  Others are free – and you can access them through your laptop computer, tablet or even your phone.

It’s a great way for people to try out their skills before spending too much money.   If you want to really learn to play well, however, you need to find a music teacher who understands the needs of mature age students.
This is especially true for the more demanding instruments such as the flute, saxophone, violin and piano, in which the ability to read music is required Heather Nel is best known for developing musical ability in children from an early age, but her Music Matters program brings a similar innovation to teaching adults.  

Next to the ukulele and guitar, the piano is the most popular instrument with mature age students and Heather’s methods help overcome perceived difficulties of mastering something that has pedals as well as keys.  

She teaches an easy keyboard playing technique that helps students learn music as they play.

“I have tricks to help people learn music easily,” she says, adding that she also studies the personalities, interests, inclinations and even the physical disabilities of her older students to help them identify and achieve their individual musical goals.

If you don’t have room for a piano at home, Heather suggests an electronic keyboard which is smaller, lighter, portable and has built-in accompaniment from other instruments.  And you can make the keyboard sound just the way you want – honkytonk, blues, classical – it’s all there.

You can even compose your own music using computer programs and apps – then print it out and play it, just as you can download lyrics, chord charts and sheet music for thousands of songs and instrumental pieces from pop to classical, tin whistle to trombone.

Taking up a musical instrument for the first time when you’re drawing your pension or spending your superannuation may seem daunting but many are doing just that, not only because it’s healthy but – more importantly – because it’s fun!