It's Never Too Late to Learn
Michael C. Futa


You can teach older dogs new tricks,
and even teach them to play the piano.

Learning to Play
Imagine the virtuoso at the piano ... the maestro with his violin ... the diva at center stage ….

Are you seeing a senior person, white-haired, lined skin, in full command of his or her art after a lifetime of practice? More important, can you see yourself in the role of making music, playing with fervor and passion?

For many people, that seems like too large a leap. No matter how much you love music, some people believe you simply must start lessons as a child if you ever want to become proficient.

Don’t believe it.

One man who successfully transformed his love of music into a working knowledge of how to play the piano is Noah Adams, commentator on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Having learned of a friend’s lifelong regret at never learning to play the piano, Adams resolved – at age 51 – not to fall into the same predicament. What’s more, he wrote a book chronicling his experience called Piano Lessons: Music, Love, and True Adventure.

It took Adams a year before he could sit down and play composer Robert Schumann’s “Traumerei” for his wife as a Christmas present. Along the way, he experimented with software-based teaching instructions, a private tutor, and finally, a vacation holed away at a music camp in Vermont.

Hard to Find Time
At 51, Adams’ struggle was to make time for a hobby that would add significant emotional quality to his life. “There’s a theme of desperation to the book,” he explains. “It doesn’t have to do with music. It has to do with a busy person trying to hang onto, or reclaim part of his life, to add beauty in some way.”

Adams highlights a growing phenomenon of people in the second half of life tapping into different strengths, focusing on new creative outlets. “Contrary to a common stereotype about aging, creativity often increases when people get older,” says Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging Health, and Humanities at George Washington University, Washington, D.C. “Older people returning to the classroom is an escalating phenomenon.”

Old Dogs, New Tricks
Cohen, who has been studying creativity for a book to be published next fall by Avon Books (Creativity and Aging: Unleashing Human Potential in the Second Half of Life), says that seniors are at an age in which they are very comfortable with themselves and therefore are more likely to take risks and experiment.

“Retirement is a boon to creativity,” says Cohen. “It acts just as a patron of the arts would in that it is a time in life of reduced responsibilities and increased financial security. For the first time in many people’s lives, they finally have the time and the means to explore their creative potential.”

Despite the stereotype that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, Cohen has found lifelong creativity to be the rule rather than the exception. “When I looked over the data on a landmark study of folk art by the Smithsonian Institution, I found that a large percentage of folk artists are elderly people.”

Four Types
Cohen divided his study into four types of creative seniors:

  • those who were continuing their lifelong creativity,
  • those who had been creative but were now exploring a new outlet,
  • those who were commencing with creativity now that they finally had the time and opportunity,
  • and those for whom loss or grief led to refocusing on new creative outlets.

“The perfect example is Grandma Moses,” says Cohen. “She lost her husband when she turned 67 and took up needlepoint embroidery. At 78, she developed arthritis and could no longer work with needlepoint. So she turned to painting, which she did to world acclaim until age 101. Her last painting was called “Rainbow.” She was a tremendously optimistic person.”

Learning From the Experts
Creativity has a simple definition: It means bringing something new into existence, be it a perspective, an idea, a product, or an accomplishment. But don’t worry that because you have grown older, your creativity is bound to diminish. It’s not!

Leading researchers in brain anatomy point to the importance of dendrites – hair-like tendrils that allow brain cells to communicate with each other. Dendrites continue to grow throughout life and in fact, grow more when brain activity is stimulated and challenged.

“People who find activities that are stimulating, entertaining, and even have a social context, tend to have the most robust mental responses,” says Dr. Gene Cohen.

Stimulating Creative Activity
If you want to set out on the road to creative expression, consider these tips:

  • Make it a fun challengeExplore activities that will pose a challenge to you and are also fun. “It’s hard to get motivated to do the things you should do,” says Cohen. “As Albert Einstein said, ‘Love makes a better tutor than duty.’”
  • It's like exerciseMake the analogy between physical and mental exercise – you’ve got to sweat to derive maximum benefit. In other words, using your noggin helps make you smarter.
  • Make it socialTurn your goal into a social experience. Maybe you will need a private tutor. Perhaps you’ll join a class. Or take up a new activity and learn it with a grandchild. “You have an option of layering a social engagement on top of a learning experience. And that is extremely motivating and pleasurable,” says Cohen.

To learn how to play the piano, try out these resources:
  • Community music schools.  For locations, write the National Guild of Community Music Schools, Box 8018, Englewood, NJ 07631.
  • Adult-education centers.  Programs may include group classes at night or classes for senior citizens.
  • Piano stores.  Dealers may conduct group lessons, have studios on their premises, or recommend teachers.
  • Tapes and CD-ROMs.  Explore piano-teaching audio tapes, videocassettes, and computer software programs.
  • Music Teachers National Association.  This professional group gives out a free directory of certified members. Write MTNA, 617 Vine St., Suite 1432, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

When considering a piano teacher, be sure to interview the person before signing up. Ask about their professional background, whether they have any music degrees, and how much experience they have working with adults versus children. Once you have worked out the details on price and schedule, you’re on your way.

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