You can teach older dogs
and even teach them to play the piano.
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
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.”
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.”
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
- 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
“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.”
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
“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 challenge.
Explore 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 exercise.
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 social.
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
- 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.