Susan comes in cautiously, pausing to look around her. She isn’t sure where she should go, and not entirely certain why she’s decided to come in the first place. Why did she think she’d be able to do this? Still, she takes a seat and waits. She notices all the doors are painted different colors and finds that odd.
The three other people in the room are children. One thumbs through a purple Level 1 book, one pokes furiously at an ipad, and the other sits slumped forward in a beige metal folding chair and stares at his feet. Susan sets her purse on the floor and folds her hands in her lap. She gazes down at them, at the veins that are so much more prominent now—why does that happen, anyway?-- and wonders how dexterous they might yet be. She listens to Bach’s Minuet in G starting and stopping from the room behind her; she wishes it would just keep going. She’d had that so well memorized when she was young; she played it for a recital. Then the blue door opens and a girl of about nine hurtles out. The woman following her sees Susan and holds up one hand in greeting. “Hi! Susan! I’m Tracey.” Doubt courses through Susan again. This woman is probably too young to be her teacher and definitely too perky. It will never work. But since she can’t think of a polite way to leave, Susan follows her into the room and takes a seat at the weathered piano.
I’ve noticed a growing number of adults of all ages taking up music in the last few years, either for the first time or after an absence that often spanned most of their adult lives. I find myself often surprised at how steadily they improve, and am especially impressed when people who have never touched an instrument before in their lives are proficient players after just a few years. Contrary to popular myth, children do not necessarily learn faster than adults. In fact, my experience with adult beginners has been that they often will progress more quickly that their childhood counterparts. My theory on this is that adults want to be there and are eager to learn. They are able to grasp overall musical concepts fairly easily and practice steadily. Basically, they know how to learn. (This is something that children are still figuring out.) And adults enjoy the opportunity to learn because the rest of their lives is often spent “outputting” what they already know—working at jobs, teaching children, managing homes--rather than taking in something brand new themselves.
And there’s even more good news for adults who study music: Music gives a boost to the brain, helping it to compensate for certain age-related losses. A study of music instruction on adults from 60-85 at the University of South Florida, for example, showed gains in memory, verbal fluency, the speed at which they processed information, planning ability, and other cognitive functions, compared with those who had not studied music. These gains came after only six months of instruction. According to another study published in the journal Neuropsychologia, piano instruction can contribute to preserving cognitive functioning as we age because the curriculum gets harder as it goes along, requires focused attention and concentration, and uses complex two-hand movements.
Music is also good for our brains because it requires different cognitive functions to work together in a way few other activities do. Consider: playing an instrument requires a person to take in information (reading notes or hearing another musician), analyze that information (figure out which notes, chords, rhythms, and styles are involved), and respond (by playing the notes on the page or improvising a chorus with the band) all at the same time. There’s a lot of computing going on.
The desire to keep our minds sharp throughout life is nothing new, and researchers have been testing different ways to do this for quite a while. But one of the big challenges they report is coming up with activities people want to keep doing after the study is over. A daily brain-training puzzle may not be scintillating enough to tear us away from our favorite Netflix show. Activities we truly enjoy and that make us feel accomplished, however, we are much more likely to continue. And this is where learning to play an instrument comes in. It’s fun. It feels good to get better at it. We can show it off.
So meanwhile, back at the piano lesson…
Susan’s hands move nervously across the keys as she tries to follow Tracey’s directions. She doesn’t recall the notes at first…oh, wait…now they’re coming to her. After a couple of tries she makes it through the first line, but it’s slow. She’s frustrated; after all, she knew this piece as a child. But by the end of the page she can feel her focus sharpening. She begins to recall what it’s like to play—the concentration, the struggle, the breakthrough. She turns the page and continues.