The benefits of learning new skills and concepts as we age can never be overstated. Learning keeps mind and body active, it helps to forge new friendships and open new horizons, and it can give the golden years purpose and meaning.
Many organizations have programs to encourage lifelong learning. You can explore aquatic ecosystems along the Gulf Coast on an Elderhostel trip, creative writing with the YMCA’s Writer’s Voice program, or Mozart’s cities with AARP’s educational travel program. But taking up music gives you the benefits of lifelong learning, and then some.
How easy is it to take up, say, piano or organ late in life? Some might hesitate due to physical problems, such as arthritis. Others may think the keyboard too complex. Still others might recall piano teachers of their youth making them practice scales and sit up straight, a method that got the job done but wasn’t much fun. If you’re hesitant, you needn’t be. Group lessons, held at music retailers across the country, are one of several modern keyboard methods that promote instant accomplishment, wellness, and laughter.
Playing for yourself
Seventy-year-old Martha Givens joined a Club Roland group digital organ program at Piano Source in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2003. The program offered her a chance to re-learn a skill: Givens played organ as a young woman and even had an instrument in her house, but a busy family and work life kept her from playing. When she retired, she wanted to play again but couldn’t remember how. “But it’s very important for me to play music because it’s relaxing and fun,” says Givens. “When I saw a sign advertising the program, I joined.”
To Givens’ joy, she found old skills returned quickly, thanks to the easy-to-play Roland Atelier organ and program facilitator Judy Boren. “I pulled the skills out from my deep drawer,” she laughs. “Now I’m playing music for myself.” Givens explains that Club Roland lessons are a lot different from traditional music instruction. “We don’t play scales all the time. We play for our own enjoyment,” she says. “I’m going to stick with the organ, even if it takes me the rest of my life to master it.”
The camaraderie that develops in a group program, where participants achieve new things together, helped Givens in other ways. “I lost my father, my brother, and husband in the space of just over a year,” she recalls. “Club Roland was a big support system for me because the class is a big family, and playing was a great outlet for my grief.”
Kindling a Spark
Sixty-year-old retiree Lanny Larson came to Piano Source’s Club Roland program via another route. He had always enjoyed music, but he never tried to play. Then his wife wanted a new digital organ, so Larson shopped for one. The process took about five months, and by the end of it, he wanted to play too. “I felt the organ would be the best instrument to learn because you can use it to appreciate music on many levels,” says Larson. “It’s an almost universal instrument.”
Larson understands the challenges an older person faces when learning the keyboard, but he believes they can be overcome. Older people sometimes learn at a slower pace, says Larson, and that requires a little more patience, but the drawbacks are more than made up for in a greater will to succeed. Larson knows a thing or two about what it takes to teach adults to play, because he not only learns with the Club Roland program, he assists Boren with an introductory class on what he calls “button pushing” —teaching new students how the Roland works. Music has always been a big part of Larson’s life, but now it plays a bigger role. “Now that I am making my own music, I have found a new way to enjoy music,” he concludes.
A Place to Relax
“The digital piano is a very easy instrument to pick up,” says Patti O’Connor, facilitator of the Yamaha Clavinova Connection, a group piano program at Trombino Music in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. O’Connor says that, like Club Roland, the Clavinova Connection program provides instant enjoyment and fun. “Students are always laughing by the end of the evening, and they go away with a real sense of accomplishment,” she says. O’Connor explains that most of her students are new to the piano; many have always wanted to play but never had the opportunity. “A group program gives them that chance,” she explains. Her adult students, on average in their late 50s, make excellent learners because they are seizing a lifelong dream.
The Clavinova Connection program not only produces competent piano players, it also offers busy adults the tools to help them relax. “We go through simple exercises to calm the body down, because one of the points of the program is to release the body from the stresses of the outside world,” O’Connor explains. “The classroom becomes a place to relax once a week.” Often learning to relax means turning the keyboards into drum machines to create a digital drum circle. “I’ll have someone start a beat on their keyboard, and then they can call on others in the circle to join in,” she says.
Taking the Leap
O’Connor has some advice for older people wondering if they will enjoy group piano or organ lessons: “I’d say give it a try for one session. There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she says. Joanne Bennett, 73, of Decatur, Georgia, took the leap. She played piano as a child, but “promptly forgot everything because I didn’t practice.” Nevertheless, she signed up for group organ lessons in the Lowrey Magic program at Cooper Music in Atlanta, Georgia. “It’s so therapeutic for me. I love the music, and I love the instrument,” she says.
One of the reasons Bennett keeps returning to Lowrey Magic is her facilitator, Ellen Gonzales, whose style is definitely a departure from piano teachers of her youth. “Ellen is one of the most dynamic women I’ve ever met. She’s delightful,” says Bennett. Bennett also finds learning organ gives her life a new purpose. “Learning keeps my mind alive,” she explains. “And it’s certainly better than TV!”
Bennett says learning wasn’t difficult, partly because digital Lowrey organs, like the digital keyboards of Roland and Yamaha, are made with success in mind. “After my first lesson I was playing songs, because the instrument allows you to play one-touch chords and melodies,” Bennett explains. In fact, Bennett enjoys her classes so much that she has persuaded some of her friends to join her. “I can’t imagine why someone would not want to do this,” she insists.
Originally published in the March/April 2005 Issue.