AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 31 YEARS
Fourteen years ago, on the eve of her retirement as a newspaper columnist, Nancy Beeghly of Youngstown, Ohio, decided to learn to play the cello. She adored the burnished sound the cello produces, when played properly. But she hadn’t the foggiest idea about bowing, plucking or tuning one.
Taking the musical plunge “was the most humbling thing I have ever done,” the 72-year-old Ms. Beeghly says.
Buoyed by enthusiasm, perseverance and the encouragement of teachers and fellow players with whom she has bonded, she says that learning to play the cello was the start of one of the most rewarding journeys of her life.
“I now get callbacks from nursing homes to come and play there! They think I’m Yo-Yo Ma!” she laughs.
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For Ms. Beeghly, as for many others in the growing 50-plus cohort, there’s no musical time like the present, a big change from the perceptions of previous generations.
There used to be a “widespread belief that if you did not begin learning a musical instrument in your childhood or school years, you had missed your chance,” says Roy Ernst, professor emeritus at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. “The field of music education didn’t offer many opportunities” for adults to learn, he says.
Now such attitudes have changed with gusto. “People of any age can learn to play and [gain] a level of satisfaction,” says Dr. Ernst, who founded New Horizons, a program that encourages adults to play musical instruments or sing, and to join bands, orchestras or choral groups.
Given today’s longer lifespans, it’s reasonable for most people to think that if they start playing an instrument in their 50s, they can keep on playing and improving for decades, whatever instrument they choose.
Moreover, a growing body of research suggests that playing an instrument or singing in a choir can enhance emotional well-being, brain health, cognition and hearing function.
“It’s extremely exciting,” says cognitive neuroscientist Julene Johnson, a professor at the Institute for Health and Aging at the University of California, San Francisco. “My hope is that we think of creative engagement as something to do throughout our entire lifespan, and not just for pleasure but also for possible health benefits.”
For newbies 50 and older, there are lots of ways to get started. Individual and group classes—some designed for older students—can be found through music schools and stores, community centers, colleges and universities, and private instructors.
The MacPhail Center for Music, in Minneapolis, which offers courses in ukulele, piano, violin, choral or ensemble singing, and even music theory, serves 15,500 students, some 2,000 of whom are 55 or older and are enrolled in the school’s Music for Life division, says a school spokeswoman. About 350 of those students come to the school itself for lessons and classes. The others are served through partnerships at long-term-care and assisted-living facilities and other such programs in the area.
“There are no expectations for these classes, just a starting block for people to come and try it out,” says Tamra Brunn, who manages the program.
Dr. Ernst started the first New Horizons band at the Eastman School of Music in 1991, with the support of a grant from the National Association of Music Merchants. Today, roughly 10,000 adults participate in some 230 New Horizons bands, orchestras, choral groups and music-themed summer camps, Dr. Ernst says.
Peggi Givens of Denton, Texas, joined the percussion section of her local New Horizons band this year despite having no musical experience.
“I used to say, ‘I play the radio,’ ” she quips. Now, with instruction from the band leader and tips from her fellow members of the percussion section, the 64-year-old is learning to play the snare and bass drums. “One of the advantages of being an adult versus a kid is that you have more patience,” she says.
For others, there can be anxiety about being an absolute beginner and falling flat, in more ways than one.
“Progress can be slow, and if you are prone to being self-critical you can have pitfalls,” says Paul Sheftel, a New York-based piano teacher and Juilliard School faculty member.
One antidote is to find a teacher who is encouraging and has good advice about practice strategies, says Mr. Sheftel. Another, he suggests, is participating in a class or ensemble where you can laugh with fellow students and bolster one another’s courage.
There is technology that can be helpful, too, from YouTube videos to play-along computer programs to apps that provide accompaniments to whatever you’re playing. You can also get music on your iPad, which can be very helpful if you want to enlarge the size of the notes you’re trying to read.
Phil Katzung, 80, of St. Paul, Minn., who took up the piano a little more than a year ago, enjoys the play-along CDs that accompany some of the music books he uses. “Put on a CD and you have a whole orchestra backing you up,” he says. “It makes it more pleasant and gives you incentive to play more, even if you’re just playing a simple melody.”
Growing up in New Jersey, Myles Astor, now 62 and a physical-fitness trainer in New York, had always wanted to play the electric guitar. But he had never gotten to it, despite having received one as a gift in his late 40s.
“I was afraid of being terrible,” he says.
Then, last year, his wife surprised him with a gift of six months of guitar lessons for both of them. He tries to practice daily, and he looks forward to the teacher’s weekly visits: one hour for him and one for his wife, who is playing the acoustic guitar again for the first time since childhood.
By the end of each lesson, Mr. Astor says, he has learned so much about chords and fingering, and the nature and history of music, that “it’s my brain, not my fingers, that hurts.”
For Charles Reinhart, 76, of Minneapolis, the push to take up music was a special request from his mother.
“My mother was approaching 90 and she was starting to think about the inevitable,” he says. “She said, ‘I would like to have you sing at my funeral.’ I told her, ‘If you live long enough for me to learn how to sing, I will.’ ”
He signed up for beginning singing lessons at MacPhail, in a class with three students around his age. And three years later, he did fulfill his mother’s wish. He also kept singing—as did the others in his class. “We stuck together, and we’re still taking group lessons [at MacPhail]. We call it Advanced Beginning Singing,” he jokes.
The social aspects of playing in a group loom large for Ms. Givens, the percussionist, who says that once she retired, she missed the social connections she had at work. “I wanted to go someplace where I could meet new people,” she says, “and this has opened new social connections.”
Beth Bedell, 67, of St. Paul, took up singing lessons about a decade ago and now sings in different choirs.
“This is now where my friends are coming from, from music,” she says.
Ms. Bedell also began ukulele lessons at MacPhail last fall and now likes to participate in monthly ukulele jams around town. She says the music “serves as a counterbalance” to her volunteer work discussing end-of-life issues with patients at a local clinic.
Bobbie Gates says playing music “fills my body with love and with peace.” At the age of 60, she learned to play a flute that had been her son’s in grade school. Her husband, Bill, who plays trumpet, encouraged her to give it a try. Twelve years later and now living near Corvallis, Ore., Ms. Gates continues to take lessons.
“We could not take the music out of the equation of our lives,” she says. She and her husband know all 33 people in their New Horizons band, she says, and many members of the two other musical groups she belongs to as well.
Last August, Ms. Gates says, after she was diagnosed with cancer, another flute player brought her a prayer quilt. More recently, after she completed various treatments and was able to return to rehearsals, one of the trumpet players let out a fanfare to welcome her back.
Ms. Gates, in turn, continues to welcome others to the band. “We have a new flute player who played as a child and hadn’t played for years,” she says. “So now I’m helping her. And she just loves it.”
Ms. Cole is a writer in New York. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Corrections & Amplifications
MacPhail Center for Music has some 2,000 students 55 or older who are enrolled in the school’s Music for Life division. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that about 350 of the students were 50 or older. (April 26, 2016)
Appeared in the Apr. 24, 2017, print edition as 'You Always Wanted to Learn an Instrument. It’s Time..'