Piano, French or ukulele: am I too old to learn?

November 2, 2014

Merrilyn Walton was 45 when she decided to learn the piano. Her daughters had both given up. In response to her entreaties to practise they told her to go learn herself. And so she did. Doing the grade three exam along with eight and nine year-olds was one of the most stressful events in her life. Now 63, the university professor practises daily, has reached grade six or seven level (though no more exams, thanks) and counts playing the piano as essential to her wellbeing and enjoyment of life. “It’s just a lovely thing to do,” she says. “And it’s actually good to take it up when you’re older; you have more time, more focus.”

Some accomplishments, it’s seems, come easier to children than adults; foremost among them learning a musical instrument and learning a language. At community colleges across the land there’s no shortage of language and music courses aimed at the burgeoning retirement market. But are you ever too old to pick up Spanish, the piano or guitar? Or maybe the ukulele? The evidence is getting stronger you can indeed teach an old dog new tricks.

Piano teacher Helen Kennedy has focused on teaching adults for the past 15 years after a long career teaching children. “It’s a complete myth that you have to start piano as a child,” she told me. Some aspects come easier to adults, she’s found, such as learning to read music; others, such as rhythm, come harder. Teaching an adult is different, and this is where some piano teachers fall down, she says. First they don’t take adult students as seriously as children, fully expecting them to give up. They tend to teach them as if they were six-year-olds. They don’t make allowances for the busy lives of older people and for their desire, at the same time, to make progress. So Helen developed her own system for teaching adults called Piano Express which can take beginners to fifth grade within 18 months. “I always tell them they won’t ever be concert pianists,” she says, “but there’s nothing stopping them from becoming a professional if they want.”

The adult brain was once believed to be a landscape of dying and irreplaceable cells. But that’s wrong, says Professor Perminder Sachdev, a neuro-psychiatrist and co-director of UNSW’s Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing. Certainly there’s shrinkage of the brain as you get older and from age 30 people become slower at processing information, and the memory can take longer to kick into gear. “But older adults develop strategies to overcome these changes,” he told me. “We become more efficient, more focussed, we get to the heart of the problem.” As well, in experiments comparing older and young people doing the same tasks, scans show older people use more regions of their brain to compensate for the changes that come with ageing.

All of which is good news for would-be learners. But does learning an instrument keep your brain in better shape? The evidence is strongest for those who learnt music early in life; the beneficial effects can last into old age. But one heartening study of the impact of piano instruction on adults between the ages of 60 and 85 found after six months, those who had received piano lessons showed more robust gains in memory, verbal fluency, the speed at which they processed information, planning ability, and other cognitive functions, compared with those who had not received lessons.

When it comes to learning a language, there’s no doubt exposure in childhood is needed to master the accent. As well, to get to reasonable proficiency can take a few hours a week for years, more effort than many language students are prepared for. But adults have a bigger vocabulary than children which is an advantage. As well as piano, Merrilyn has been learning Vietnamese because her work takes her to Hanoi. She’s found Vietnamese much harder than piano: “I’ve done two TAFE courses, and I use tapes but…. after six or seven years I’m a beginner.”

Learning a new language may not be always easy for adults but Professor Sachdev says developing reasonable proficiency can be good for brain health.  It may slow cognitive decline and even delay the onset of dementia. In the largest study of its kind researchers at Edinburgh University examined the medical records of 648 Alzheimer’s patients in the Indian city of Hyderabad. They found the bilinguals developed dementia later than monolinguals by an average of four-and-a-half years.

If piano, Vietnamese and French seem too hard, the ukulele may be the perfect solution. Having shed the taint of its association with Tiny Tim, the ukulele has become the go-to instrument for older people wanting to learn music. “It’s ideal, it’s easy, it’s four-stringed, it’s cheap and it’s small,” says Mark Jackson. With his partner Jane Jelbart, through their music school, The Sum of the Parts, he’s turned the Hunter region of NSW into ukulele land. The average age of players in their ukulele orchestras is 60. “Within 15 minutes of the first lesson, people can play ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’,” Mark says. “You don’t need to read music.”

Talking to a former colleague who took up the ukulele, I can hear the passion and joy in his voice which I gather is common among ukulele converts. A main reason is that it’s social and fun. People get together to play songs they love, they dress up in Hawaiian shirts, and they feel a sense of accomplishment. If it’s good for the brain, that’s just a bonus.

Have you tried to learn a language or instrument? How did you go? Please leave a comment.

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