By Donnelle Belanger-Taylor
Learning an instrument has a profound effect on children; studies have shown that music lessons improve attention span, resilience and persistence, as well as boosting language and mathematical skills, and increasing the amount of grey matter in the brain.
It is easy to look at virtuoso young musicians and feel like you’ve missed your chance – that if you didn’t learn as a child, whether due to location, finances, or lack of interest, then music is not for you.
Music is for you, no matter your age.
There are proven benefits for adult learners, just as there are for children. One study investigated adults aged between 60 and 85. After six months of their first-ever piano lessons, they showed significant gains in memory, verbal fluency, and other cognitive functions, compared with those who had not received lessons.
“Musical training seems to have a beneficial impact at whatever age you start. It contains all the components of a cognitive training program that sometimes are overlooked, and just as we work out our bodies, we should work out our minds,” says Jennifer Bugos, an assistant professor of music education at the University of South Florida.
Learning an instrument is great for our brains, but it’s also fun. While I did learn to read music as a child, I was an indifferent flute player, and didn’t miss it once I went to university. Eight years later, married and with a toddler, I joined Manukau Concert Band. They didn’t need a mediocre, rusty flute player. They needed a tuba player, and so my real music journey began.
At my first rehearsal, I only knew how to play low B flat. So that’s what I did, every time it came up. There was no shame in it. Eight years later (with a break in the middle to have twins), I performed a Grade 7 solo at the 2015 Rotorua festival. Music has enriched my life, with great friends, personal goals outside the daily grind, and committee roles that have been personally rewarding.
My mother, Jenny, didn’t start learning to read music until the age of 51. After a brief bout of “Instrument Acquisition Syndrome”, where she tried clarinet, trumpet, alto sax, trombone and tenor sax in short order, she has now focused on bass clarinet and baritone sax. I nearly cried with pride the first time I watched her play.
Her first rehearsal started with The Dambusters March. She played the first two notes, and then “sat like a rabbit in the headlights until the end”. It was daunting, but she persisted. She says you need to “have a have-a-go attitude” and to accept that mistakes are just part of the learning process. A particular challenge for this full-time-teaching, marathon-running, mountain-climbing nana was simply finding time to practice, as well as overcoming her lack of confidence when playing an exposed part.
Jenny has found many benefits that have made it worth persevering. She finds the mental activity “stimulating” and emphasises the social aspect. A stand-out memory for her is a trip to Brisbane with Whangarei Youth Music, and especially “standing on the main street and numbering off to 75!”
Dale started on clarinet alongside her children, and has since learned a number of other instruments. “What I found challenging initially was to accept that I had to make public mistakes in order to learn.” She sees the in-depth understanding that playing a piece gives you as one of the major benefits. “I like the way that you get to know the pieces that you play so intimately, sitting amongst it as you do. I would never take the time to listen so intensely. How many times do you find that you are humming the little insignificant motif that the clarinets or bassoons have?”
Another adult learner is Ann, who started learning clarinet when her daughter was involved with bands at school. Ann’s words of wisdom for adult learners are “not to be critical of oneself. It’s so easy to want to be perfect in no time.” She recommends setting personal goals as a way to improve your playing. While sitting exams can be scary, starting at a low level and working your way up the grades is a great way to challenge yourself.
Karen was heavily involved with dance, speech, singing and piano as a youth, but took on the challenge of learning the flute forty years later. Initially, she struggled to even put the instrument together, but has since passed a Grade 3 exam and is working towards Grade 5. Her flute teacher guided her towards Manukau Concert Band, where she has become a core part of the percussion section. Outside of MCB, she recently played for a show, and hurriedly learned drum kit in the ten weeks before the opening night.
“I think that the older we get, the more our brains get in the way,” Karen says. “As a child the expectation is that you will achieve and you are completely capable of achieving whatever is set out for you to do. As an adult, self-doubt is my main sentiment – and I am determined to overcome that by putting it aside and forging on anyway until someone tells me to stop!”
Karen describes her time with MCB as having myriad stand-out moments. She appreciates the diverse range of people in the band, and feels accepted “even with all one’s faults and problems”.
The social aspect of concert bands is a definite bonus. You have to trust in each other. Some performances are transcendental; there’s nothing quite like getting goose-bumps from a piece of music that you are helping to create. Other performances are more like an overloaded go-kart careening down a hill, where just getting to the end together is a triumph. Regardless, it’s exhilarating.
Dale describes it thus: “It is a joyous thing to play, feeling that your section is in tune, harmonizing with those about you: it sucks when it’s not, but therein lies the challenge.” She adds, “I think that it is the ultimate in team sports. In an orchestra or band, no soloist sounds fantastic unless the team supports them.”
Opportunities go beyond your local community, too. The annual NZCBA Seniors Band offers a chance for musicians from around the country to come together for a weekend. Originally targeted at musicians of 65-plus who were perhaps no longer at the peak of their playing, its membership has become more inclusive, with anyone over 25 welcome. Knowing musicians from all over New Zealand makes the NZCBA Festival even more fun!
Financially, it might seem difficult to take up an instrument, but many community bands have instruments available to borrow or hire. There are free courses online to help you learn to read music, and often websites dedicated to advice and information about your particular instrument. Proper lessons are a big help, but you can get by without if you need to.
While some adult learners excel and become outstanding performers, there is lots of room in the concert band world for those of us who are, well, adequate. You don’t need to be a star. If all you can play is low B flat, just be there and play the best low B flat you can. That’s a B flat your local band wouldn’t have otherwise! Trust me – it’s a lot of fun.
To find your local band, go to http://nzcba.org/bands/
For information about the 2016 NZCBA Seniors Band, keep an eye on http://nzcba.org/