When I was contemplating rejoining a musical journey that I had left behind in my youth, I was really apprehensive about learning guitar because of age-related issues. An older adult, what does that mean? I suppose a given age, young or old, is a relative measurement. If you’re sixteen, then thirty may seem ancient. I’m presently in my late fifties and ninety seems old to me. The majority of successful musicians began their training when they were adolescents or younger. But can a geezer like me play guitar competently, proficiently, and achieve a level of musicianship that’s respectable to other musicians? I feel more confident today that I can. It’s generally accepted that it takes approximately ten years or 10,000 hours of training to acquire expertise in a given discipline. So will I play like Eric Clapton in nine more years? I doubt it, but that’s neither my goal nor my approach to my music training. I’m fully aware of my limitations, thus my expectations are realistic and achieving world-class notoriety as a musician is yet another goal not on my list. Making my musical journey is my goal, and my only goal.
Learning Music as an Older Adult
If I hadn’t come from a musical background, I might not be here writing about any musical journey. In returning to music as an older adult, I leaned heavily on that prior musical experience in my decision-making process. It’s obvious that when one begins their musical education at an early age and continues with it throughout their young adult lives, their chances of achieving greatness is far more obtainable than starting later in life. Being an older adult doesn’t necessarily preclude one from obtaining a level of performance and musicianship that can be considered excellent or accomplished. Having prior musical experience from one’s youth also doesn’t guarantee success in mastering an instrument much later in life.
Having reasonable expectations from the perspective of learning to play an instrument will make the process of acquiring musical knowledge and new skills less intimidating.
As older adults we must realize the facts of aging has on our ability to acquire new knowledge and skills. We process and absorb information at a slower rate, our fingers are not as nimble, and it may take us many, many more repetitions to develop acuity in a specific process, such as playing a musical scale on a keyboard or guitar. Despite the barriers age imposes on us later in life, it’s a really good idea to take up an instrument and learn to play music, as the process of doing so benefits the brain. Our older brains will respond to such stimuli and will reward us with clearer, sharper minds. There’s a few things that serve us well as older adults: patience, longer attention spans, and persistence. Add a little dose of stubborn attitude and we’ve just increased our chances for musical success. It’s one thing to take up an instrument with the expectation to perform in the company of peer musicians and another if our only expectation is to play for personal pleasure and entertain family and friends.
Arthritis has been my nemesis for the past twenty years, and it’s mostly concentrated in my hands, especially in the fingers. Having small hands and arthritis you’d think taking up the guitar would be a futile attempt, however I’ve noticed amazing improvement in the dexterity of my fretting hand. My strumming hand doesn’t get the same workout as my fretting hand, but it might get a chance when I learn Travis picking. I employ two 7-pound Gripmasters for strengthening the hands which has greatly improved my finger strength and stamina for fretting notes and chords.
According to neurologists who study how the brain acquires new knowledge, the brain—over time—rewires itself when confronted with the task of learning to play music.
I can’t cite objective evidence of increased cognitive agility, but I subjectively feel that my overall mental strength has improved since making the leap back to music. There’s significant mental processing involved when looking at a sheet of music for the first time, such as Bach’s Minuet in G for two guitars. You look at a note and you go there in your mind while your fretting hand fingers the note and your strumming hand plucks the relative string. Making all that happen in time for each note takes heavy processing power. I know my brain is not as fast as it was when I was playing violin, however with enough repetitive practice I eventually achieve a decent level of performance, and the more I practice and polish a piece of music, the better it sounds.
Playing melodies and scales came relatively easy to me, whereas chords were brutally challenging in the beginning and are still difficult for me to shape and change. Small hands means short fingers and arthritic hands limits how much my fingers can bend, and that equates to having to make chord substitutions. Playing open string position and fingering past the 12th fret poses a slight challenge, but fortunately positions between frets 3 and 11 are my sweet spots on the fretboard.
Having a music sensei who has experience teaching and mentoring older adults is a top consideration when searching for a music teacher. Teacher-student dynamics differ between young and older adults. Older adults have more patience, are more determined to succeed, possess many more years of life experiences, and are more focused when it comes to learning new skills. A music teacher who has experience teaching adults can also be there for you when you feel you’ve hit a wall that creates a barrier to progress. I know this wall, and I hit it dead-on. Although I had previous musical experience from my youth, I was convinced that becoming musical and learning to play guitar is only for the young, that it’s no place for old men with creaky, short fingers. My music teacher urged me to stay with it, don’t give up, climb the wall, and persevere. He did this by sharing anecdotal stories of musicians who started their journey’s late in life and by teaching me ways to compensate for some of my physical limitations. He pushed me forward, and I believe that’s a hallmark of a damn good teacher.
Suggestions for the Older Adult Student
I know what kind of music I’d like to be making and playing years down the road, but that doesn’t guarantee I’ll arrive at that particular destination.
If you can financially manage it, do find a good music teacher who has experience teaching older adults. Take inventory of your limitations, physical and cognitive, and define reasonable expectations of your musical goals. For example, if you’re 50, it’s an unreasonable expectation that you’ll become a world-class concert pianist in 10 to 20 years. Are your musical goals professional, personal, or do they lie somewhere in between? Is it the destination or journey that is more important to you? As an older adult going through this process, making the journey is more important to me than where I’ll musically be in ten years. I’m letting music be my guide. I believe music will find me, that by the process of playing and experimenting with different genres of music, I will discover what kind of music I’m meant to play. I like rock, country, jazz, and the blues, but I’m presently experiencing more progress with classical music, which is 180 degrees from where I musically expected to travel. Who knows? That’s why I keep my focus on making the journey in front of me, and any expectations about my musical destination are kept in my back pocket.