I took up playing the piano at the age of 42, however my desire to learn piano goes back to my teens. My siblings and I were allowed one extra-curricular activity and my first choice was ballet. But I had a friend that I visited regularly and she played, so I got to have a little experience. Nothing major, a few chords, chopsticks, you know the easy stuff. But that desire remained and when we purchased a keyboard for the kids, I was probably the most enthusiastic beyond the initial novelty. However keyboards are very different to pianos in that the dynamics of the piece are difficult to create with a keyboard, but it didn’t stop me and about a year later I started lessons and a year after that I got my own piano.
A big investment, but by that time I knew that this was what I wanted to do, and my passion for learning was strong. That I suppose is a major advantage to learning anything new as an adult. Often that dream extends all the way back to our childhood and it has become ingrained in our imagination. And when the raising of our children becomes a little less hectic and we suddenly have more time for ourselves, these dreams come flooding back. I’ve learnt to read music, simply because it’s an integral part of piano and of classical music study and performance and for the better part of the last eight years I’ve played classical music. I have recently however started expanding my repertoire to pieces this side of the 1950’s. And I’m currently learning The Cave by Mumford and Sons. Who knows, one day I might get a chance to jam with a six-fingered banjo player. Whether your instrument requires you to read music or not, I really think it is very helpful in getting a basic understanding at least, to help with the shaping of a piece.
But this does raise the question for me, can it be too late to start learning, especially with regard to developing any great proficiency. My daughter started her piano lessons around the same time as me. It always seemed to be much easier for her, than for me, despite the fact that I practiced ten times more than she. Her fingers were so much more agile than mine. I’m in no doubt that children and adults learn in totally different ways and perhaps that explains her ability to grasp what was in front of her faster. Children almost intuitively learn and they’re not afraid to make mistakes. Speaking for myself, I always beat myself up if I did something wrong, complete with headbanging the piano. I’d over think the piece, apply reasoning and thinking strategies and the music became very wooden.
My friend and piano teacher passed away June 2013, and at that time I decided to no longer take lessons, to go it alone basically. Sadly, I stopped playing for quite some time, it reminded me too much of Liz and didn’t help with everything else that was going on for me. I’m back playing again now, but still find myself thinking, I must talk to Liz about shaping this piece. I still can’t believe she’s gone.
My daughter no longer plays, she simply lost interest and didn’t bothering practicing and finally stopped going to lessons altogether. I guess making the decision later in life to learn is a big plus. I still struggle with playing and learning new pieces, but I love playing. And despite the fact that my fingers are not exactly long (I can barely span an octave), I muddle through, and I also take great delight in the fact that my favourite piano maestro Daniel Barenboim plays so beautifully with equally tiny hands.
Apart from the childhood dream fulfilled, there are many other benefits to taking up an instrument post childhood. It helps to reduce stress, and strengthens the brain, and yes there has actually been studies done in the area of brain power/learning music which show that the longer a person plays the stronger their non-verbal and visuospatial memory, as well as their ability to adapt to new information. The reason for this and what appears to be unique to playing an instrument, is that it requires a wide array of brain regions and cognitive functions to work together simultaneously, in both right and left hemispheres of the brain. Add to that playing and listening to music is one the greatest and simplest pleasures imaginable.
I think that the two most important decisions to make, are that you are prepared to practice consistently and that you choose the right instrument for you. Not everyone can play anything, I have first hand knowledge of that. I once considered the flute, but after trying one, I decided that I’d give it a miss. If I was making any sounds from it, they were only ones dogs could hear. Not forgetting my eldest son, who definitely has many other wonderful abilities, but persisted in torturing me throughout his primary education with the most appalling tin whistle playing ever, which he eventually gave up to play the violin. Oh dear god it was terrible, even worse than the tin whistle, think cats being tortured. He now plays the guitar, much better, but he won’t be winning any awards any time soon. When you think of a mothers’ love, it’s never stronger nor put to the test more than when they’re playing an instrument. Make sure to try a few out, get the right one, it is after all a big investment and a lifetime commitment. So if your tossing up whether to start, go for it, you won’t regret it.