Your Inner Musician Is Just Waiting to Be Found

MAY 13, 2002


It's never too late to learn an instrument, as plenty of adults prove


 As a girl, J.L. Hampton begged for piano lessons, but her mother refused. Even after she inherited a piano from her mother-in-law seven years ago, she held back, not wanting to upstage her son, who was taking lessons. But her son Wade, now 15, quit piano last year, and she slid into his time slot. "It's like always talking about going on a diet," says Hampton, 48, who manages the Manhattan office of an executive recruiting firm. "One day, you finally do it and feel good about it."


There's no one reason that perfectly sensible, professionally accomplished adults submit themselves to the humbling experience of learning an instrument. What does seem clear is that if you take the plunge, you'll have plenty of adult company. The Music Teachers National Assn., a trade group, reports that 25- to 55-year-olds are the fastest-growing group of new students.


For some adult students, music lessons provide a creative outlet and a way to put aside, for just a few hours a week, day-to-day worries. "It's not always easy trying to play a new piece, but there's something very therapeutic about it," says Rebecca Ostrovsky, 51, who is studying the piano when she's not managing her husband's radiology offices in Manhattan. For others, it's "unfinished business from their childhood," says Joseph Kerr, a piano teacher who counts four mothers of current or former pupils, including Hampton and Ostrovsky, among his 19 students. Besides being fun and relaxing, learning an instrument can enhance mental acuity and reduce anxiety, some research suggests. One study of adult keyboard students even showed increased levels of human growth hormone in the bloodstream. Many age-related conditions, from wrinkling to osteoporosis, are linked to its decline.


Not surprisingly, the music industry is publicizing the virtues of music-making for adults. Among the more successful efforts of the International Music Products Assn. is its sponsorship of the New Horizons Band program, begun a dozen years ago by Roy Ernst, former director of the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music. The idea was to take adults--both rank beginners and those who had played as children--supply them with instruments, give them instruction, and get them playing. There are now 61 such groups nationwide.


If you're thinking of finding your inner musician, be ready for frustration. In the beginning, you're more apt to make frightful noises than beautiful music. "Kids compare themselves to the kid next door, and adults compare themselves to Murray Perahia and Artur Rubenstein," says Matthew Harre, a piano teacher in Washington and founder of the Adult Music Student Forum, an organization of students and teachers. You'll be better off if you expect to make plenty of mistakes.


Physical challenges may limit your ambitions as well. "You don't have the manual dexterity, that very quick muscle learning, you have when you're a kid," says Alice Kissling, 55, assistant general counsel for American Family Mutual Insurance in Madison, Wis., who started playing the harp a decade ago.


Fitting lessons and practice into busy work and travel schedules confounds many adults. "Your focus is so fragmented," laments Washington economist and consultant Fred Flick, 55. Nevertheless, Flick, who took up the piano when he received lessons as a Christmas present from his wife 14 years ago, admits that pushing himself to play better is something of an "obsession."


On other fronts, adult learners have a leg up on Junior. They may have a sophisticated understanding of music gleaned from years of listening and concert-going, and many understand their own learning styles, says Chelcy Bowles, Kissling's teacher and director of continuing education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Those who can already read music and understand phrasing will find it easy to transfer knowledge from one instrument to another.


Adults are also generally more self-directed. "They come into the class knowing what they want to accomplish, and there's a lot more collaborative goal-setting," says Bowles. And for adults, the musical journey is at least as important as the final destination. That's certainly the case for Scott Anderson, 31, who hated practicing the saxophone as a kid but now is determined to play the guitar well enough to serenade the baby he and his wife expect to adopt soon. One evening a week, Anderson, director of public relations at Foote, Cone & Belding Southern California in Irvine, meets with his teacher for an hour-long lesson in an office conference room to avoid the rush-hour traffic. At lunchtime most days, he practices in a nearby park.


If you haven't settled on what instrument to play, think about your musical preferences, suggests Jill Sullivan, an assistant professor at Arizona State University's School of Music, who trains teachers in matching students with instruments. Do you like higher sounds, more mellow timbres, or brighter ones? Can you stand the blare of a trumpet, and, more to the point, can your neighbors? Then, consider your physical limitations. For instance, the trombone might be better than the guitar for arthritis sufferers.


Group classes can be a great low-cost introduction to a new instrument, as well as a chance to socialize. Check with your local community college, music school, or adult-education program. To keep your costs down, rent an instrument from a music store until you're sure you like it. Or check neighborhood bulletin boards and want ads for a used instrument.


For more personal attention, you can get a private teacher, but expect to pay $30 and up an hour. To find his guitar teacher, Anderson scouted out clubs for musicians whose style he admired. Then, he interviewed the teachers with the same rigor he applies to screening job candidates. Ask teachers how much experience they have with adults and check their references. Talk about their expectations and yours.


To get the most out of your lessons, carve out regular practice time. Hampton heads for the piano the minute she gets home. But remember, it's supposed to be fun. Even if you practice, practice, practice, Carnegie Hall probably isn't in your future--and that's beside the point anyway. Kissling says she can spend a week at her corporate law job without feeling she has made the world any better. But "when I'm making music with my friends, we know we've made something lovely." That's reason enough to keep on playing.


By Robin D. Schatz


Getting Started

Planning to take up an instrument or return to a childhood favorite? Here's
a sampling of resources:
ADULT MUSIC STUDENT FORUM               An organization of adult music
                                        students and educators in the
202 686-3513                            Washington area that frequently
                                        sponsors student recitals.
INTERNATIONAL MUSIC                     Helps you locate retailers in its
PRODUCTS ASSN.                          Weekend Warriors program, which
800 767-6266 ext.129                    puts adults into rock bands.
MUSIC TEACHERS NATIONAL ASSN.           Offers advice, including inter-
mtna.org                                view tips, on finding a private
513 421-1420                            music teacher and a directory of
                                        its certified members.
NATIONAL PIANO FOUNDATION               Click on the publications area
pianonet.com/index2.html                for articles about starting piano
972 233-9107                            lessons as an adult and choosing
                                        a piano.
NEW HORIZONS BAND                       About 60 bands and orchestras
newhorizonsband.com                     nationwide for adults age 50 and
                                        up. Offers group lessons for