Playing the Piano After 50 Years — Studies (and Anecdotes) Show the Benefits of Lifelong Learning

For more than two generations, the notion of “lifelong learning” has been a fixture in our national discourse on active aging.

Since the 1970s, University of the Third Age (U3A) courses for older adults have been gaining popularity across the world. These have been widely touted for the intellectual and emotional benefits they confer — and, of course, for the no-longer-revolutionary idea that learning could, and should, be a lifelong undertaking.

With the proliferation of learning opportunities outside of a higher-ed context — especially in the form of online and in-person classes — it has never been easier to learn how to code, or dance, or design websites. One problem, however, is that the pressures of daily working life can get in the way of “lifelong” learning, and so the latter is often deferred until retirement.

That was certainly the case for me. Like so many adults, I thought about lots of different things I would do when I “retired,” among them not setting an alarm, traveling, learning Spanish, spending more time with the grandkids — and, oh yes, returning to the piano. I was also inspired by Noah Adams’s book Piano Lessons and felt that if he could start playing the piano as an adult, I could certainly return to it. I’d had moderately intense piano lessons between the ages of 7 and 14 and quit while working on Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata. Since my graduate school days, I have known that I wanted to master this piece. I would very occasionally sit down at my childhood piano, which moved with me many times, and play a bit — but when I say “occasionally,” I mean years would sometimes go by between instances.

About a year and a half ago, I “retired,” which meant I left a fairly intense job with a company for which I had worked for 27-plus years, assumed a half-time position at a local university, took on some writing and consulting, and continued to do college counseling. And … I started back at the piano, lessons and all!

Although I had taken a few lessons as an adult, it had really been more than 50 years since I’d last attempted to play in any serious fashion. While Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata has not changed in the last half-century, pretty much everything else has.

For instance, one reality I didn’t face as a teen: the overwhelming wealth of online resources for individuals interested in playing instruments. There are private teachers and master classes and music schools; you can even learn to play the piano online.

In my case, I was looking for a person with whom I could interact and to whom I would feel some sense of responsibility for practicing and playing pieces correctly. My search for the right piano teacher was easy. A recommendation from a neighbor who plays piano and organ and who had taken lessons as an adult resulted in a teacher who I think is perfect for me. I communicate well with her, and she understands that sometimes other things get in the way of my practicing.

If you’re looking for one-on-one instruction, finding the right teacher is critical, and I recommend taking a look at the Piano Teachers Federation recommendations. There are also online programs and other class settings worth exploring. For reviews and discussion forums, you can find intel on Google.

Another surprising change soon leapt out at me: Not only don’t you need a human being for a teacher these days, you don’t even need a piano! There are numerous available keyboards with a range of features (and at a range of prices), and you can even download keyboard apps for your tablet.

In my case, I opted for the real thing. My childhood piano had a cracked soundboard, a sad reality that also presented the opportunity to buy something new. I chose a piano rather than a keyboard and learned a lot about the extensive used piano market. I am now the proud owner of a great used Yamaha U3.

So while I’m not a fan of online piano lessons or keyboards, I’ve come to appreciate many of the other resources available online. I was stunned to realize that I could download an incredible array of music for free. Through the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), you can access sheet music for literally thousands of pieces that are in the public domain. The University of Iowa’s Piano Pedagogy Project is in the process of uploading to YouTube more than 9,000 videos that cover standard piano repertoire for beginning through intermediate learners. I’ve gone to this site several times to listen to how pieces I am working on are supposed to sound.

And then there are the numerous apps (like Music Journal) that include practice logs and metronomes with all sorts of interesting features (for instance, determining the speed at which you are actually playing) as well as online music readers (like forScore) that allow you to download PDF scores onto an iPad and even turn the pages with simple motions (a feature that’s great for those of us whose eyes need the music in an exact spot on the piano).

The resources have certainly changed since I took piano lessons as a child — but I have changed, as well. Even though I had initially wanted to play the piano, I reached a stage in adolescence when I no longer wanted to play, much less practice. Now, I want to play. I not only want to play the Pathétique Sonata, which is not in my “official” practice repertoire yet, but I also want to play Bach and Schumann and Debussy and even some jazz. I even want to practice.

If there’s one thing that has been a constant in mastering the piano over the years, it’s the need to practice. Although I’ve only been at it for about a year and a half, I feel great about pieces of music I can now play that were challenges initially. And if I practiced even more, I could indeed eventually play the Pathétique Sonata.

Adults taking piano lessons differ from children. We play because we like music. We play because we want a diversion from our professions. We play because it keeps our minds active. We play because it requires different skills and uses a different part of our brain. We play because it keeps our fingers from getting stiff. We play because it’s a challenge. We play because we want to.

And the research bears out all of these benefits — and more. For instance, a 2012 study out of Northwestern University found that musical endeavors reduce age-related delays in neural timing. In other words, playing and studying music helps ensure that aging does not affect individuals’ communication. Playing a musical instrument can also help lessen pain in patients with arthritis, another 2012 study found. And music, a third 2012 study concluded, can mitigate anxiety.

Then there is the effect that eludes scientific study: It’s fun — so fun, in fact, that as a semi-retired returning pianist, I am in good company. Most of the adult students I spoke with in preparing this article had played piano as children and came back to it with varying skill levels. One fellow student had not played piano but had played other musical instruments. Some of us like playing for others, and some don’t. We vary in the kinds of music we like to play, the time we spend practicing, and the way we practice. All but one of us is retired or semi-retired. One student attended Sonatina, an adult piano camp, something that is on my bucket list. I appear to be the only one aiming to play a particular piece of music. We all agree that we selected the right teacher, someone who blends “let’s do it right” with “I understand you’re not aiming to be a concert pianist.”

I have a way to go, but I’m motivated by the fact that Noah Adams, who had no prior piano training, started off wanting to play Schumann’s Traumerei. To me, that was a lofty goal; it’s not too difficult to master the notes (though not easy, either) but to turn those notes into music is another matter. With practice, I feel confident I can get there, as well. In the process, I’m learning about music — and learning about all the ways to learn about music — and getting closer to achieving a lifelong goal: mastering Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata.

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