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Why study music as an adult? 

There are so many studies talking about the benefits of taking music lessons and learning an instrument at all ages. In fact studies have never found a negative reason for learning music. You know how it is, coffee is terrible for you in one study but then another tells you the benefits of coffee. Not so with music education, quite the opposite! Benefits abound! Just google it and you will have millions of results (I know, I just tried it and there were 130 million results!)

I have taught many adults over the years. Its a wonderful thing to play an instrument as an adult, to have that creative outlet. Once I had a duo I coached for many years, a flute and cello duo. It was lots of fun! There are usually adult community bands one can join which can be a wonderful addition to your social life as well as your musical expression. 

I have a student, a retired university professor who started with me as soon as he retired. Here is an article he has written about his thoughts on taking music as an adult.

                                                                                  Being a Septuagenarian flutist

            Frederick the Great was right: the flute is the best choice for an adult taking up music as an amateur.  Quite soon, you can get to a sound pleasing enough that your family will not run for cover.  You may never play as fast or as accurately as a professional or as your child who starts on flute at age six, but it is possible for even a retirement-age beginner to reach a level where playing is enjoyable.  For most adults, contemplating other orchestral instruments is invitation to futility, that’s the harsh truth.  It’s fine to say “I love the sound of the cello.” The only easy part is buying one.  With all that family of string instruments, violin etc., your fingers have to “find” the note exactly or be wildly out of tune.  With the flute, put your finger on the right hole, give it a nice steady blow that your teacher can guide you with, and the note will be about in tune.  The other woodwinds, and brass instruments such as French horn, are harder to play in tune or even to get a recognizable note out of.  The piano may look easy, watching an expert, but it’s incredibly hard teaching an aged brain to manage four fingers and a thumb, on two hands, simultaneously doing different things.

            As a retirement project, or for any adult looking for an activity a little different from the rest of 21st century e-life, music is uniquely valuable.  I took up the flute in my thirties, lapsed after a few years due to pressure of work, but returned to it after retiring in 2011.   It was a shock retiring, and I had to re-invent myself in terms of who I was and what I did.  Being an amateur flute player is a core part of my post-retirement self.  Reasons why I believe flutism, let’s call it, is so good:

            (1) Playing the flute is a mind-body crossover activity.  It is mental, like reading a book, but not just mental. The notes on a musical score or in your memory have to be put into sound via a physical process whereby stance, posture, breathing, finger placement are all important.  I suppose playing on a Gameboy has a similar crossover, and maybe that is why those games are so addictive for kids, but playing an instrument is not so frantic and driven.   The physical aspect is stronger with flute-playing. I don’t know whether good breathing is important for computer gamers, but it is for flute players.

(2) The flute is well-designed as a piece of apparatus.  It is easy to hold, not as heavy as a clarinet, not as bulky as the string instruments. No reed headaches like on bassoon. Flutes are inexpensive compared to most other instruments, and don’t require a lot of maintenance.  You don’t have to worry about a flute cracking the way wooden oboes do unless carefully minded.  The flute won’t cause premature deafness the way a misplayed trumpet might. It has a gentle sound which only begins to penetrate at the highest of the three octaves of its range. 

(3) I like the way that the flute is a time-machine. We live in present and future-obsessed times, perhaps because the rate of technological change is so rapid now.  I actually find the past more interesting than the future, and if you agree then consider that music is the best, most accurate, entree into past times.  We can read a book from the 18th century, but, even if it’s in English, language changes so much over time that it will be hard to pick up all the nuances. Even paintings, from before the mastering of perspective, are not always accurate representations of the past.  There is less degradation in the historical signal within music than within any other medium.  The flute is part of this history. I read somewhere that the flute dates to Stone Age times.  Contrast with pushy newcomers like the sax!

(4) Flute as lung therapy.  One time, my doctor got the notion that my lungs were too big (potentially bad, apparently).  She sent me off to a specialist who checked me out.  “Your lungs are fine,” he said, adding that my lung capacity was in fact at the very top of the range for my age group.  “I play the flute, and my teacher has an exercise where she has me hold a note for as long as I can,” I said.  “Keep playing that flute,” he replied.

(5) Music is good for the brain; there are many studies finding that and I believe it.  I don’t just believe it, I feel it.  I can be tired from reading a book, go down to my basement, pick up my friend the flute, play for 40 minutes and my brain feels good.  It’s not a question of resting the brain, as in taking a nap, it’s using the brain in a different way, more like the feeling of letting the mind wander during an extended walk or run.  I won’t get into the neuroscience behind that, I just report that it works for me.   I joke with Michelle about the “invisible music teacher”.  The invisible music teacher refers to the process which apparently goes on, whereby long after a practice is over, the brain’s neuro-connections seem to stay up late processing the information.  Maybe the one bit of science to mention is David Doidge’s wonderful book The Brain That Changes Itself.  Time and again, especially beginning a new piece, I will stumble around for a bit and come upstairs wondering if I can ever play what the visible music teacher has assigned.  And time and again, when I come back the next day, the invisible music teacher has been working overnight.  The un-playable has become more playable. Difficult has become possible. It’s a process I can count on, such that having initial difficulty with a piece doesn’t concern me. I stumble around for a while, then tell my wife, “I’ll let the invisible music teacher work on that one,” and that’s what always happens.  If you are at an age where tales of dementia sound scary, the potential benefits of letting the invisible music teacher into your life are inescapable.

Now the invisible music teacher can’t do it all.  You need the visible music teacher as well, and  Michelle is very supportive and helpful.  The visible music teacher will help you with posture, correct breathing, and fingering the notes.  You need not feel nervous about whether you play well or not.  This is not your starchy piano teacher from your 1950s or 1960s childhood, who rapped you over the knuckles with a ruler when you missed a note.  Michelle has students at all levels, from adult amateurs like me, who play the flute purely for internal satisfaction, up to older teenagers looking toward a career in music.  My visible music teacher is skilled at finding suitable pieces for me to work on.  That alone is worth the cost of a lesson. As you start to get your fingers around the piece, assisted of course by the invisible music teacher, the visible music teacher will detect the rhythmic slips that we all commit.  And then comes the moment when she makes suggestions about interpretation of the piece. Then, for an instant, you’re into the world of the flute greats such as Jean-Pierre Rampal or James Galway.

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