Nothing put a song in my heart like playing the piano. As a young adult, I learned at the speed of a Mozart trill. However, life’s inevitable complications robbed me of the time to consistently read and play the sound of music.
Like a 15-second jingle, I forgot everything that I ever learned about Bartolomeo Cristofori’s grand creation, the piano. My upright piano where I expressed every emotion that played through me at the time transitioned from my secret love to a forlorn and neglected, out of tune, collector of dust.
My great grandmother played piano, as did many of her generation. Osa, my grandmother played and taught piano. Wilfrid Sheed explained the early 20th century generation’s musical history in his book, The House that George Built, ”… the brilliant strand of music that, running through Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, has become the music of the standards began with a bang—with pianos being hoisted into tenements, a magnificent and noisy event… parents went into hock and found room for the piano someplace…”
My mother played, as did my much older half-sister, who gave me a stack of our mother’s eight to the bar and boogie woogie music books. Now turning brown and fragile to the touch, they compose more value to me than heirloom jewelry.
As my chestnut hair brightened with silver strands, so did my curiosity brighten about how I played the piano for hours at a time during the 1970s. Couldn’t I just get my aging piano tuned and go back to the songs I once knew? Nope.
My fingers were like lead hammers. The musical scales? Why couldn’t I remember them? And those hieroglyphics covering the pages of my old sheet music—well, they were as obscure as trying to transcribe some unknown ancient texts.
In other words, everything that I once knew about playing the piano was buried. Toast. History. Lost to another world and time. My former musical skills were as broken and as out of tune as my piano.
A proponent of the importance of learning music (yes, my grandchildren now study piano), it was clear that the brain behind my wrinkling face could use a tuning. So I bucked up and I’m taking piano lessons — almost like a full-on beginner.
It’s been a few months of professional lessons now, and my fingers have limbered. Those hieroglyphics are less alien and more like the musical notes I studied years ago. And that triangular chemistry of eyes to sheet music to fingers on the white or black keys that make music, slowly returns. I’ve hired a teacher because when I tried to relearn by myself, I sensed my old bad habits returning. It’s back to the Hanon book of piano exercises. It’s back to rudimentary songs and technique. It’s back to falling in love again with my best friend, the piano.
I’m eager for my practice sessions when I can savor this form of the term mindfulness. A good, focused practice is like a good meditation. And I swear that my creativity grows in harmony and integrates into much of my everyday life.
Wishful thinking? Apparently not. In a piece for BBC, British actor and director Samuel West, told the author that he “… has started practising daily for the first time in 30 years. ‘As an adult you’re much more knowledgeable about your own moods, so it becomes much more possible to use music as a way to express yourself.’ ”
“I believe that seniors who play music at any skill level are generally happier and healthier people in body, mind, and soul, and that has always been my personal experience. Playing music will relieve stress, will make you feel better, will stimulate your mind, your eyes, and your ears, and will give a person a sense of well-being,” writes longtime Arizona musician and music reviewer, Tim Praskins.
And science has its say in a study, Effects of music learning on cognitive function, mood and quality of life in older adults. “Playing a musical instrument is a complex and motivating activity that comprises the coordination of multiple sensory modalities (auditory, visual, and somatosensory) and motor system in a unique way. In this sense, learning to play the piano implies acquiring the skill of musical sight-reading to translate notations into movement patterns on a keyboard. As Stewart et al. (2003) has shown, learning to read musical notation can have very specific effects on a behavioral (specific spatial mapping skills) and brain level (functional changes in the superior parietal cortex and fusiform gyrus).”
I’ve cherry-picked and edited the following notes from the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation about why taking up playing music as an older adult is good for me:
- Music has been found to stimulate parts of the brain.
- Adults age 60 to 85 without previous musical experience exhibited improved processing speed and memory after just three months of weekly 30-minute piano lessons and three hours a week of practice.
- Cognitive and neural benefits of musical experience continue throughout the lifespan, and counteract some of the negative effects of aging, such as memory and hearing difficulties in older adults.
- Research shows that music activities (both music listening and music making) can influence older adults’ perceptions about the quality of their lives.
- Music keeps your ears young. Older musicians don’t experience typical aging in the part of the brain (the auditory cortex) that often leads to hearing troubles. It’s never too late to start taking piano lessons and prevent these age-related changes.
- Playing music reduces stress and has been shown to reverse the body’s response to stress at the DNA-level.
- Playing music “significantly” lowered the heart rates and calmed and regulated the blood pressures and respiration rates of patients who had undergone surgery.
- Playing a musical instrument can reverse stress at the molecular level, according to studies conducted by Loma Linda University School of Medicine and Applied Biosystems.
- Playing music increases human growth hormone (HgH) production among active older Americans. The findings revealed that the test group who took group keyboard lessons showed significantly higher levels of HgH than the control group of people who did not make music.
Like the 88 keys on my piano, I could probably list 88 reasons why befriending the sound of music is good for me, but mostly it is rediscovering that I can again play that song in my heart.
A few other resources about music and the aging adult: