I get a decent amount of emails from hopeful piano students (and some not-so-hopeful). One question that I’m asked again and again is, “Am I too old to learn piano?”
Or, if they’re not specifically asking me if I think they’re too old, they express concern about their advancing age getting in the way of learning an instrument.
I have to laugh sometimes. I’ve received these questions from teenagers! Teenagers! If you’re 16 and you want to learn piano, do it! You’re a young spring onion. Go get ‘em.
Twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings email me about this with some frequency as well. They’re getting invested in careers and are looking for a meaningful activity amidst the busyness of daily life. But is it too late?
I’ve received emails from people asking this very question all the way through their eighties. I’ve had several participants in my piano courses who are in their eighties. They’re living proof that – NO – you are NOT too old to learn piano!
But let’s get into it a bit today. I want to share some of my observations on teaching adults at the piano. It’s a different experience to learn something as an adult compared to a kid (we’re much less spongey, though this can be worked on). It can be maddening to understand something conceptually but not be able to play it. (It’s easy! Why can’t I play it? Am I too old?)
A benefit of being a mature learner
One benefit of learning piano as an adult is you have the gravity of life experiences to bring to the table. How many times have I heard a Chopin Nocturne executed by an enthusiastic 13-year old? Not that 13-year-olds shouldn’t play Chopin nocturnes, but they’re lacking in emotional depth of expression. As we age, we develop this depth in spades.
Not only does this help us evoke finer nuances of meaning from our music, it also makes it more emotionally rewarding to play. I’ve never met a child who said, “Allysia, I was having such a hard day – all of these terrible things are happening in my life – but then I went to the bench and let it all out, and it was such a healing, soul-soothing experience.” Nah. Kids just want to get outside and play (at least kids in my generation).
Playing the piano means more to us as adults. Sure, it helps if you’ve learned as a child. But you can still reap those benefits as an adult, even if you’re starting from scratch.
One of the biggest challenges for adult learners isn’t necessarily their own physiology – though stiff fingers do affect some learners (and not just older ones). It also isn’t a brain that lacks plasticity (we can learn new skills successfully until we die).
It’s that we suck at being beginners.
Kids are great at being beginners. Everything is new to them. They don’t know anything. It doesn’t bother them if they’re playing Row Your Boat for the 50th time. They’re not going to think, “Man I’m tired of this baby music”. They’re going to think, “Sweet, I’m able to play this song I’ve heard a million times!”
(Note that this is specific to kids aged 8 and younger. After that they become jaded and hardened. Row Your Boat becomes the worst, most uncool offense of an assignment.)
As adults, we become specialized. We become good at things – experts, even. The older you get, the more finely-tuned your skillset becomes, and the further removed you are from being a beginner in most areas.
And the further you get from being a beginner, the harder it is to muster the courage to be terrible at something.
Try to approach learning piano with the brightness of a six-year old, not the jadedness of a ten-year old. Muster that enthusiasm for Row Your Boat. Sing along!
Piano and Arthritis
One common issue that I’ve seen in older adults at the piano is arthritis. It’s interesting – you’d think that if you have arthritic fingers, you shouldn’t play piano at all. At least that’s what I used to think when I first started teaching.
But playing piano can actually help people with arthritis. It’s like physio for your fingers. Sufferers comment on how, after a (gentle) practice session, their fingers feel better the next day than if they didn’t practice at all.
The biggest issue is to practice in shorter sessions, always being sure to stretch and warm-up (and wind-down) properly.
Another issue is to not overdo the technical exercises. Everyone tends to get obsessive about scales, arpeggios, Czerny, Hanon, you name it – kids and adults alike – but for arthritis sufferers especially you don’t want to overdo it. I wouldn’t personally recommend these exercises to someone with arthritis.
Ultimately one of the best things you can do is take lessons with a good teacher, because they’ll be able to help you with posture and playing to make sure you’re doing so in a way that’s friendly to your body.
And I’m obviously not a doctor, so take this with a grain of salt, but I have an avid interest in health and nutrition. Vitamin D, calcium and magnesium are all critical nutrients in bone health. As a musician, I’m mindful of prevention – while also being aware that it isn’t an 100% bulletproof solution. People who do everything right can still develop osteoarthritis. Still, it’s worth doing all you can to prevent it.
If you’re in your 20s, 30s and 40s (and beyond!) – take care to get enough of these nutrients. Most of the population doesn’t get enough magnesium, and vitamin D intake (the “sunshine” vitamin) is crucial for those of us in northern latitudes or who spend most of our days indoors.
Less coordination in adult students
Another problem I’ve noticed in some of my adult students is a lack of coordination. This isn’t unique to older adults – people in their twenties can have challenges with coordination. And it goes without saying that many children are very uncoordinated at the keys until they start getting used to the experience of playing the piano.
This lack of coordination tends to make adults say “Argh, I suck at piano, I must be too old!”. Meanwhile the kids happily clunk keys with their pinkie sky-high. But if you’ve spent a lifetime not playing piano, it stands to reason that it’s normal to be uncoordinated when you start.
Sometimes it’s much more of a challenge for adults to get that coordination than kids. But at the same time, the pace at which kids learn is often different. Kids tend to spend a longer time at earlier levels, whereas adults intellectually grasp concepts easily and tend to race ahead.
A child might spend 2-4 years at a preparatory level. An adult might want to move on to Grade 1 after 6 months to a year. And that’s a patient adult.
So the coordination might just be that you need to slow down the pace (the very thing adult learners don’t want to hear). Playing music that’s too hard for you isn’t going to make you more coordinated, though. It’s probably just going to make you frustrated. Playing pieces at your level – that you can accomplish with decent proficiency – is what’s going to improve your coordination.
Again, I would just advise against doing tons of technical exercises to get that coordination. Spend most of your time playing pieces. It’s great for your brain because you’re constantly confronting new notes, unlike exercises where you’re just memorizing patterns. And you’re less likely to hurt yourself. And pieces need plenty of coordination to pull off, too!
Myelin and learning new skills
There used to be this idea that after the age of 25, your brain hardens (not literally) and you can’t really learn anything new. People thought that since your cognitive development peaks at this age and begins to slowly decline, that’s it. Pack up your bags. It’s a losing battle to learn an instrument.
There is some truth to this – a child younger than seven can easily become bilingual, for example, and after that it becomes harder to pick up a language. A language learned as an adult will probably never become “second nature”. But you can still do it.
I’m fascinated with a fatty substance in our brain called myelin. It makes up a big part of our white matter and insulates our axons, which are critical for learning.
Axons, which function like electrical circuit wires, connect neurons when you’re learning a new skill. The more you practice this new skill, the more those neurons fire, and the more myelin is produced to insulate those axons. This activity-driven insulation is considered essential for learning.
As we age, our myelin production decreases. We don’t produce the same amounts of it as we did as children. But it’s not all-or-nothing. We can still generate myelin onto our axons, it just requires a little more time and effort.
If you have the expectation that learning piano is easy, this is where you’ll need to adjust your expectations. It’s simple to learn piano. It’s not easy.
Really, it’s simple. Get a teacher, pick up a couple method books, and have at it. Practice every day. That’s basically it. But it’s not easy. You’re probably not going to be good at it right away. I’ve seen exceptions, but it’s uncommon.
All of this is just a long way of saying that you are NOT too old to learn piano. It doesn’t matter if you’re 16 or 64 or 90. I’ve never met a hopeless case.
And playing piano (or any musical instrument) is wonderful for the aging brain. Playing piano lights up the whole brain, and you can all probably attest to how mentally taxing reading and playing music is. I can practically feel my brain sweat when I’m learning a new piece.
You just need to adjust your expectations, practice smart, work with a teacher, and embrace the six-year-old beginner mind.
Actually, that’s something we should all do regardless of age.
Catch you next week!