The Joy of Learning to Play an Instrument Later in Life

Nancy Beeghly, shown here displaying her bowing technique, says she found learning to play the cello “humbling” but rewarding. Photo: Bruce Beeghly

Fourteen years ago, on the eve of her retirement as a newspaper columnist, Nancy Beeghly of Youngstown, Ohio, decided to learn to play the cello. She adored the burnished sound the cello produces, when played properly. But she hadn’t the foggiest idea about bowing, plucking or tuning one.

Taking the musical plunge “was the most humbling thing I have ever done,” the 72-year-old Ms. Beeghly says.

Buoyed by enthusiasm, perseverance and the encouragement of teachers and fellow players with whom she has bonded, she says that learning to play the cello was the start of one of the most rewarding journeys of her life.

“I now get callbacks from nursing homes to come and play there! They think I’m Yo-Yo Ma!” she laughs.

For Ms. Beeghly, as for many others in the growing 50-plus cohort, there’s no musical time like the present, a big change from the perceptions of previous generations.

There used to be a “widespread belief that if you did not begin learning a musical instrument in your childhood or school years, you had missed your chance,” says Roy Ernst, professor emeritus at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. “The field of music education didn’t offer many opportunities” for adults to learn, he says.

Now such attitudes have changed with gusto. “People of any age can learn to play and [gain] a level of satisfaction,” says Dr. Ernst, who founded New Horizons, a program that encourages adults to play musical instruments or sing, and to join bands, orchestras or choral groups.

Given today’s longer lifespans, it’s reasonable for most people to think that if they start playing an instrument in their 50s, they can keep on playing and improving for decades, whatever instrument they choose.

Moreover, a growing body of research suggests that playing an instrument or singing in a choir can enhance emotional well-being, brain health, cognition and hearing function.

“It’s extremely exciting,” says cognitive neuroscientist Julene Johnson, a professor at the Institute for Health and Aging at the University of California, San Francisco. “My hope is that we think of creative engagement as something to do throughout our entire lifespan, and not just for pleasure but also for possible health benefits.”

Getting started

For newbies 50 and older, there are lots of ways to get started. Individual and group classes—some designed for older students—can be found through music schools and stores, community centers, colleges and universities, and private instructors.

At the MacPhail Center for Music, in Minneapolis, the Music for Life division, which is geared toward adults 55 and up, offers courses in ukulele, piano, violin, choral or ensemble singing, and even music theory, says Tamra Brunn, who manages the program. About 350 of the roughly 2,000 enrollees are 50 or older, she says.

Roy Ernst, professor emeritus at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., started the first New Horizons band in 1991. There are now about 10,000 adults participating in New Horizons musical groups or camps. Photo: Don Ver Ploeg

“There are no expectations for these classes, just a starting block for people to come and try it out,” says Ms. Brunn.

Dr. Ernst started the first New Horizons band at the Eastman School of Music in 1991, with the support of a grant from the National Association of Music Merchants. Today, roughly 10,000 adults participate in some 230 New Horizons bands, orchestras, choral groups and music-themed summer camps, Dr. Ernst says.

Peggi Givens of Denton, Texas, joined the percussion section of her local New Horizons band this year despite having no musical experience.

“I used to say, ‘I play the radio,’ ” she quips. Now, with instruction from the band leader and tips from her fellow members of the percussion section, the 64-year-old is learning to play the snare and bass drums. “One of the advantages of being an adult versus a kid is that you have more patience,” she says.

Overcoming anxiety

For others, there can be anxiety about being an absolute beginner and falling flat, in more ways than one.

“Progress can be slow, and if you are prone to being self-critical you can have pitfalls,” says Paul Sheftel, a New York-based piano teacher and Juilliard School faculty member.

One antidote is to find a teacher who is encouraging and has good advice about practice strategies, says Mr. Sheftel. Another, he suggests, is participating in a class or ensemble where you can laugh with fellow students and bolster one another’s courage.

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There is technology that can be helpful, too, from YouTube videos to play-along computer programs to apps that provide accompaniments to whateve