Before I was old enough to harness the power to adjust the egg timer that sat in judgment over my daily organ practice (my mother had a poor sense of time), I slavishly divided my attention between “The little brown church in the vale” and the tick, tick, tick of the 30 minutes which, to a 5-year-old, seemed an eternity.

I muddled through, fell in love with and switched to the violin, and today I am a professor of violin and viola at the Boston Conservatory.

My experience was a happy one, and I will forever be grateful to my parents for investing in decades of lessons. But music lessons in our childhood take different paths. One sets us up for a lifetime of love and devotion to music, a commitment to concert going and insatiable curiosity, while another teeters on the edge of corporal punishment through weekly half hour sessions chiseling in our brain a memory that could better be described by the Marquis de Sade.

While I stand and cheer for those who had a positive early experience (I was one of them), I’m speaking to those who could use a pep talk. Even those who describe their early experiences in terms that are not fit for print, I have yet to meet an adult who is thrilled for having given up the practice.

There is an opportunity to study music as adults on our own terms, for reasons than have nothing to do with parental expectations or the approbation of a teacher. We study because we can. We study to improve cognitive vitality. Adult learners study to right the anguish of their childhood experiences, and some study because they had a genuinely good early music lesson experience, and regret having given it up.

Music gives us options. It allows us to see the world as we wish it were. It gives us insights into ourselves as it invites us to think big thoughts. It makes us feel clever, and feel smart, and as though we are privy to an esoteric body of knowledge hundreds of years in the crafting. We become keepers of the craft--sorcerers.

Engaging in lifelong learning and brain stimulation are essential for mental health in aging (Wickens, 2005). And yet, we’re not talking only of the acquisition of knowledge, but also the investment in the beautiful (Mozart piano concerto #21).

Painting a landscape in charcoal is an act of beauty, but the investment in the piece has more clearly defined parameters, meaning that once the work is finished, the artist might move on to another. In music, one may study the same Beethoven quartet for a lifetime and still marvel as its secrets. Opus 130 is an excellent example of piece of incalculable mysteries.

Studying the violin or piano (or kazoo) as an adult presents certain challenges not experienced as a child. Demands on one’s time, flexibility, resources, and energy reserves means that adult leaners must invest for purely selfish reasons. There is no altruism in this process, nor should there be.

Beginning an instrument as an adult is a slow process. Our fingers don’t respond as they once did, our coordination between the hands makes us feel like riding a bicycle without a steering wheel. And yet we soldier on.

Through endless repetition of scalar patterns, and dexterity-building exercises we see the flickering of progress. Sure, it’s a dim light, and at times it seems that light scoots one step further for every step taken. But it’s there, and when we overcome a small hurdle, we feel successful. We trade on these successes as we knit together sequences of notes, phrases, movements, and whole works.

Our investment in beauty can pay dividends in terms of our self worth (perhaps), but certainly in engaging in the neuroplasticity of our brain in the hope that, as Wickens suggests, we stave off the aging process.

So, sign up for lessons, put the kettle on, and get to practicing.

Wickens A.P. (2005). Foundations of Biopsychology (2nd ed.). New York: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

About the Author

Rictor Noren

Rictor Noren is a violinist and teaches at the Boston Conservatory of Music and MIT.

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