Learning Like a 5th Grader in your 70s

by | Nov 2, 2021

Here’s what the “Beginning Trombone Students” look like.

Music is for Everyone

I’ve got great news for music lovers out there. Music is free if you make it yourself and can play at any age. That’s right, and music is for everyone. Anyone can learn to sing. Do it while playing the guitar, and you have a solo act. Learning the piano is also a great way to begin. Why not be bold and play the trombone or the tuba? You make the rules. Playing a brass instrument is fun! Have no fear. I’ve learned that a beginning 5th grader learns at the same rate as a beginning septuagenarian. You can learn like a 5th grader in your 70’s.

Music is good for your physical and mental health. Doctors say that just listening to music is good for you. The instant we are aware of music in the air, we can feel the effects. Whether tapping our foot in the store or dancing in the streets, humans respond to music in many ways. While watching our favorite movie, the music can seem like its own character. Music can relax us. Finding a relaxing activity in your 70s can be challenging. Go back in time and learn like a 5th grader in your 70’s. I’ve seen it happen. Music is a powerful manipulator, and we use this power for our health and self-expression when we learn to play music.

Playing Music = A Complete Activity

Playing music is a total workout. We use our minds, bodies, and emotions to play music. We can train the mind and the body, and we can learn to use our emotions. Playing music is a complete activity. It’s much better than chess while boxing or doing math problems while running a marathon because those are made-up activities. Music can teach the mind and the body to work together. Chess and math might be challenging, but playing music can be easy.

Playing an instrument does have challenges, but I’ve learned how to make things easy. There is confidence that grows as a result of playing or singing. I’ve seen it! Playing music will also elevate your mood. Even playing the blues will make you smile.

E = mc2 Too Late is Relative.

 I heard “Too Late” from a Sophomore in high school who wanted to switch from the piano to the guitar. “But, I’ll never be as good as my friend. He started earlier.” We did some math and realized he would have lots of time to catch up. Time is relative, and the longer we live, the more we have. It is hard to imagine being thirty, fifty, or even seventy at fifteen. Music can be a long and personal journey. Sam is a smart guy, and he gets it now. He is in college playing his guitar and getting better one day at a time. Life is long, and you have plenty of time to explore music as long as you start.

Signs from The Studio Wall

“It’s Not Over, Till It’s Over”

For those older than fifteen, maybe it’s easier to say “too late.” We will find reasons NOT to try something new if we look for them. If we have thoughts of how hard things will be or how we’ll never be good, we may never get started. Fear that we won’t be good might keep us from trying. “Fearless and therefore powerful.” Let’s do things because we enjoy them and let being good at them take care of itself. We don’t know what we’re capable of till we try. Yogi Berra, a baseball legend, is known for some famous quotes. “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Maybe it never was. I’ll bet he lived in the moment.

Yogi would agree that “predicting can be difficult, especially about the future.” I see amazing things happen in the studio, so I know anything is possible. I’ve stopped predicting what the student is capable of because every time I think a student will never get something, they surprise me and nail it. I certainly don’t listen to students talking themselves down. Bring on the doubters, and I have enough belief for everyone. I’ve seen a tone-deaf, 71-year-old gentleman with no musical experience learn to play the trombone.

Adventurous Adults Taking New Adventures

I get to meet some adventurous adults teaching private music lessons. Seeing mature humans learning about music for the first time is inspiring. I also meet many adult students picking music up again after a break. If you’re my age, over 25, then you can appreciate how hard it might be to start a new adventure as an adult. People say life is short. If they’re still talking, the time hasn’t run out on them yet. We may have plenty of time to do many different things. Playing a musical instrument should be one of them. Sign up today! The first lesson is free. Come and see why I have such great reviews.

I’ve helped adult beginners start musical journeys in voice, piano, guitar, trumpet, and trombone. I’m happy to share this story about a remarkable adult trombone student. Together, we learned that the seventy-year-old beginning trombone student progresses at the same rate as the 5th—or 6th-grade beginner.

Ron, The Man in Black

Tall and sturdy, with a peaceful demeanor, Ron came in at age 71 to learn how to play the trombone. He had recently lost his wife to Alzheimer’s after caring for her during her last years. He did the same for his mother at the end of her life. His story hit close to home for me. My Dad was caring for my Mom after caring for his Mom as well. Ron and I had plenty to talk about, and as we got to know each other, we learned to put the trombone together—an excellent place to start any trombone lesson. I’m pretty sure that was all we did with the trombone that day. Ron told me how he ended up with a trombone and the desire to play it.

Ron Gets A Christmas Present

What do you get your grandfather for Christmas? I know one granddaughter who found a great answer. Ron’s granddaughter remembered a story he’d told about his Dad not getting him the trombone that he wanted when he was a boy. So, finally, at age 71, Ron got a trombone for Christmas. This gift touched Ron’s heart, and he proudly displayed his new trombone on the wall.

He looked at it for six months before thinking it looked funny up there and deciding to learn how to play it. Ron is used to trying new things. He has taken Tae Kwon Do, is a painter, and has studied painting. I just found out last week that he has swimming lessons, too. He said, “I could swim, but I wanted to learn how to do it right.” After four years, I am still learning about this man. He has never stopped learning.

Ron Learns to Match Pitch

Ron came to the studio in the fall. I had a new batch of 5th and 6th graders playing trombones for the first time. My beginning trombone lessons all start the same way. We tried to match a pitch. Ron couldn’t do it. I asked if he could sing. He said his wife would elbow him when he sang in church because he sounded so bad. Then he’d whistle, and again, she would elbow him to stop. We sang together, and I could tell that his wife was right. He couldn’t match my pitch, and he joined the ranks of the tone-deaf brass. 

I knew a cure for tone-deafness in my young brass players. I’d try to get Ron to match my pitch similarly. With falsetto voices, we’d practice matching pitches. It worked for Ron, just like the younger brass players. Soon, he matched my pitch vocally and sang on the pitch with me. Now that Ron was singing, he understood how to think while playing. He could think the same way he did while singing and playing the trombone, thinking of the sound he wanted to make before he made it. He could imagine he was singing while he was playing the trombone. Ron excelled at these mental games.

No Need to Fool Ron He Gets It

Yogi Berra said, “Baseball is 90% mental, and the other half is physical.” The 5th and 6th graders beginning brass are still physically awkward. They don’t understand “the inner game”—how the mind must work to enable the body to perform physical activities efficiently. Ron is a good golfer. I found that he could be told what the body was doing, then let go and perform the action. He understands how to think about his product and lets go of the middleman. “How can you think and hit at the same time?” Yogi gets it! And so does Ron!

Ron has been in the zone. It is easy to get him in the right mindset for success. When teaching a young beginner, I am careful not to mention the body to keep them focused on the sound they are trying to make. If I mention the body, they will focus on it instead of the product or sound they hope to make. It is not always easy to stay mentally focused. The body gets slow if we ask questions while trying to do something. Don’t think, just play!

Putting the Fun in Funeral

Learning Like a 5th Grader
Ron, in 2021, over 25, like me.

These days, Ron and I are working on music for his funeral. This may sound morbid to some, but I’ve learned to appreciate Ron’s humor. It is a sign of who he is, and he wants to make people who might be sad at his passing laugh a little. Ron is always thinking of others. Most folks don’t know that he plays the trombone. He wants to surprise them with a concert from the grave. I hope I don’t spoil the surprise too much, Ron, but your story is inspiring and needs to be told.

Ron has had a long and eventful life so far. Since he keeps beating me at golf, I’m sure he will have lots of practice on the trombone before that final concert. Finding a man living the late stages of life and looking for new adventures is refreshing. Ron had given me a great perspective on dying at a time when I had to say goodbye to my mother and little sister. Ron’s 75th birthday is December 12th, and I’m so glad he was born. Happy birthday, buddy!

Physical Benefits 

Playing the trombone is a physical act. Air is the fuel for the sounds we make. When playing the trombone, the deep breathing that occurs helps our body in many ways. Deep breathing helps your digestion. It lowers your heart rate, regulates blood pressure, and relaxes you. Deep breathing helps decrease the amount of the stress hormone cortisol released into your body.

Aside from the breath, we use muscles. Some large but mostly small, but as with any new activity, they will be muscles we may not be used to using. New muscles are being used to develop new connections in the brain. That awkward feeling you get while trying to do something new is a sign that your brain is making new connections. This is good.

New Connections in our Brain

The awkward feeling is not one to run away from but one to embrace. Our brain continues to grow even as we age, especially if we keep challenging ourselves. When we learn something new, our brain changes. Learning to play an instrument is very rewarding. When you were a toddler learning to walk, it didn’t bother you if you fell. You got up and continued on your way to the candy jar. As adults, we can be impatient during this awkward stage and run away from it. We activate fight or flight mode, but there’s no reason to run. Playing music is safe. If we stick to it, we will soon learn to walk and even run through the pieces of music we desire to play.

Neuroplasticity in Music

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience. Brain science tells us that learning a new language does terrific things for the brain, and music is a language like no other. Its beautiful mathematical relationships and layers of harmony have the complexity of a chess game. The feelings that it can convey seem magical. It is a language of sound and vibration that can speak to the human being at deep emotional levels. New research on the brain shows the many benefits for adult students.

Seeing Tony Bennett, at age ninety-five, perform with Alzheimer’s, and my grandmother, at ninety-nine, play the piano while singing Dutch hymns from her childhood, I am confident that music goes deeper than the mind. These musicians go past the brain’s malfunction and let the music inside flow out. It can be something that will keep you growing and learning or at least sharing through your golden years. Musicians understand that retirement is not an option, and I am ok with that.

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