Learning Like a 5th Grader in your 70’s

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 you can play at any age. That’s right, music is for everyone. Anyone can learn to sing. Do it while playing the guitar and you’ve got 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, the experiences that I’ve had here in the studio have taught me that the beginning 5th grader learns at the same rate as the beginning septuagenarian.

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, the human being responds to music. While we are watching our favorite movie, the music can seem like its own character. Music can relax us. It can also inspire uneasy feelings. Some music has even been banned its effects we so feared. Music is a powerful manipulator. We can use this power for health and self-expression if we learn how to play music.

Playing Music = A Complete Activity

Playing music is a total workout. We use our minds, our bodies, and our 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. 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 hard, playing music can be easy.

Playing an instrument does have challenges, but I’ve learned how to make things easy. There is a 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 was going to have lots of time to catch up. Time is relative and the longer we live the more we have. At fifteen it is hard to imagine being thirty, or fifty, or even seventy. 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’ve got 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 of us 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’re not going to 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 that 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 the student that talks themselves down. Bring on the doubters, 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. It is inspiring to see mature humans learning about music for the first time. I also meet many adult students who are 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 then 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, and even the trombone. I’m happy to share this story about a remarkable adult student of the trombone. 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 really 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. A good place to start any trombone lesson. I’m pretty sure that was about all we did with the trombone that day. Ron told me the story of 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 a 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. He is a painter and has studied painting. I just found out last week that he had swimming lessons too. He said, “I could swim, but I wanted to learn how to do it right.” After four years I am still finding out new things about this man. He has never stopped learning.

Ron Learns to Match Pitch

Ron came to the studio in the fall. I had a brand new batch of 5th and 6th graders playing trombone 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 when he sang it was in church and his wife would elbow him 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 in the same way. With falsetto voices, we’d practice matching pitches. It worked for Ron just like the younger brass players. Soon he was matching my pitch vocally and singing on the pitch with me. Now that Ron was singing he understood how to think while he was playing. He could think the same way he was while singing when playing the trombone. Thinking of the sound he wanted to make before he was making 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”. The way the mind needs to work to enable the body to perform physical activities efficiently. Ron has been a golfer and a good one. I found that he can be told about what the body is doing, then let go and perform the action. He understands how to think about the product he is producing 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 I’m teaching a young beginner I am careful not to mention the body in order 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 are hoping to make. It is not always easy to stay mentally focused. The body gets slow if we ask questions while we are trying to do something. Don’t think, just play!

Putting the Fun in Funeral

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 that 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, so to speak. 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. I’m pretty sure since he keeps beating me at golf he’s going to have lots of practice time on the trombone before that final concert. I find it refreshing to find a man living the late stages of life looking for new adventures. Ron has 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 helps you relax. Deep breathing helps decrease the amount of the stress hormone cortisol is 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 being used develop new connections in the brain. That awkward feeling you get while you are 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 down. 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 wonderful 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 in 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 certain 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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