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Sept. 27, 2020

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Older adults love getting in tune in Clark County

Taking up, returning to musical instrument proves empowering

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
12 Photos
Tommy Neal, 72, takes a piano lesson with Rachel Risor at Music World in Hazel Dell. “This is the best thing I’ve ever done — not just playing randomly but learning each time,” he said.
Tommy Neal, 72, takes a piano lesson with Rachel Risor at Music World in Hazel Dell. “This is the best thing I’ve ever done — not just playing randomly but learning each time,” he said. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Learning your way around the fingerboard of the double bass is like learning your way around life, Steve Becker has found: so many options, so much reaching and stretching to play the right note the right way.

“I’m getting into my head that you can have the same notes on different strings in different places,” he said. “That’s the geography of the fingerboard.”

“It’s a bit of a maze,” agreed Nathan Hall, Becker’s bass instructor, during their weekly lesson at Beacock Music in east Vancouver. “But that’s why we start with these specific positions.”

Fortunately, Becker said, the pressure is off. He started taking bass lessons last year, at age 60, simply for the joy of it. He appreciates being put through necessary paces on scales and simple tunes, but best of all is when Hall asks what Becker feels like doing — when it’s the student, not the teacher, who drives the lesson.

Young children often study music at their parents’ prompting. Adolescents may find their jam in the electric guitar or some brassy or classy band or orchestra instrument — but they often give up again in their turbulent later teens when decisions about future pursuits and pathways are looming. If they’re not going to be the best, why continue?

Becker considers that attitude a shame. “In school there’s one right answer. They teach to the test and they pressure kids to be the best,” he said. “That’s not what I’m after. This is personal and creative for me. I just want to have fun. It’s a great opportunity at this time of my life.”

The Columbian interviewed several older adults who started, or restarted, instrumental music lessons later in life, as well as their instructors — and one local scientist who probes what’s really happening inside the brains of aging people who study music. All agreed that it’s challenging, even humbling, to start an instrument when your brain no longer behaves like a brand-new sponge — and when your picture of yourself, and what you are and aren’t good at, has been fixed for years.

“At a certain point in our professional lives we develop a very clear idea of what we are good at and of the things that do not come very easily,” Becker said. “As a result we generally stay in that narrow path where things are successful and easy. Taking up a musical instrument at age 60 takes you back to a place where things are pretty shaky.”

“It’s hard,” agreed 72-year-old piano student Tommy Neal. “Sometimes I think I’m not learning as fast as I should. But I’ve never played an instrument before in my life, so I guess I must be doing OK.”

Mature multitasking

Richard Rystrom, 84, dove into childhood clarinet lessons mostly because he was fascinated by that complicated, button-covered, tube-shaped machine. “It was the challenge of that crazy instrument. I wanted to make it work,” he said.

Rystrom grew up to become a professional linguist and didn’t touch a clarinet for decades, but his brain sure stayed busy with foreign languages. Rystrom said he always noticed his own learning curve as the painstaking work of translating those languages into his inner English became second nature. Eventually he started thinking, and even dreaming, in tongues like Greek and Bulgarian, he said.

“Just like language, music is great at getting the synapses firing,” he said. “After a while you don’t look at the note on the page and think, ‘OK that’s an E.’ You don’t have to translate anymore. You’ve just got it.”

But “just getting it” is tougher when you’re 84 than when you’re 8, he agreed.

“Playing music means making a whole bunch of things happen at the same time,” he said, from fingering valves, keys or strings to supplying strong, steady lung power (for a brass or wind instrument) to tracking that literally foreign language, notes on the page.

“It’s a lot to do, and when you’re an older person you may not be as adept. I used to be able to multitask, but I no longer can,” he said.

There’s nothing for it but time and practice, he said — as much as two or three hours per day, he said.

That’s a long stretch, and other challenges — purely physical ones — can kick in as a result.

“Playing an instrument, any instrument, is an odd combination of relaxation and tension,” said Larry Greep, Rystrom’s clarinet instructor. The aches and pains of aging — from sore backs and necks to arthritic arms and hands — may be unwelcome, limiting new factors.

But older students enjoy at least a few advantages over children, Greep and other music instructors agreed: focus, communication skills, resilience.

Adults are “usually better at seeing and hearing exactly what is impeding their progress and working on that,” Greep said. “They recognize when they mess up and can recover better. They have the moxie.”

Privilege of age

When Tommy Neal retired from a 30-year meat-cutting career “with all 10 of my fingers,” he said, his friends badgered him about what would come next. “We love you and we don’t want you to sit on the couch and die,” Neal heard.

Sitting around doesn’t interest Neal, 72, an energetic fellow who golfs and skis. But he’s also creative, artistic and highly motivated to “keep mentally alive” as well as physically, he said. When the offer of a used piano came his way, he grabbed it and began four years of lessons — nowadays with Rachel Risor at Music World in Hazel Dell.

But Neal doesn’t always get around to practicing for his lessons. He went skiing the day before a recent lesson with Risor. Maybe announcing “I didn’t practice this week” is a privilege of age and paying your own way, he suggested with a grin.

“For most of my life, I’ve had a really hard time taking direction from other people,” he added. “Because I think I know it all. I’ve been self-motivated all my life. I do things in my own time frame, in my own way.”

Neal said he’s often more inclined to plunk around on the keyboard, making up melodies, than to practice properly. That’s why lessons are “the best thing I’ve ever done — not just playing randomly but learning each time,” he said.

Music and ‘neuroplasticity’ focus of research

Dr. Larry Sherman’s research at Oregon Health & Science University focuses on brains that have been damaged by diseases like multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s. But he’s made a side project of tracking and popularizing the latest findings about music’s positive, restorative effects on brains that are aging normally.

The teen brain used to be seen as fully grown and finished — hence the myth that you can’t really master music or a foreign language unless you study them in childhood. Recent science has turned up the opposite, Sherman said. The brain retains remarkable “neuroplasticity” (that is, an ability to keep reacting to new stimuli by retraining, regrowing and reshaping) much later into life.

Here are three brain ingredients that grow and strengthen when people study music, Sherman said. The benefits are available to anyone with a brain, but older adults may be especially interested.

Myelin. That’s a protective, protein-rich, fatty material that forms sheaths around nerve cells in the brain and central nervous system. The more you have, the faster your nerve impulses will travel, Sherman said. Lots of myelin helps impulses flash about as quickly as traffic on an empty freeway at midnight, he said. Disappearing myelin slows those impulses down so it’s more like rush hour on Interstate 5.

“When we learn new things we generate new myelin,” Sherman said. “Studying music is a great stimulus for growing new myelin.”

Synapses. Those are junctions between nerve cells traveled by chemical and electrical impulses.

“As we age, we lose synapses. When we learn new things, we generate new synapses,” Sherman said. “Making instrumental music is so challenging on so many levels, you are integrating so many different things — fine motor skills, senses, memory and cognition. It’s an excellent way to grow and strengthen synapses.” 

Neurons, aka brain cells. “The dogma has been that we get a certain number of neurons in life and it’s all downhill from there,” Sherman said. “We can generate new neurons as we age. It takes a lot of effort, but musicians seem to be generating some of these cells.”

— Scott Hewitt

Risor had to agree. While she always encourages Neal’s spirited creativity, she also wants him to build a solid musical foundation.

“If you’re a gymnast, you don’t just run around the gym for an hour,” she said. “You work with a coach and you learn new skills, each time.”

There just aren’t enough hours in Neal’s day, he’s found — a common plight of the cheerfully retired.

“I’m a busy guy,” he said. “I’ve got a long list of things I’m doing. Even though I’m self-motivated, I’ve got to make the time.”


The milestone of his 60th birthday started bass student Becker wondering what he really wanted to do with the rest of his life. His career was stable and accomplished, his children grown and flown. He’d returned to his native Vancouver to be near his aging parents, both of whom were accomplished musicians — and are now dealing with health challenges. His father has significant dementia, he said.

Therefore, he decided, it was time to learn the bass. That might even be a way of pulling his family closer together, he realized. He reviews his lessons at home with his mother, and he’s even hoping his piano-playing son might join a family combo while Becker plucks the bass and sings jazz standards like “Autumn Leaves.”

“Part of my interest in cultivating musical skills now is to ensure the next phase of my life is as vital, challenging, energetic and satisfying” as what came before, Becker wrote in an email. “I would also say my dad’s dementia is an inspiration to stay busy and engaged for as long as I possibly can. Music is anti-dementia.”

These days, Becker said, everybody uses their thumbs to scroll down the drivel of their social media feeds. Why not use your thumb to grasp an instrument and make music instead?

“I think creativity is an antidote to the … doubt and cynicism many of us experience,” he wrote. “Rather than spin through posts on my phone, I try to get my instrument out and practice. Stringing together a series of notes … can be a gratifying and empowering experience, which is the exact opposite of what Facebook has become.

“I’m not happy with the state of the world,” Becker said, “but I’m happy with this.”