Learning to play an instrument isn’t just for kids

When Martha Kilcoyne was a child, she took piano lessons for a few years, and even studied the clarinet for a bit.

Problem was, Kilcoyne really wanted to play the violin.

So, a few months ago, Kilcoyne, now 62, decided to do now what she couldn’t do then. She signed up for violin lessons and already is able to play a song or two on her new favorite instrument.

Some of her fellow grown-ups are following suit.

Although valley music instructors say children and teenagers continue to make up the bulk of their students, they do see the occasional adult or retiree deciding to pick up an instrument, either for the first time or after a decades-long layoff.

“Certainly, it is something that has always come up,” said Jeff Brewer, music education director for Family Music Centers here. “We have probably dozens of inquiries (from prospective students) every month and, always, one or two of those are adults who want to take up lessons.

“Either they stopped playing years ago and want to get back into it,” Brewer says, “or they want to learn because they want some recreation and enrichment in their lives.”

Fred Green, director of Brill Music Academy, estimates that adults of various ages make up about 10 percent of his students.

For some older adults, retirement and a suddenly empty nest present the first opportunity in decades to devote time to music lessons. Most older students, Green said, “just have the time now.”

And, Green continued, it’s never too late to take up an instrument. His oldest student was 92.

“He had played before, actually, but he was older and getting serious problems with arthritis in his hands, and he just wanted the time to brush up on his skills and get a little exercise.”

That student studied piano, but stopped taking lessons about a year ago after entering an assisted living facility, Green said. “But he was with us for a good three years and played in our recital.”

For adults who took music lessons as kids but stopped as adulthood began monopolizing their time, music lessons can represent “a good memory, and they want to recapture some of that.”

Southern Nevada Music owner Lisa Wunderlich agreed.

“It’s been kind of an interest to them forever,” she said, “and as they get older they think, ‘Gosh darn, I think I’m gonna do it now.’ ”

Even if they recognize that, as music students go, they’ll be atypical.

“It’s funny the way they always say, ‘I’m an older person, but I’m excited to give this a try,’ ” Brewer said. “I think they realize a lot of young students take lessons, so they always put that little disclaimer on that.”

Mark Thomas, a piano teacher with Family Music Centers, said most of the older students he teaches had lessons when they were younger and are trying to get back to it.

“There are not many who are taking it up for the first time,” he said. “But there are, for sure, and not only women, but guys.”

Wunderlich said she has talked with older students who, besides wanting to learn how to play an instrument, turn to music to stretch their brains.

“It’s great for older people,” she said. “It keeps your mind active.”

But most of all, Brewer added, “what they say is, it’s just an enjoyment thing.”

Kilcoyne is retired and said the violin is something she always wanted to play.

“I took piano lessons (as) a child, and my mom, when I was in school, she wanted me to play a clarinet.” Kilcoyne says. “Now, I figure I have time on my hands, so I’d like to learn something I’ve always wanted to do.”

She has been taking violin lessons at Brill Music Academy for about two months, and admitted that returning to music class was a little scary.

“I think it’s easier when you’re younger,” she said, although she suspects that her prior musical training is helping her to progress through her lessons comparatively quickly.

Of course, her progress also could have something to do with her motivation.

“My teacher said that I’m accelerating more quickly than a child, and I said, ‘No one’s making me take it. My mom’s not making me take it. I want to be here. I have an interest in playing.’ I don’t know how many children out there don’t want to play.”

Another reason for finally taking up the violin: “I’m a cancer survivor,” Kilcoyne noted. “I went through chemo a little over a year ago, and then my husband got esophageal cancer right after me. So it kind of makes you think, ‘Have I done the things that I’ve wanted to do?’ So that was another incentive for me to take the violin.”

Carol Santoro, 63, has been taking piano lessons for about three years, and now studies with Thomas.

Santoro said she took piano lessons from age 12 or 13 until college. It was, she added, her parents’ idea.

“I hadn’t played in 40 years,” she said. “I had a piano just sitting there (at home) and it wasn’t being used, so when I retired, one of my goals was, I wanted to start taking piano lessons.”

“It’s kind of like riding a bike,” Santoro said, adding that she’s now back up to playing a few more difficult pieces.

“It’s more relaxed now, because you’re doing it just for you and you’re doing it just because you want to,” Santoro said. “When you were a child, you dreaded sitting down to have to practice. Now, I’ll sit down and play two or three hours at a time. So it’s more fun. You don’t have pressure.”

Instructors say that sort of motivation, and more free time to practice between lessons, can make adults and retirees good students.

“(Older students) are serious about it,” Green said. “They realize the value of the time they’re paying for and what they’re paying for and the teacher’s time and that sort of thing. They’re there because they want to be and they’re going to put more time into it during the week to practice.”

Adults and retired students, Wunderlich said, tend to gravitate toward the piano, partly because they don’t have to lug anything around.

Brewer agreed.

“It’s a classic instrument people think of when they think of learning music,” he said. “We just had one guy call and wanted to do (the) recorder, and that’s the first I’ve heard of it.”

Music lessons for adults are available through a variety of sources here, from group lessons offered by libraries, schools and senior centers to stores that sell or rent musical instruments. Private lessons typically run in half-hour or hour classes held once each week.

Brewer said the going rate in the valley for one-on-one instruction with a degreed, professional teacher at a music store typically ranges from $25 to $30 for a half-hour lesson every week.

Southern Nevada Music education director Kayla Janssen said adults and retirees sometimes begin class with very specific goals, such as learning a particular song.

Some want to play favorite hymns, she continued, or want to play some church music.

“I don’t have a lot of (students) say, ‘I want to play jazz or pop’ It’s very clear what it is they want,” Janssen said.

And, generally, teachers are fine with that.

“The purpose is enjoyment and fulfillment and whatever you’re doing to make people smile and to make yourself smile,” Wunderlich said.

Thomas often has adult piano students who say, “I wish I had started this earlier,” or “I’m learning more about myself than I am about music.”

Thomas said, “What they’re learning is how much self-discipline they have, how much repetition they need, and how it changes the way you listen to music.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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