Learning music – better late than never

Learning music is good for our brains, or so science tells us. And, apparently, it’s never too late to start. There’s evidence that learning to play an instrument changes the brain more than any other activity.

Learning music

Here’s a neat article from Brainpickings, one of my new-favourite online sites. This article explains the science of learning music much better than I can.

I have a serious singing deficit. And I always sing out of tune, even in the shower or the car, not simply when others can hear. I can whistle in tune. I hear when someone plays a wrong note. I can also hear when anyone sings out of tune, which is unfortunate, especially when it’s me. Cringe!

Imagine my horror when I began a new job at the Spirit of the Streets Choir six months ago, and on my first day I was told to sing. Starting a new job at any age can be daunting. At almost 80, this can be even worse through lack of practice and consequent loss of confidence. On top of that, to be instructed to sing made my first day on the job (at a choir rehearsal) even more stressful.

Thanks to musical director, Bernard Carney, and the tolerant, inclusive Spirit of the Streets Choir, my life now includes much more music than previously. I expect like many other members of the Choir, I’m looking forward to next Tuesday afternoon when rehearsals begin for 2017. Here’s a warning: I’ve been practising and learning songs in the break!

Part of the Spirit of the Streets Choir at a gig in 2017. Photo by Andre Hoareau

Learning music through singing

Under Bernard’s guidance, every rehearsal begins with warm-up exercises. We stretch and deep-breath and tighten and relax our shoulders. Then we pull faces and stick out our tongues, then relax some more. We sing to warm-up, all together, and then in rounds.

A warm-up song about mangos, bananas and kiwi-fruit pops up regularly. When we sing it, our song is loud, frivolous, and remarkably good for stretching the muscles of the face. Try repeating the words a few times and check your face!

For me the downside of this song happens in fruit-shops and when I open the fridge I instantly begin to sing. Shopping with my oldest granddaughter, Claire-Helen, and three great-grandchildren this week, my mind went into overdrive she one of them mentioned tropical fruit. I began to mumble, ‘Bananas, mango, kiwi-fruit,’ and tried to remember the tune.

I’m learning, slowly, to sing a song or two. I’m working especially hard on singing Bernard Carney’s ‘Pass the song along.’ You can hear the song and read the words here.  For a real treat, listen to the joy of the Spirit of the Streets Choir singing at rehearsal.

Learning music on a keyboard

John and I sold my old keyboard in a fit of tidying-up a year or two ago. We thought we were too old to bother learning and we’d never use it. It was hidden away upstairs and not even our grandchildren got to enjoy it. Learning music had been on my list of things-to-do when I retired. I bought the instrument but never got around to doing anything more. It moved with me when I married John almost ten years ago.

After the first couple of rehearsals we attended at the Spirit of the Streets Choir, I began to wonder out loud if perhaps we might buy another. Playing the songs might help us sing them. We’d both learned music as kids and can both read a little music, so that would be a start.

I gave up because the sitting-room in our house was down a long passage, away from the rest of the family. I was young enough to be afraid of the dark and isolation, especially in the evenings. Practice became a battle between my mother and me. I quit. And I’ve regretted not being able to play an instrument ever since.

My new, fun toy

So, we bought a cheap keyboard one Saturday morning, and a teach-yourself-book. It started as a bit of a joke. But I’ve persisted with my music practice and feel quite proud of the chords I can recognise and the pieces I can play. I’m up to Lesson 45. Soon I’ll need a new book. Maybe, when I get time, I’ll take lessons.

I still can’t sing. My disability may be intractable. But I’m having fun being part of the Choir and  learning new skills.

6 thoughts on “Learning music – better late than never

  1. Maureen I keep wanting to tell you that you’re amazing but then I think you must get so fed up with people constantly telling you that!
    It’s just that I know so many people younger than yourself who have given up on life and learning – people who don’t have significant health issues but just limit themselves because they feel they’re ‘too old’. Perhaps it’s what they’ve been told by others around them?
    My mother, in her 70’s, is such a ‘young woman’, too, in the way she thinks about life and tries new things. I hope I can ‘grow up’ (ha ha!) to be as vibrant and youthful as both of you beautiful women.
    Happy music-making 🙂

    • Fiona, thank you for your support of older women and your lovely comments. (Who would ever get tired of being admired? Not me!)

      I suspect that staying young-at-heart is due to lots of factors. They include good genes; supportive family and friends who somehow ‘expect’ us to keep doing what we do, and who encourage new learning; being round younger people; having a wide variety of interests; reasonably good health and the ability to ignore or downplay discomfort; and a curious turn of mind that leads us on to new and different activities while consolidating the old. Being blessed with grandchildren, and in my case, great-grandchildren, who seem happy to interact with John and me is a big bonus.

      Active ageing probably doesn’t start in old age, but has its seeds way back. Your mother, who sounds lovely, has probably always been active and interested and adventurous. What a wonderful role model for you and for those who know her. And, like all learning, being active is a skill to be practised. It’s never to late to start.

    • That’s really sweet, John. Thank you. Glad my attempts to make nice sounds please you! I think it was a great investment (all of $150) we’ve made for a long time, too. And here’s to our next adventures.

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