NO SUCH THING AS ‘TOO LATE’
So often people say to me, with heartfelt regret, “I’d love to take up music [again] but I’ve left it too late”. And I always counter that it’s never too late to get pleasure from music in some form or other. Apart from those whose hearing has altered so that sound is distorted, there’s always broadcast and recorded music to enjoy. One can learn a phenomenal amount about music history and/or theory by listening to it with some explanation. One of the most popular courses we ran for HF Holidays was ‘The Nuts and Bolts of Music’ in which Tony and I explained each aspect of music - melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre and expression - and then played glorious works which illustrated each facet. The guests always said they got a whole new level of pleasure from each piece, once they understood what was happening ‘under the bonnet’, so to speak.
So much for listening. What about playing an instrument? We often overestimate the effect of physical constraints in music making that come with increasing age.
- Our eyesight might be less than perfect - but we can still learn to play by ear (yes, really - it is a learnable skill).
- Our hands may have stiffened up - but we have modern keyboard instruments which can be satisfying and melodious when played with one finger on each hand while the ‘automatics’ do the rest. And the very business of playing can restore lost mobility to digits.
- We may feel our ability to absorb new skills has gone out of the window along with the colour of our hair (or even our hair itself). But the brain is tantamount to a muscle, which strengthens with exercise. We can always make new synapses, connections between the neurons, like an old-style telephonist connecting calls. This is particularly evident in those who have suffered a stroke. My father rediscovered his arm movement by thinking about a cough, and his leg movement by thinking about a yawn. And research has shown that the discipline of learning a musical instrument gets less frustrating and more rehabilitative each day.
- Our hearing may have become ‘bassy’ or ‘toppy’, but Orla have manufactured instruments with adjustable bass and treble frequencies to help tune the sound to our liking.
- We may seize up in the back, neck, shoulders or legs when we sit too long at the instrument, but a cheap cooking timer makes a great reminder to stand up and stretch after each short stint of 3 or so minutes.
- Perhaps we feel too down to enjoy life. But we can ‘lose ourselves’ at an instrument so completely that our concerns are shelved for a welcome while.
This week, the real headline item concerning music has come from a charity called ‘Playlist for Life’. Its founder, broadcaster Sally Magnusson (daughter of Magnus Magnusson) discovered that her mother’s distress from dementia was soothed immeasurably when she played her significant songs from her past. I have seen this in action myself, as I used to play for the Alzheimer’s Society. When I first arrived, my audience would be asleep, uncommunicative or uneasy. But before the end of the first piece of music they were all alert, happy and active. Memories would be exchanged, laughter (and some tears) would abound, and I would share their happiness at the shared experience. Broadcaster Anthony Hopkins told me that his wife was beyond communication unless he sang his conversations to her. She would answer in song and they would be completely unhindered by her lack of spoken words. Yes, music is probably the first thing we revel in whilst in the womb, and its power to move and lift us lasts a lifetime.
PS: Since writing this, I have just spoken with our pal Alf who is revelling in playing his refurbished Baldwin Theatre organ which he purchased 33 years ago. He is the embodiment of all I have just said, as today is his 97th birthday.