Over the past fourteen years I have worked with many clients who have continued to play instruments as they get older. I’ve worked with guitarists, organists, pianists, opera singers and a violinist. Frequently family and well meaning care staff are persistent in encouraging musicians to continue playing often resulting in frustration and refusal. Something that used to bring musicians real joy becomes a tool of torture and they often become increasingly opposed to the possibility of playing. To help you understand the frustrations and what may seem disinterest, here are a some of the key complaints shared by clients over the years.
Changes in mastery
Perhaps the greatest frustration for once proficient musicians is the decline of their abilities. As illness or disease take over their bodies, clients may not be able to practice as regularly and find that naturally their abilities have declined. My grandfather (a highly skilled violinist) once told me that he wanted to be remembered as the skilled musician he was and so he resolutely ceased playing. His last performance was for his 80th birthday where he performed complicated pieces however no amount of encouraging after this performance could persuade him to continue playing.
Changes in physical ability
Another complication in playing music into old age are the changes in physical ability. Clients have shared how heavy their instruments became (ie. guitar and violin), how their wheelchair was too low to play the piano and how the arthritis effected their ability to move fingers whilst playing their organ or piano. These exasperations are all real and often painful. To encourage musicians struggling with these changes I always recommend shortening the length of time to play, sitting while playing or moving into a firm chair if possible and also acknowledging that there are days when they need to give practice a miss. Tomorrow is always another day.
Development of new pathways
Anyone who has ceased practice for a length of time can take time to gain their proficiency back. Frequently musicians can try to run before they walk (me included). Unfortunately if you’ve had time off then you need to start basic and remember it takes time to build up the skill level again. I once had a client called Jack (name changed) who was trying to gain his abilities back on the piano after an extended hospital stay and was frustrated at his slow progress. Jack had sourced basic music but was even struggling with this. After talking with him how he had previously played it was revealed he had often played from memory or by ear and playing from sheet music was his weakest musical skill. When Jack had played from memory he had often played in the same key but we identified that the keys of his basic sheet music were different. The brain was having to make new pathways with this style of learning, not only to play from sheet music but also the patterns of fingering in the changed key. After discovering this Jack was more patient with himself.
The role of music therapy
Music therapy can be a great way to encourage people to keep playing their instruments. Music therapists are trained to work within a clients abilities and can creatively change how they engage in playing music. Experienced and proficient musicians themselves, music therapists are trained in client-strength therapy.