‘Learn a musical instrument’ is a piece of glib advice that’s often wheeled out to older people. But instruments are not all born equal, and choosing wisely will give you a head start in achieving your music-making desires.
What’s Your Musical Dream?
Would you like to while away hours playing on your own? Piano or guitar could be a good choice. Perhaps your fantasy involves playing in an orchestra? Your best bet is to pick a stringed instrument as amateur orchestras have space for lots of violins, but often far fewer for clarinet and flute players.
If having musical fun with a few friends is the aim, then look for an instrument that’s good to play with others, like the harmonica.
Want a Quick Start?
Inexpensive instruments that give swift results include ukulele (but don’t buy the bottom of the range, which will be hard to keep in tune), tin whistle and bongo drums, all good for informal gatherings with other players.
Maybe you learned recorder at school? It’s a brilliant low-cost instrument to revisit, as you can get a tune out of it straight away, and there’s a big family, from the baby sopranino to the granddaddy bass, that you can play on your own or in a recorder group.
Acoustic guitar is another pick-up-and-play choice with loads of tutorials online, and you can use tablature rather than standard notation to find your way simply around your favourite songs.
Up for a Challenge?
Are you willing to make learning your instrument a long-term project, with near-daily practice and perhaps some professional lessons?
Consider the woodwind – flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon – or strings – violin, viola or cello. All of these have technical aspects which take persistence, and you might not make a marvellous sound straight away.
But the rewards for your hard work will be great. I’ve never regretted taking up the flute in my 50s. Yes, I’ve put in hours of practice, and there have been times when I’ve felt like giving up, but the sense of achievement as I’ve made progress, and the sheer joy of playing the instrument on my own and with others, more than make up for the effort involved.
Most instruments have their pros and cons. For instance, co-ordinating hands to play the piano or keyboard takes time and practice to master. However, because you can see the keyboard right there in front of you, it’s easier to find the correct note than on an instrument like the violin.
What Else Should You Consider?
It’s possible to learn your instrument by ear, a skill which comes easier to some people than others, but sight-reading music is essential if you want to join an orchestra or chamber group. There are plenty of books, online tuition and apps to get you started. Moreover, you can learn slowly, at the same time as you progress on your instrument.
Your budget is another consideration. It’s not always wise to buy an instrument at the very bottom of the range. Buying second-hand, borrowing or renting are good options to get you started.
How About Your Health?
I’ve noticed some of my fellow 60+ musicians having to adapt their playing or even switch instruments completely because of health issues. Wind instruments, for instance, demand stamina, so they are not the choice for asthmatics, while arthritis in the wrist or fingers can affect players of many instruments.
The embouchure (mouth position) used by brass players calls for sturdy front teeth, and players who need dental work in later years can find themselves with problems.
My friend Annie, a petite woman who adores her double bass, is finding the sheer effort of transporting the beast to rehearsals too demanding on her back these days.
If you want to play on into later age, pick an instrument that’s easily carried and doesn’t call for you to twist your body into unnatural positions which can cause muscle strain. If you play the piano, make sure your seat is in the correct position.
Follow Your Heart and Have Fun
Don’t let any of this put you off, however. Take the plunge and have fun trying out any instrument that makes your spine tingle and puts a smile on your face.
Music brings joy to the human heart, is a great way to socialise and a wonderful hobby to enjoy at home on your own as well. Take it away, Maestro!
Do you play a musical instrument? Or, are you interested in learning one? Are you a late learner with tips to share? Or is there an instrument you dream of learning? Please share your inspirations and thoughts below.