Prof. Dr. Eckart Altenmüller
Interview from March, 15th 2012 with Susanne Dick
In the course of the NAR-Seminar, you spoke about musical learning at older age. What effects does making music have on the elderly?
In principle, making music has similar effects on the elderly as it has on children and young adults. Just like in children, the joy of music making increases quality of life and the neurobiological implications are also similar. It leads to neuronal networking in the brain. Thereby, the motion centre of the brain is connecting with the hearing- and visual centre but also with the centres in the brain that are responsible for planning. For the latter, one has to take into account, that every movement on a musical instrument is a planned, foresighted movement. In addition, everything is provided with a positive emotional rating through emotional networks. And that leads to these neuronal networks being especially efficient and taking place very fast. Already after half an hour, we can verify traces of instrument learning in the brain, namely beginning connections between the hearing- and the motion centre.
What motivates a rising number of older people to learn to play an instrument at an older age?
I think we have a large generation of people that have a lot of catching up to do. There are many people that grew up during the post- war period, when parents lived under very difficult circumstances. Who then, went into working life and never had time to learn to play an instrument. Others had to give up their instrument for various reasons. And today, many senior citizens are very healthy and have a lot of free time to do things to support group cohesion like chamber music or playing an instrument on one hand, and personal further education on an emotional satisfying manner on the other.
What challenges do you see with people that want to learn to play an instrument at an older age?
One problem is well known in the whole of senior pedagogy and that is that of self requirements being too high. Some seniors come into their first piano lesson with a CD of Lang Lang and say: This is how I want to play the piano! With these people, you have to start correcting their demands and carefully lead them to their profile of performance. Whereas it is of significance, that older people do not want to play etudes, they don’t need this form of curricular, dogmatic play, but rather want to do something that is closer to their life settings. For example, accompanying their flute playing grandchildren on the piano or playing a Christmas carol. Those are things that are much more important than the right fingering of the scale of C major.
Is there anything known about differences between new beginners and those who have learned to play an instrument during childhood and adolescence, and stopped playing due to other obligations?
Indeed! For those who have learned to play an instrument during childhood and adolescence, it is much easier and they take up much faster on their previous capabilities. In some cases, even the physical abilities are still maintained. We know from our brain physiology examinations, that memory traces e.g. auditory sensomotoric cross-linking, so between hearing and movements, are totally stable and can survive 30,40,50 years. We have done a study in stroke research where one can see clearly, that people who had a stroke – when they learned to play an instrument in adolescence or childhood- where able to take up fast on their previous performances of musical activities.
What requirements are needed for older people to optimally learn music?
Very important aspects are interest, joy and motivation. And that the right instrument is picked. One just has to take into account: for someone with bad teeth, a wind instrument might not be so good. When someone has limited movements of the wrist, then the violin, a string instrument is unfavourable. When one has pain in the knees while sitting, a piano might not be the right instrument. It also depends a lot on what the student himself is imagining. Another aspect is to clarify expectations the student has on himself and his progress, and try to correct it accordingly. As already stated, when someone comes into class with a Lang Lang CD and says: I want to be able to play the Liszt sonata in one year, then in general it is not realistic.