It is a common maxim that children benefit greatly from studying music. Studies have shown that it stimulates the brain in many areas, leading to better thinking skills, for example, and that children can develop discipline and good study habits that are useful in other areas of life. Think also of the dexterity and strength children can develop in their fingers by playing a musical instrument – and of course the love of music itself.
But is there a reason why you can’t do the same as an adult? Not at all, says Lynn Newdome, who teaches violin to a number of adult students.
“Whenever I hear someone say, ‘Oh, I wish I had learned the violin or some other instrument when I was young,’ I say, ‘You can still do that! Learning doesn’t stop when you grow up,’” says Newdome, a veteran violinist and teacher based in Florence. “It’s a complete fallacy that only children can learn music.”
Newdome made that point on a recent night at her home studio, where three of her adult students – Mandy Cohen, Ben Levy and Jin Sun Park – joined her for a combined lesson and performance. Although all three have been studying separately with her for different periods of time, since November they have also been meeting up a few times a month to work on “Fantasia: Three Parts Upon a Ground,” a composition by Henry Purcell, an English Middle Baroque composer late 17th century.
“Okay ready?” said Newdome, as the three fiddlers raised their instruments and looked at the score for Purcell’s play, placed on music stands in front of them. “Three Parts” was composed for three violins and cello; Newdome had downtuned her own violin to play the cello part. At Newdome’s request, Park took the lead as the three students played their lines. It was a tricky piece in 6/4 time, with the violins seeming to harmonize quite closely at one point and then playing more distinct melodic lines.
After several measures, Newdome called for a stop. “I think we went a little bit off track there,” she said. Park gave a sort of half-smile, half-grimace. “Maybe I was leading a bit too slowly?” she asked. But Levy said the play was no picnic: “What challenges me are the changes in time.”
They gave “Three Parts” a few more tries, with lots of laughter between takes, especially when Newdome asked Park to take the lead on another try; This prompted Park to ask in mock anger, “Oh, why me again?”
As Newdome sees it, the laughter at the session seemed a perfect example of one of the many reasons adults make good music students. Unlike some kids who take lessons primarily because their parents want them to learn an instrument, adult students, Newdome says, are “here because they want to, because they’re taking a break from work or family commitments or what.” however else they continue to do so in their lives.”
“That is her time,” adds Newdome.
In fact, says Cohen, who played trumpet through high school and briefly through college, learning the violin now that she’s older has been a very different but welcome musical experience. “Now it’s really my favorite hobby,” she says of her weekly classes, where she learns classical and folk music. “It’s just such a great change from my daily routine…I have a real incentive to practice.”
Levy, who played piano and sousaphone at a young age and then briefly dabbled in a few other instruments as a younger man, always found that real life got in the way of his musical ambitions; he was too busy with work, too busy raising a family. But since retiring from his job as a doctor at the age of 65, he has taken up the violin and worked hard at it for over four years.
“I think it’s not easy to give up as an adult student, and now I have the time to really push it,” says Levy. He jokes that during the early years he studied with Newdome, “some people wouldn’t listen to me and sometimes I couldn’t bear to be in a room alone with myself. But now [my playing] is better… I can hear myself play now.”
Newdome says the conventional wisdom is that children and adolescents are better music students because they’re generally more malleable: their brains are still developing and theoretically capable of absorbing more. Young students are also more easily taught good habits, it is thought—for example, proper posture and positioning of hands and fingers when playing the piano—that become a crucial foundation for progression on an instrument.
But Newdome says adult students have other factors in their favor. For one, there is an intellectual ability to grasp abstract concepts that most children transcend, such as: B. Applying music theory to their practice instead of just doing repetitive practice. Adults have also developed an appreciation and understanding of a range of music – they know a lot “by ear” – which gives them a foundation to learn more, she says.
And she notes, “Your brain doesn’t stop developing as you get older.” You can still form new neural connections, including by learning an instrument, she says.
Newdome herself began learning the violin at the age of 4 from her mother, who was also a violin teacher, and by 16 she was also teaching students under her mother’s tutelage. She went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music and had a lengthy performing career, primarily, though not exclusively, in the Boston area, with a number of orchestras including the Boston Pops and the Harvard Chamber Orchestra.
After moving to the Valley in 1993, Newdome shifted her focus to teaching violin in regional schools, although she continued to perform with a variety of orchestral and chamber groups. She also gave private lessons and in recent years she has focused exclusively on these private lessons, which she held in her studio in Florence. In turn, there is a growing emphasis in this class on working with adult students.
“They have more conceptual tools to apply to the violin,” she says. “It’s easier for me to explain things to them and they can understand them, whether it’s the difference between beat and rhythm or the importance of good positioning.” Adults are also more willing to read music, she says.
And teaching adult students, Newdome adds, is honestly “just a lot of fun because they have so many different life experiences and backgrounds that they bring to the classroom.”
Levy, formerly from Granby but now based in Gill, wanted to continue playing the sousaphone in college. But between his med school, track running and cross country, he says, “I just didn’t have time for it. I was too tired from running and had to study.”
As a doctor, he tried taking guitar lessons – but with three children and his job, that didn’t work. He also briefly took violin lessons, but again the time investment proved too difficult. But since retiring, he’s been learning both classical, klezmer and jazz on the fiddle, and also plays with a few casual groups of acoustic musicians.
“Playing with other musicians is just a lot of fun and a new skill to learn,” says Levy. “That’s why Lynn lets us work together.”
Cohen actually studied violin briefly in elementary school, but then switched to trumpet, played in her high school band, and spent a year as a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. But then she became intensely involved in her studies and finally earned her doctorate in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. The music fell by the wayside. Today, Cohen is director of translation and collections initiatives at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst.
But about five years ago, an aunt gave her a family heirloom: a violin made in Germany around 1700 and previously played by some of her ancestors. Cohen says the violin needed some repair work, but she thought the instrument was so beautiful that she moved to learn to play it. She began taking classes while still in graduate school and then came to Newdome after moving back to the Valley about a year and a half ago.
Jin Sun Park, meanwhile, began playing the violin in her native South Korea at the age of 10, largely because her mother wanted her to learn the instrument. “I didn’t like it,” she says, and the class didn’t last long. However, when she moved to the United States with her family at the age of 16, she picked up the violin again and this time things went better. As an adult, she studied at Newdome for over six years; she is mainly interested in classical and jazz violin.
And Park, who lives in Enfield, Connecticut (she previously lived in Holyoke), says her job as an accountant in Holyoke “is pretty stressful, so music is a great way to get out of it.”
Newdome says one of her inspirations for teaching older students was the 1979 book Never Too Late, a memoir by the late educator and writer John Holt about learning to play the cello from the age of 40. In the book, Holt describes the challenges he faced as an adult in studying music, but also the joy he found in it, and he argues that “it’s never too late” to learn anything new, including music — even if You will never notice.
“That’s right,” says Newdome. “Age is not an obstacle to learning music.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at email@example.com.