According to the National Piano Foundation, the fastest-growing group of aspiring pianists is adults age 25 and older. Most of those are older than 40...

Share story

Jimmie Richard watched each of her five children take up an instrument and set it down again before she finally started making her own melodies.

She was a mere 69 at the dawn of her musical education. Now 75, she still studies theory and practices hymns on the piano during weekly lessons at the Cleveland Music School Settlement.

“The more I learn, the more I want to learn,” says Richard. “The more I play, the more I want to play.”

Such satisfaction defines success for what educators call the recreational music student — an adult who takes up a new instrument or returns to one he or she tried and abandoned as a child.

Though recreational musicians are difficult to quantify, music-industry officials say their numbers have been gradually increasing for about 10 years. According to the National Piano Foundation, the fastest-growing group of aspiring pianists is adults age 25 and older. Most of those are older than 40 — people who tend to have the time and money to spend on tuneful dreams.

Piano isn’t the only instrument adults turn to, though it — like the guitar — is one of the most popular.

Bob Morris, a teacher and manager at Educators Music in Lakewood, Ohio, also meets adults who take up violin, clarinet and saxophone.

There was a time when adults considered themselves too old to learn an instrument, and music teachers tended to agree. That attitude used to be entrenched, says self-described “musical fossil” Matthew Harre, a Washington, D.C.-based piano teacher and advocate for the adult-music student.

Harre started the nonprofit Adult Music Student Forum 20 years ago to foster communication among such students and help them create outlets for performance.

“I went to the national music teachers association meeting on more than one occasion and tried to get them to participate in this, and they had absolutely no interest,” he says.

Teachers prefer to work with career-bound students who take music as seriously as they do, Harre says — though he points out that 99 percent of children don’t go on to become professionals. But about five years ago, he says, teachers started to view grown-ups as a market to be tapped — especially during hours when younger students were in school.

And it turns out you can teach an old man new licks. Harre recalls how even he was surprised when a relatively new student in his 80s showed up for a lesson after having suffered a mild stroke. The student sat down at the piano and promptly took command of a Chopin prelude he’d been studying.

“He ripped through this piece, and I was astounded. I didn’t quite believe it,” Harre says. “I said, ‘You’re not allowed to do that — you’re too old.’ “

Indeed, many adults assume their brains are too calcified to learn something new and complicated like music. In reality, teachers say, failing vision or stiff joints are more likely than resistant minds to hinder older students.

But if they can practice, they can improve, says guitar teacher Tom Olson of Cleveland Heights.

“Can they get good? Yeah, they can,” Olson says. “I’ve seen it happen.”

On a recent Wednesday night, Olson taught back-to-back guitar lessons to two grown men nurturing dreams of tackling blues and rock.

One of them was Dino Lewis, 37, who works in the computer department at Cleveland State University. Lewis looks forward to his weekly lesson as a time to detach from the digital universe and enter a more Zenlike state through wood and strings. After 11 years of lessons, he has some tunes under his belt, though — like many of his younger counterparts — he still struggles with the discipline of practice.

“I would say I practice an hour, hour and a half a week,” Lewis says. He has taken to leaving his guitar out on a stand, however, which encourages him to pick it up to play casually for 10 minutes at a time.

With adults, Olson says, “there’s always this dichotomy between, ‘Gosh, I should be practicing,’ and ‘I just want to have fun.’ “

Getting better takes some discipline, but Olson and others like to see their adult students lighten up, too.

“We can teach to the joy of engagement in music,” says Eric Gould, a jazz pianist and the director of the department of music at the Cleveland Music School Settlement. “We’re not grading people. There’s no jury. [Adults] are here because they enjoy music.”

Sometimes the joy can be tainted by old ideas about achievement. While children tend not to set unnaturally high expectations for themselves, many adults do. It can be a matter of personality or a holdover from childhood experiences.

Plenty of adult students remember an overbearing parent who announced every wrong note. Even more recall hyper-disciplined piano teachers who rewarded mistakes with the smack of a ruler to the musician’s small hand.

“Piano teachers are to blame for a lot of the problems here because they take the music itself so seriously,” says Harre, 64, who has written about the topic on his Web site, “They forget it’s about people, it’s by people, it’s for people — and people are going to relate to it on a thousand different levels.”

As a teacher, Harre rewards his students with patience and an ear that listens for beauty. Errors need attention, but Harre believes in gentle correction.

“Nobody has ever been enraptured by music and said, ‘Oh, my God — all the notes are right!’ It’s not the point of music,” Harre says.

Gould would agree. The less pressure the adult feels in pursuing music, the more room there is for joy to creep into the process of learning and practicing. “And the more joyful the process,” Gould says, “the better it sounds.”