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Enlighten Me: More adults learn piano to fine tune their minds

Michael Arnold took piano lessons for two years as a boy.

He stopped playing in the third grade, but often wished he had kept at it.

Three years ago, his wife and kids gave him piano lessons as a birthday gift.

“It can be a bit humbling to take a lesson at the same time as a 10-year-old in the next room who is much better than I am,” says Arnold, 53, of Wilmington. “It can be especially difficult to find time to practice with work and family obligations. However, playing is very therapeutic for me. It provides a great break at the end of the day.”

Arnold is part of a wave of adults who are studying piano. Some simply enjoy music. Many are intent on keeping their minds nimble and playing piano is emerging as a strategy for improving mental acuity while reducing the odds of dementia.

Ethel Thirtel of North Wilmington is 71. Like Arnold, she is a student at The Music School of Delaware.

“Music lessons, like the French lessons I’ve been taking in retirement, help sharpen my mind,” she says. “Both pursuits involve active studying and practice to master new skills.”

The Music School offers evening group classes that are just for adults, says Matthew Smith, student and alumni relations officer. The school also provides instruction for adults 50 and older through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at University of Delaware.

“We have a lot more inquiries from older adults who are retired and want to pursue piano now that they have more time,” Smith says. “It’s a good way to keep your mind active.”

Scientific evidence supports that theory.

A 2013 study published in Frontiers in Psychology evaluated the impact of piano training on cognitive function, mood and quality of life in adults aged 60 to 85. Participants who took weekly piano lessons and practiced 45 minutes a day for four months were compared to a group that focused on other leisure activities, including physical exercise, computer classes and painting lessons.

The study found the group that studied piano showed significant improvement in tests that measure executive function, controlling inhibitions and divided attention, as well as enhanced visual scanning and motor ability. Piano students were also less depressed and reported a better quality of life than the other control group.

“Our results suggest that playing piano and learning to read music can be a useful intervention in older adults to promote cognitive reserve and improve subjective well-being,” the authors wrote.

Research published in 2014 in the International Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease cited a Swedish study that found that twins who played a musical instrument later in life were 64 percent less likely to develop dementia than their co-twins who did not play.

Meldene Gruber of Rehoboth Beach has been teaching piano for more than 45 years but she didn’t have many adult students until the last two years.

Now, 12 of her 30 students are adults, who range in age from 40 to the mid-70s and include a married couple. Five began taking lessons with no musical experience whatsoever. One played the trumpet in elementary school.

“It may end up tipping to where I have more adult students than children,” she says.

While Gruber holds a traditional recital for the children she teaches, the adults gather in her home for what she calls an Afternoon Musicale. Students can play if they wish but it isn’t mandatory.

“It’s a piano party, with wine and cheese,” she says. “The students get very excited meeting other grownups who are taking lessons. Sometimes, they get together for duets.”

Gruber discovered early on that teaching adults is different than giving lessons to children.

“Adults are more analytical. They ask more questions,” she says. “Children just soak up whatever you tell them and then do it.”

Grownups also tend to give more thought as to why they are taking lessons.

“A number of my adults say they think playing the piano will help with mental acuity,” she says. “Playing the piano forces you to use both sides of the brain, which is great for neuron firing.”

Another difference between the age groups: grownups don’t have stage mothers.

“I had a parent who asked me how long it would take until her son was playing Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’,” Gruber says. “You don’t get adults who are focused on becoming concert pianists.”

Stephen Powers, 52, of Wilmington, uses his brain all day in his banking job.

He works his gray cells some more when he comes home and sits down at the black and white keyboard on his piano.

“It is hard, so hard,” he says. “I feel my brain working when I am practicing. It’s like I am using a different area of my brain.”

Powers and his husband bought a piano several years ago, even though neither one of them played.

“We moved into a new house and had a room that just screamed for a baby grand piano,” he recalls.

They enjoyed hearing live music so much when friends played at parties that Powers decided to start studying with David Schueck, a piano and voice teacher in North Wilmington.

“Now, I have a few songs under my belt. ’Happy Birthday’ and ‘Joy to the World’, which was good to have at Christmas time.,” Powers says “I play ‘Getting to Know You’ for my mom.”

More than one-third of Schueck’s students are adults. The oldest is 73; the youngest is 34.

One of his most enthusiastic students was well into in her 80s and took lessons until she died.

“She was 79 when she started and within a year she was playing songs,” he recalls. “She loved ‘Moon River’, played chords with the melody and had a blast.”

Schueck says most adults aren’t deeply concerned with music theory. They are decidedly hands-on.

“Many have specific pieces they want to learn to play, like ‘Pachelbel’s Canon,’ Gershwin, Irving Berlin, the old standards,” he says. “One of my students is a big Stevie Nicks fan.”

Cindy Cohen of Arden is 56 and has been involved with music for most of her life. She studied piano for a couple of years as a young girl, then took up the flute. As an adult, she sang.

Three years ago, she went back to the piano and began lessons with Schueck. Now she is exploring the music of some of her favorite contemporary artists, Elton John and Billy Joel, “back from when we were younger.”

“As a mature adult, I always love to learn new things,” she says. “I was not a good student in my younger years. Then I went back to college in my 40s and I loved it.”

She finds the piano more complicated than her other musical pursuits.

“When you sing, you only have to worry about the melody,” she says. “I still have trouble with my left hand playing the piano.”

Nobody makes her practice. But since she is paying for her own lessons, she figures it’s a good idea.

Most of all, she enjoys it.

“As a child, I cried about piano lessons,” she says. “As an adult, I laugh. It’s complete fun playing a beautiful instrument solely for my own pleasure.”

By Eileen Smith Dallabrida, www.wdde.org, www.msidallas.com