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6 Great Instruments to Try Later in Life

You’re never too old to learn to play music

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Do you wish you’d learned to play a musical instrument when you were younger?​ ​

There’s no such as thing as “too late” when it comes to picking up an instrument, and learning to strum, tweet or keep the beat is likely to pay dividends when it comes to health. ​ ​

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Studies, including a 2020 report from the AARP-founded Global Council on Brain Health, have shown that musical activity can improve memory and mood in older adults. ​ ​

And older adults have an advantage when it comes to learning a new instrument, says Molly Webb, founder and creative director of The Inside Voice, a music academy based in Orange County, California.​ ​

​​Practice Makes Perfect

​One of the main strategies for mastering a musical instrument is to practice. Here’s some other advice from three music teachers for those just taking up an instrument.​ ​

  • “Keep in mind that it’s better to practice for 5 to 10 minutes every day than to start off guns ablaze with an epic three-hour session that leaves you burned out for the rest of the week and feeling like you can’t be bothered to [practice] again for several days,” says John Atkins, who goes by “The Ukulele Teacher” on his YouTube channel and podcast, Ukulele Tales.​ ​
  • Because of the way our brains are wired, “it’s much more effective to build long-term memory in shorter, more frequent bursts,” says Molly Webb, founder and president of The Inside Voice, a music academy based in Orange County, California. “It’s like when you start an exercise routine. If you’ve never run before, you start with short sessions and not with a one-time marathon — or you’ll probably end up skipping the marathon and going out to breakfast.”​ ​
  • Don’t be afraid, says Alexis Baker, a music therapist who works exclusively with older adults in Portland, Oregon: “Anything new is a little intimidating at first because it’s unknown, so just give yourself some time and have fun.”​ ​

They take lessons “because they want to … not because they have a parent dragging them or because they feel like it’s something they need for their college application,” Webb says.​ ​

In addition, older adults’ years of experience can help them recognize patterns more easily. “They tend to have a lot of hooks for learning that the younger crowd takes a little longer to develop,” she says. ​ ​

So even if you’ve never picked up a musical instrument before, here are six musical options that musicians and teachers say are great for beginners:​ ​

1. Strum the guitar​ ​

Alexis Baker, a music therapist who specializes in working with older adults in Portland, Oregon, says she’s biased toward the guitar, her main instrument.​ ​

“It’s portable, great for dexterity and you can get started playing lots of different songs by learning two or three chords,” she explains.​ ​

There are many ways to get acquainted with the six-string instrument (or any instrument): Hire a teacher, seek out an online program or look up instructional videos on YouTube.​ ​

“You can be fairly successful learning the guitar on your own,” Baker says.​ ​

2. Pick up the ukulele​ ​

Like the guitar, you can play thousands of songs with four basic chords, but the ukulele has softer, nylon strings, a smaller fretboard and only four strings rather than six — making them easier to memorize, says John Atkins, who goes by “The Ukulele Teacher” on his YouTube channel and podcast, Ukulele Tales.​ ​

“You can get a good sound from a ukulele straight away, just by strumming the four open strings,” adds Atkins, who is based in the United Kingdom.​ ​

Because the ukulele has fewer strings, it’s much less painful building callouses on your fingers than on an acoustic guitar, notes Webb. “And some of the chords, like C and A minor, require only one finger.”​ ​

3. Play the piano​ ​

Great for hand-eye coordination, the piano is the instrument people most commonly tell Baker they’ve always wanted to learn but haven’t gotten around to doing so.​ ​

“You can start out very simply, with just one hand, then you can gradually increase the complexity to both hands — with each one doing a different thing,” Baker says. ​ ​

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The piano’s 88 keys may look overwhelming, but there are only 12 keys that get repeated over and over again.​ ​

“Once you learn those 12 keys, then you’ve learned the whole keyboard,” Baker says. “You can get comfortable pretty quickly.”​ ​

Joy Underhill, 66, a retired business writer from Farmington, New York, began piano lessons at 62. She has embraced the step-by-step structure of learning triads and inversions on the 70-year-old piano she inherited from her aunt — and the patience required in doing so.​ ​

“I’m not playing at lightning speed and I likely never will, and that’s OK,” she says. “The piano gives me a goal that’s never reached. It’s great for the brain because it requires playing with 10 fingers, reading music, interpreting the music … there’s a lot going on there. But when you do it well, it’s like a little switch turns on. I love when that happens,” Underhill says.​ ​

4. Blow on the harmonica​ ​

Unlike most instruments, the harmonica is designed to play in one key.​ ​

“Someone playing a standard instrument has landmines of wrong notes all around them, whereas the harmonica has only the ‘right notes,’ ” says Grammy-nominated blues harmonica player David Barrett, founder of School of the Blues in San Jose, California.​ ​

It takes very little breath to inhale and exhale softly over the instrument’s holes — a technique called the tongue block embouchure. As Barrett describes it, your mouth surrounds four holes while you block the three holes to the left with your tongue, leaving a single note on the right to play one note. Achieving a clean, single note is a key element in many styles of music played on the harmonica.​ ​

The next step is exploring taking your tongue on and off for chordal effect.​ ​

“Resist the urge to just pucker up and blow on the harmonica, like blowing out a candle with pursed lips,” says Barrett, who teaches, judges and performs at harmonica events around the world.​ ​

By using the tongue block embouchure from the beginning, “you’re setting yourself up with a good foundation for interesting effects down the road.”​ ​

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5. Hit some percussion​ ​

You don’t really need any experience to play a hand drum or tambourine, says Baker. ​ ​

“If you have a natural sense of rhythm, then either would be a good fit,” she says. “You might even see yourself as a more creative person as you start to express yourself through music.”​ ​

For drums, she suggests trying the bongos, a conga or the djembe — a West African, rope-tuned goblet drum.​ ​

6. Use your voice​ ​

Research out of Northwestern University published in a 2015 issue of the journal Music Perception found that the ability to sing on key may have more in common with the kind of practice that goes into playing an instrument than people realize.​ ​

“As humans, we really were born to sing, but sadly many adults grew up with the belief that they couldn’t sing or that they were tone-deaf,” says Webb. “I’ve never run into anyone at any age who doesn’t learn to match pitch and improve their tone if they stick with it long enough.”​ ​

Deciding on your voice as an instrument is a good investment for other reasons as well.​ ​

“There’s no cost to purchase, and you can get started with it right away,” says Baker. “It’s always with you wherever you go, and there are a lot of different ways it can be used.”​​​

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