Mid-Life Musicians

Written by: Charlotte Phillips

It’s a warm summer’s night in the suburbs and there’s a definite buzz in the air. Not to mention a couple of squeaks and a rattle. Mother of three Fiona is going two rounds with her bassoon. She took it up a year ago and is making rapid progress.

While the bassoon is an unusual choice – unwieldy to transport, so temperamental that it requires near rainforest levels of humidity to function at all and capable of drawing blood – her decision to start learning an instrument as an adult is increasingly common.

For computer programmer Marion, the saxophone beckons. For Pete, it’s the guitar, which he’s taken, to the consternation of his wife, to parking next to him in bed. There’s even a group of mothers who follow the school run with a weekly trip, en masse, to the local singing teacher.

Public figures like former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and politician and author William Hague have spoken about the pleasure that playing the piano gives them. There are even reports that a former UK Olympic medallist has taken up the cello. So, with conservatoires and private teachers reporting increased enquiries from the over-30s, what’s going on?

For a start, people have more money. Where parents once scrimped and saved to buy their children music lessons, these days they have no hesitation in signing themselves up, too. This can be a problem. “Some people assume that if they’ve got the money, they can buy the ability,” says one teacher I talked to. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen like that.”

In the case of Fiona’s bassoon, Mozart and author Alexander McCall Smith are to blame. “I’d read about Alexander McCall Smith finding a bassoon in a junk shop and was already interested. But it was hearing the Mozart bassoon concerto that got me hooked – it was so wonderful,” she says.

For others, taking up music later in life is the realisation of a childhood dream. When he was young, Barry Bryant’s parents refused to let him train as a musician. “My parents lived through two wars and had a fear of the unknown,” he says. “What they wanted for me was security. Music was definitely not seen as a proper job.”

He did what they wanted and left school, aged 17, to become a clerk. It was a devastating blow. “When my parents said ‘no’, I gave up all thought of ever becoming a musician, and only played the piano to please myself,” he says.

Then, when he lost his job in the 1990s, he decided that taking the gamble of beginning a new life as a freelance musician had to be better than sitting at home and watching his savings drain away.

In 2000, he completed a music degree and now earns his living as a freelance performer and teacher. So how far can you get? Look at any rack of CDs, and it’s easy, especially in these image-conscious days, to see music as something reserved exclusively for the young and photogenic. Not so, say teachers. You can learn music at any age. The secret lies in being committed – and in choosing the right instrument.

Good typists, for example, often make highly competent pianists. “One lady I taught, in her fifties, had been a legal secretary. She started as total beginner and, six months later, had taken and passed her Grade Two exam,” says teacher and player David Galbraith.

The bassoon’s distinctly quirky character means it’s also worth considering, as Fiona’s teacher, freelance orchestral player Gareth Twigg explains: “There aren’t too many (bassoonists) around, so you get to join amateur orchestras much earlier than with other instruments.”

But you do need to be realistic. Conservatoires point to the fact that audiences are tough critics. The older the performer, the better they expect him, or her, to be.

The only exception is singing. The Royal College of Music’s post-graduate opera department insists that its students are aged 25 or over because of the late maturing of the voice.

That’s something that Eunice Woof knows all about. To listen to her sing or play the piano, you’d never guess that she didn’t take her first singing lessons till she was approaching her forties and took her last exam when she was 65. Before that, she was filing records for the local health authority.

The revelation came early one morning. “I was walking up the hill to work and I thought: ‘There’s more to life than this’.” She’d enjoyed hymns at Sunday School when she was growing up and reckoned that, with proper training, she’d do as well as the other singers.

With money tight, she started off having lessons once every fortnight with an inspiring teacher who encouraged her to sing, develop her keyboard skills and, in due course, to start teaching herself.

Today her life has been transformed. She’s a proficient singer and accompanist who runs a choir that has travelled to the Czech Republic and Germany.

Her advice is simple. “Have a go,” she says. Barry Bryant agrees: “Never give up on a dream – even if you have to wait 40 years.”



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