The gentleman sat down and adjusted the music stand to the appropriate height. His well-used and weathered hands shook slightly as he reverently lifted a beautiful ebony clarinet out of its case and placed it on his lap. Ever so slightly, the man brushed his fingers down the length of the instrument, feeling the different widths and shapes of each key. He raised the clarinet to his mouth surrounded by silver whiskers, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath of anticipation. Pressing his lips to the mouthpiece, the gentleman blew out forcefully. A high-pitched screech vibrated in the man’s ear, and he abruptly set the instrument back on his lap with a flustered huff.
Another clarinetist sat next to him and introduced himself. “You must be new to the orchestra,” the neighbor said, then started sucking on his clarinet reed.
“I’m new to everything here,” responded the gentleman. “I’ve always wanted to try the flute, but in my 75 years, I’ve never had the chance until now.”
His neighbor chuckled as he placed the wet reed on his mouthpiece, then played a short, choppy, and slightly out of tune ditty that vaguely resembled “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” He turned to the newcomer and said in friendly jest, “I beat you by five years. I started playing last fall, right after my 80th birthday!”
Joining his neighbor in laughter, the gentleman’s nerves calmed and he once again picked up the instrument he had so long admired, preparing for his first orchestra session to begin.
With the 65-year and older population growing rapidly in the United States, there has been an increase in leisure and recreational classes offered to older adults, both in availability and variety of activities. Older adults often take such opportunities to add new meaning in their lives as they transition from full-time careers to some form of retirement. However, when it comes to fulfilling their desire for new meaning, not all classes, nor all class instructors are created equal.
Musical groups such as the Desert Foothills New Horizons Band (DFNHB) and the Brigham Young University New Horizons Orchestra (BYUNHO) are excellent examples of how group activities benefit older adults and how instructors can enhance or hinder those benefits. In fact, a case study of these two programs was recently completed to discover what characteristics and attributes made an instructor effective from the perspective of the older adult students. The study’s author, Sam Tsugawa, also wanted to know what benefits the students believed came from participating in an older adult group activity. Although the study only looked at instrumental classes, the following findings may be applied to many older adult leisure and recreational activities and may help experienced instructors know how to best fulfill their important role in the valuable lives of older adults.
Instructor Characteristics and Attributes
First and foremost, an instructor needs to be well experienced and knowledgeable, both in the subject they are teaching and in teaching itself. Most people would think it is obvious that someone who has the characteristics of a good teacher, such as being well-organized, giving clear instructions, involving all class members, teaching at varying levels, asking appropriate questions, and making eye contact, would be ineffective if that teacher had no knowledge about how to play musical instruments. Certainly, an effective instructor would have both knowledge and skills. However, an instructor who has the ability to skillfully perform and to recognize and correct errors in their field or talent, but who does not have the necessary characteristics of a good teacher, will also fall short of reaching of the needs of individual participants and the group as a whole.
In many older adult classes, there is a strong mixture of individuals who are already experienced in the activity who want to participate in a social capacity, those who were once skilled at a much younger age and who want to pick it up again, and those who are learning the activity for the first time. With such a wide range of experience and skill, an effective instructor needs to be able to have patience and a willingness to work with each individual on their own goals at their own pace. Tsugawa compares this to how an effective junior high school orchestra or band instructor works with their students: working with each student individually and the group as a whole to improve and reach goals, but recognizing and accepting that they will not sound like a professional music group. This backs up previous research, which shows that older adults may learn new skills in ways similar to children though they have a higher cognitive ability to be self-motivated to set and reach goals in the learning process.
However, teaching like a junior high school instructor and treating older adults like junior high school students are two different things. While the instructions should realistically fit the skill and learning levels of participants, the relationship between instructors and students should reflect the maturity and life experience of each individual. One band member interviewed in the study said, “You know, the vast majority of people in the New Horizons bands have had very successful careers and you have to treat them with respect. If you do, they’ll give back and treat you with respect too.”
Tsugawa learned from the band and orchestra members he interviewed that there are two main benefits of playing in with an older adult musical group. The first benefit is the thrill that comes from creating sounds and reaching goals together. One experienced pianist commented: “There’s something about ensemble playing that’s a whole different experience than being a solo pianist…I love the sound of a good concert band.” Although creating sounds is mostly unique to musical groups, the idea of accomplishing goals as a group can fill a very different void in any group leisure or recreational activity, such as folk dancing, book clubs, cycling classes, and art classes, as compared to doing any such activities alone.
The second benefit is that there is a strong sense of security when older adults participate in an activity together. This is especially true for those older adults who are learning skills for the first time. One orchestra member picked up the violin for the first time at 80 years old. Even though he made many mistakes during the first year of joining the group, he received constant encouragement from the other members and was energized by the sense of belonging and acceptance he felt. He quickly improved and caught up to the skill level of the average orchestra member. Such a sense of acceptance and comradery is important for older adults who seek to learn new skills as it lessens and even eliminates fear of failure and humiliation.
As a faculty affiliate of the BYU Gerontology program, Tsugawa’s research provides valuable information about the lives of older adults. Humans are creatures of learning, and that learning does not end at retirement age. Older adults are anxious to continue expanding their knowledge and skills and building meaning into their new stage of life The increase in leisure and recreational activities offered is a great start for meeting that desire. Younger adults who are interested in being an instructor for any older adult classes would benefit from understanding how their own skills, both in the subject being taught and in the ability to teach, play a role in providing an enriching environment for growth. They can also recognize the important role they play in providing for older adults’ needs for companionship, meaning, and respect in their golden years.
 Tsugawa, Samuel. (2018). Teacher, group, self: Music teaching and learning in two New Horizons ensembles. International Journal of Community Music. 11(2). 167-181. doi: 10.1386/ijcm.11.2.167_1
 Barry, N. H. and Hallam, S. (2002). The science and psychology of music performance: Creative strategies for teaching and learning. ‘Practice’, in R. Parncutt (ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 151–65.
 Garrison, D. R. (1997). ‘Self-directed learning: Toward a comprehensive model’. Adult Education Quarterly, 48:1, pp. 18–33.
Wlodkowski, R. (2008). Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for
Teaching all Adults, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
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