By Jason Frye | Photography courtesy of the John C. Campbell Folk School
You’re never too old to learn to play an instrument. In addition to enriching your time with music, you’ll also improve your creative thinking skills and your mental well-being.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to learn to play banjo. I dream about it. Notes, melodies, and rhythms drop into my ears at unexpected times. There’s something about that plucky, rapid-fire three-finger banjo picking – a revolution in bluegrass from North Carolina’s own Earl Scruggs – that gets my toes tapping. And there’s something about the strumming Clawhammer style – found often in Dixieland Jazz and old-time music – that’s mesmerizing.
On Sunday mornings I settle into my office, turn my little speaker down low and listen to Flatt & Scruggs’ 1951 release, Foggy Mountain Gospel, two hours and nine minutes of bluegrass gospel that sounds like my Granny Madeline’s kitchen. I can smell over-strong Maxwell House and her Pall Mall cigarettes; I see her, a shade under 5-feet, a ball of nervous energy flitting around the kitchen waiting to hear the radio crackle, “It’s WVOW Radio Gospel Hour.”
Music has the power to root us in a place and it picks us up and takes us there in an instant. I think that’s why I want to play, so I can find that path between my present and the past of my grandparents.
Another reason this 41-year old wants to learn to play: research. No, not combing through the catalogues of my favorite bands for tunes I could play – though that sounds fun – but actual research.
Research shows that children who actively participate in music classes or take music lessons show improved abilities in literacy and in math. Their grades go up, their school attendance improves, and they’re more active in class and in their community if they’re involved in music. And a study in Germany showed that music training improves cognitive and noncognitive skills (coordination and physical skills) more than twice as much as sports or other performing arts.
But what about adults? Can we pick up an instrument and learn to play? Can we find a place where we can learn without the self-imposed shame and stigma of being a novice?
The answers are “Yes.” In studies looking at adult musicians, researchers found that it keeps you sharp and does something in your brain that allows you to adapt to new information more easily than your non-musical peers. It improves creative thinking, it can put you in touch with culture and history in surprising ways, it provides an outlet for stress and can even reduce the chances you feel burnt out.
Many adults mistakenly think they can’t learn to play an instrument, but that’s not true. Rick Taylor has been teaching music workshops at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, since 2001, and his students, even the beginner students, are adults.
“At the Folk School, it’s a pretty intensive week no matter what class I’m teaching. By the end of the week I see students who might have picked up a banjo or guitar for their first time on day one, but now they’re confident to strum along with the class and hit all their chord changes,” he says.
Who are those students? Retirees, early retirees, adults with a passion to learn or perfect their craft. The John C. Campbell Folk School spreads beyond music into art (painting, watercolors, drawing, photography), Appalachian folk wisdom (woods lore, storytelling, herbalism, soap making, broom making, homesteading), forgotten skills (blacksmithing, papermaking, bookbinding), and even creative writing.
“I had an 85-year old woman from Miami who wanted to learn to play the five-string banjo in my class. I’ve had corporate executives who took early retirement and followed a passion. I’ve had schoolteachers who at 55 had put in their time and were now learning for the love of it. And I’ve had groups of students become friends and return year after year, using the Folk School like a little reunion,” says Taylor.
As for not wanting to be a novice, not wanting to start at the beginning, I get it. It’s embarrassing to fumble over the strings or to hit the wrong key. As adults, we’ve spent years honing our career-related skills and perfecting our hobbies, so we’re experts in areas and to go from that to the bottom of the ladder is intimidating. But think of it this way: how cool is it that you, at whatever age, learned to play harmonica, ukulele, accordion, hammer dulcimer, banjo? Do you think that will translate into your self-confidence and that then will impact your confidence in other areas? Studies show they do.
“The real beauty of the Folk School is that it’s non-competitive. No grades, no rankings, none of that pressure. People come because they want to enrich their lives,” says Taylor. “I think they take music classes for the same reason I became a musician: I heard a song I loved and wanted to play it. I like to think we give them entry into a world where they can.”
The John C. Campbell Folk School offers a full slate of classes for adults, including Taylor’s banjo and guitar classes to weekend intensives in woodcarving, weaving, pottery, cooking and more.
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