In the past year I’ve been teaching a lot of ukulele classes in the Portland schools. I’ve also done a lot of shows at area retirement homes. I think that playing and teaching music with young and old has given me some insights into what music means to us at different times of life.
I’ve often said that kids are the best audience at shows, particularly when they are encountering live music for the first time. Adults are often a bit jaded about music. Young children however are often transfixed by what the musicians are doing, the beautiful instruments, the new and unfamiliar sounds.
Of course, my ukulele students aren’t always as enthusiastic about actually learning to play music as they are about just listening. Learning music is hard! Sometimes their hands are too small to press down the strings, or they just don’t have the small motor skills yet. Trained musicians make music look easy, which makes beginners frustrated when it’s not so easy after all. Many of them work very diligently though, and often really come through in the final concerts we do for the parents. Most of them like singing, and we do plenty of that. I don’t have kids of my own, so this is one of my only opportunities to interact with kids. I’m a strict teacher, because you have to be, but I make sure to enjoy the company of my students as well.
The seniors I play for at retirement homes, either with one of my bands or in a solo singalong situation, are in a variety of stages of aging. Some are still quite active, mentally sharp and very social. Others are in advanced stages of memory care. They all remember songs from their youth however, and this is usually what I play. Some are songs that I remember my grandparents singing. Sometimes we sing spirituals, visions of a better world that many believe awaits them. Like their very young counterparts, I’ve found that seniors are often very appreciative listeners, but they often respond to what touches their memories, and not to what is new and strange. I will often think a particular audience member is completely unresponsive, and then I will see them silently mouthing the words to the song. Musical memories are often among the last that remain.
Music plays many different roles throughout our lives. It is new and fascinating when we are little, hard work when we are trying to learn it, comforting when we are older. For some of us, it becomes a lifelong passion. It helps us fall in love, survive adversity, connect with our spiritual life, find peace in old age. Music is older than all of us and outlives all of us.