Friday, August 30, 2013

Stage of the Aging Learner

Herman Cole, a new friend I met on the bus to Gooik.
Photo courtesy of Herman Cole.
"Are you frustrated with the stage?" Greet Garriau, asked. She was leading Trekharmonica beginners during Stage voor traditionele Volksmuziek in Gooik, Belgium. Greet is an excellent trainer and had sensed that I was having a difficult time in her class (called a stage in Dutch and a workshop in English).

Yes, I was frustrated. During the preceding seven days I had experienced disappointment, annoyance and failure. At times I had been angry and at times sad.

I answered that I hadn't known what to expect and any frustration was in the past. Since then I have pondered the implications of her question, my own feelings about this, my very first music stage and how I might have arrived better prepared.

A musical workshop often requires the ability to hear and then play a tune at increasing speed, while quickly recalling details about the fingering and articulation. For younger learners this can be challenging but is feasible. For aging learners, it can be a hill too steep to climb.

The aging process increasingly disables the very abilities that support learning new musical skills. The stage of the aging learner features a fading short-term memory, loss of acute hearing particularly at higher pitch, reduced agility, dimming vision, increasing confusion and other assorted physical challenges. I suppose that is why you can't teach an old Doc new tricks, not easily at least.

I learned a nifty new way to wash dishes
Even so, the workshop experience can be seductively rewarding. I thought the opportunity to be part of a group of musicians simply invaluable. It helped keep me young at heart. Well, it along with these daily statin pills, one can hope. New tunes, new techniques, new friendships, and new musical growth were well within my reach. I made lots of new friends. However, grasping those desirable musical outcomes will require my making changes to accommodate my handicaps.

Charlotte is a young stage veteran
A typical approach in a diatonic accordion workshop is to learn a melody phrase by phrase, memorizing the sound, the fingering, and whether to push or pull each note. The teacher slowly plays the example followed by the students in unison. This repeats at increasing speed and then proceeds to the next section of the tune, sometimes from the beginning, sometimes not. The left hand is added after the melody is in place.

At times the class started playing part way through the melody, requiring that I remember where a passage fits in the entire tune and to accurately recall which button to press, with which finger, and whether it is on the push or pull. This must occur without having the prompt of the preceding notes or the left hand. (The basses and chords tend to dictate whether one should push or pull, like those stepsisters ordering Cinderella around.) Having a score is like having a treasure map with a big X marking where to find the right button and bellows direction.

Throughout the class the teacher works with individuals who are having difficulty, while the rest observe. So, in an hour of class I might play one-third of the time and listen the rest of the time. In the seven days I recall approximately two hours being devoted to solo practice. I could have used two weeks and might still be working on learning the tunes.

First rule is never skip lunch with Ilse and Hilde
For me the biggest challenges were the impact of a tattered short-term memory, diminished finger agility and increasing difficulty hearing and interpreting what I hear. With so few effective repetitions I could not reproduce the melody, fingering, bellows direction and finally bass and chord patterns even if I stopped and thought about it, which by the way, just slays your rhythm. As we proceeded I increasingly fell behind. At first I desperately stole from my breaks and meals to practice, nearly becoming a social nonentity.

When we played in unison, the din masked the sound of my own instrument and made it difficult to determine what I was playing and remember what I should be playing. I found myself cocking my head to put one ear against my accordion and desperately wishing to plug the other so I could hear myself think. Sticking a finger in your ear while pumping the bellows might be possible but not for me.

I often inadvertently provided a strange harmony by being a third too high or too low or on the wrong row and only realizing my mistake during a quiet passage. Chris Ryall says that some musical intervals add more color than others. My wandering around the keyboard undoubtedly produced music so splashed with color it was like Jackson Pollock at his most enthusiastic.

Greet Garriau did her best to keep us limber
In the classroom, I found myself skipping the difficult sections and shedding the left hand, sometimes hitting only a few correct passages while repeatedly pushing the wrong buttons. I tiptoed along at the lowest possible volume to avoid disrupting the others.

Actually that is not true. I played quietly to avoid standing out as the guy who couldn't learn a lousy eight measures in an entire week. I was already known as the guy in the hat. How embarrassing to be the stupid guy in the hat. This, in turn, markedly diminished the value of the repetition for learning a tune and totally confused my fingers and brain as to the correct action for playing the tune. They were raw recruits marching to a drill sergeant with hiccups, hopping around totally bewildered.

In the classroom we might finger a passage between 15 and 30 times. As an experiment I measured my own repetition requirement. It was often a stunning ten times larger. To recall the melody and reproduce the same passage at speed with chords, I required between 150 and 200 correct repetitions, without any distractions. Ouch.

To add injury to insult, I became lame from trying to cope with a seat that was too high. For long periods I foolishly raised my leg by flexing my ankle even though I knew better. The resulting muscle tear, though small, was quite painful and had me hobbling along the cobblestones feeling increasingly frail.

Ending with a flourish
Even though I was at times very frustrated, I heartily encourage mature learners to fully participate in the stage. I certainly intend to at the very next chance.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to be in the workshop with such a passionate and talented teacher. That Greet is a marvel. When she plays a Scottish I couldn't help bouncing in my chair. Her pulsing waltz and mazurka? To die for.

I learned a lot. For one thing, I no longer fear playing in a group. When 20 accordions slam into gear and pop the clutch, it really doesn't matter which buttons you push, so what's to lose? Plus I'm much better at surfing only the easy parts and finishing on that last note -- almost always an A in my experience -- with a grand flourish, making quite an impression.The trick is to start hunting for that last button about midway through the tune.

When I look back I realize that Greet provided everything that I needed. She slipped me a score for that first tune as soon as I asked. By the next day I had the score for every tune. Greet played slow and normal speed versions of each tune and encouraged us to record them. We started each day with stretching exercises and often had breaks to work out kinks in our fingers and body. She considered asking whether I needed solo practice but was not sure how I might feel about being singled out. She even carried my accordion as I leaned on her shoulder. Now that's above and beyond duty.

I, not Greet, was the broken training link. I did not understand how to use what she offered and I didn't tell her what else might have helped. Here are some suggestions to myself. I hope to try them in my next stage. Now let's see, where did I leave my blog? I already looked under the bed, not there. Anita?
  • Bring a music stand. Ask that the trainer provide a partition (sheet music) and tablature for each tune or exercise. Ideally this would be transmitted via email or Internet download ahead of time to allow an early start at memorizing. During the workshop the printed score helps substitute for short-term memory and the music stand optimally positions the score for reading without strain. Consider printing the downloaded score in large format to make it easier to see those tiny dots and faint lines.
  • Bring a computer, microphone and ear phones. Use GoldWave (an audio editor) to monitor my own playing via the ear phones. This would allow me to hear myself play while somewhat diminishing the din of the class.
  • Request additional solo practice time. Work with the teacher to create individual breakout sessions, perhaps during the time the class is first learning the melody. Agree on what I should practice and when I should rejoin the class. Use the time to create muscle memory and long term memory by repeatedly rehearsing the assignment.
  • Bring a quality video recording device and a tripod. Record the teacher's playing each tune through in slow, medium, and fast versions, zooming in on the fingering of right and left hand. Ideally this would occur at the start of the class, providing visual and audio examples to use in solo practice. If the video is available for download prior to the workshop, even better. The tripod lets me video a closeup without blocking the view of others. It also serves as an adjustable music stand with the addition of a paper clamp or two, so I must remember to pack those clips.
  • Bring an audio player. Use GoldWave to convert the video to an audio file and to create short segments for practice and for listening during off times. During solo practice, play along with the audio from the video example, looping short sections. Pause the audio to focus on my own play without the distraction of other sounds.
  • Record myself playing each segment of the tune during solo practice. Listen to the teacher then to myself to help to provide feedback that I would have received along the way in the classroom. 
  • Bring a folding chair or stool that fits me. Use it in the classroom and for solo practice to avoid the stress of a seat that is too high, two low or too hard.
  • Bring a sense of humor and an appreciation for being included. Realize that it will be frustrating, Get over being angry or sad about my abilities. Know that I will also feel happiness and joy at the wonder of even being in the workshop. The experience and the memories count. Learning the tunes and techniques is a by product.
If I could answer Greet Garriau's, "Are you frustrated with the stage?" after having a week to think about it, I would say, "I was very frustrated with myself, disappointed and even angry that I was unprepared to be a good student and participate fully. I hope next year will be different". I do hope that my journey will include many more stages. I simply need to learn how to be that better student by using technology as my crutch and by working with my teacher to overcome my handicaps.


Offering advice to a teacher about how to teach is a delicate matter. I presume to do so based on being a certified trainer and an aging learner. To improve my type of learner's experience and to deliver a workshop that does not discriminate against the aging learner consider these approaches.
  • Open a conversation about the impact of age on learning. Youngsters, adults and elderly students learn in different ways and require different approaches. Help your aging learners understand that they may feel frustration and encourage them to communicate honestly with you about their emotional response and what might make them more effective learners.
  • Provide video, audio and printed memory aids as part of the class. Ideally these would be available for download ahead of time. The aging learner often has the time and dedication to start early in hopes of avoiding the struggle to keep up with the other participants. Scores in computer format allow printing in larger fonts, making it much easier to read on screen or on paper.
  • Create time for solo practice for those who need it with clear assignments about what to accomplish and when to return. Introduce the concept of solo practice at the beginning of the class before anyone falls behind to avoid any negative connotation. Managing two schedule tracks can be challenging. The reward is in allowing the aging learner to fully benefit from the playing time you have already built into the class schedule. As a result you may spend less time correcting individual incomprehension in the classroom and can devote that time to shaping the learning experience for the group. 
  • Look critically at the seating to be sure it fits the learner's body. Sitting in an inappropriate chair for hours at a time can do damage, especially to those with less robust circulation and those who take daily aspirin or the like.
  • Appreciate that these learners have decided to join the class despite knowing that it may be difficult and fearing that they will be unable to participate. They often bring an abundance of experience and determination. Helping them achieve their goals provides a special reward for them and for you.

Phil Jones, PhD

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