Age Matters-Maybe Less Than You Think

by Joyce Morton

Keynotes, March 1997

Do you recall Vladimir Horowitz' 1986 Moscow concert, a performance that touched some members of his audience so that they wept? I can remember being touched by his playing and also incredulous that he could play so well at age 82. Artur Rubinstein was another pianist who performed well into old age.

Were these two musicians anomalies? How many years can we expect to retain, and, yes, even develop skill sufficient to keep us at our beloved musical pursuits? (You begin asking yourself such questions about the time you start seeing your optometrist every six months for something that will allow you to both read music and recognize members of the audience.)

The Journal of Experimental Psychology recently reported on a study that found expected declines in the skills of older amateur pianists, but only minimal declines in the skills of older professionals, who were ranked only slightly below young virtuosos. What accounts for the difference? Here is what the researchers concluded.

The older concert pianists were not immune to the effects of aging, but they kept on practicing intensively, whereas amateur pianists practiced less and less. Motivated people can preserve their skills well into old age, "contrary to the common fateful belief that. . . age-related declines in skilled performance are inevitable."

While we're on this subject, I'll also pass along this anecdote. An audiologist friend went to the home of a 93-year-old woman for a hearing aid fitting. Both my friend Jane and the older woman have backgrounds in music. Jane graduated from an Ohio college with a degree in music; the elder woman is a former concert pianist and competition winner.

Before Jane departed, the elder woman sat down to play a Beethoven sonata. Jane later related that she was astounded, saying that she (Jane) had never played so well, even at her peak while in college. Jane said the woman's runs and trills were flawless. The arthritis that caused the elder pianist pain and difficulty of movement elsewhere in her body had not affected her hands. Could it have been the exercise of playing?

Sorry to rush off, but I've got to go practice!

Copyright 1997 Joyce Morton


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