I set my axe down 40 years ago, can I find it again?
October 16, 2012 8:49 AM   Subscribe

Is it realistic to expect to be able to pick up an instrument after 40 years and relearn to play it?

Despite a life spent loving music, I honestly haven't seriously played an instrument since I was 18. That's 40 years, for you folks keeping score. I've lived around/been friends with musicians all my life from Iggy and David in Berlin thru to more eclectic types like Jon Silpayamanant nowadays, as sort of a hanger-on.

I'm tired of that.

Now, I listen to the music, and I feel like I want to be playing it again; I miss that awesome feeling (that I still remember!) of working together to make something beautiful happen. I even miss things like playing through the circle of keys, and the challenge of keeping in tune all the way through.

So, I'd like your experiences with coming back to music, if you were away. Did you come back to the same or a similar instrument? Did you take the opportunity to learn something new?

For my part, I was a brass player- trombone and french horn, primarily, although I remember picking up a baritone now and again.

So is it a realistic goal? I was a better than average high-school player, who was encouraged by a wonderful teacher.

Is the process of learning music different nowadays? By that , I mean are there new tools, etc, that I might not know about of should know about? If you came back after a long hiatus, what was hard for you?

Subquestion: Who makes good brass instruments today?
posted by pjern to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
So is it a realistic goal?

I think you should try to do this. I think you'd have no regrets trying, but will always regret not trying.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:57 AM on October 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

You should definitely try. I was shocked to pick up my cello after 20+ years and realize I could only kind of remember how to read the music and play it - but it also came back to me very quickly. Find another great teacher and have fun figuring out what blows your horn!
posted by ldthomps at 9:01 AM on October 16, 2012

I hadn't played the trumpet since I was 18. I'm now 35. Last year I moved back to my hometown, where my retired band conductor from high school had started up a town band while I was gone.

When I went to my first weekly rehearsal, the conductor had a little speech ready. He said that pretty much everyone in the band hadn't played their instruments in years when they'd started this up, and practices were basically five minutes of playing followed by 15 minutes of talk while people's lips and breath recovered -- it was OK to take it slow, in other words. He tells that to each new player we get.

And he was right. My fingers remembered how to play, but my embouchure and breath control were pretty much gone. But they came back! I can handle the high notes again! Just with regular weekly playing -- I slack off on practices between rehearsals, shamefully.

I didn't try changing instruments, and I'll be following this question to get tips on who makes good instruments, myself. But I definitely think you should return to playing. Just be easy on your lips when you start.
posted by rewil at 9:06 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

totally go for it...what's the worst that could happen? (Local man dies in face-mangling trombone accident!)
as for 'new learning methods'...are you a mac user? supposedly (havent tried it yet) the newer versions of garageband come with 'expert lessons' from sting and others (IIRC theres a bunch for free and more for purchase) but they might just be for guitar and piano...worth looking into...
posted by sexyrobot at 9:06 AM on October 16, 2012

I can still get a half-way decent sound out of my sax after 30 years not practicing regularly. My reading of music is okay (I've sung in choruses in the meantime) but the fingers are a little slower than they were when I was 18.

I would think being part of an ensemble would make it more likely for you to succeed.
posted by aught at 9:07 AM on October 16, 2012

It's gonna take some time to get your embouchure back, and if you've had dental stuff done, your mouth is going to have different qualities. But sure, you could do it, it will just take patience and persistence.

As far as new tools for learning music, yeah, there are lots of great things that help with this, but I don't know of anything really novel that is aimed at brass or wind players as such. But various technologies are useful to anyone. Digital audio recording makes it very convenient to record yourself practicing, for example. Software that slows down audio while keeping the pitch constant is great for transcribing music.
posted by thelonius at 9:09 AM on October 16, 2012

i played piano and clarinet for many years, then had to put it aside for when i was in college and graduate school. there is definitely some physical memory that remains, but some of the theory is fuzzy. i would suggest finding a local band or theater - nothing professional but skilled amateurs such as yourself, happy just to get back into making music again. for me i found a community theater troupe, dusted off my clarinet and away i went. it takes a while to get your wind and lips back, but you'll get there :)
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 9:11 AM on October 16, 2012

There's a story, probably anecdotal, but worth considering.

A woman finds a violin somewhere, let's say at an estate sale. She's always wanted to play the violin, so she buys it. She goes to a violin teacher and says, "Can you teach me how to play this?"
"I don't know," he says. "How old are you?"
"I'm 40," the woman tells him.
"No," the teacher says. "You're too old. You'll never be any good."
The woman leaves, crestfallen and hurt. She never touches the violin again.

She lives another 35 years, and at 75 she realizes what a mistake she's made. No, starting at 40 she'd probably never play in the symphony, but with 35 years of practice she could have had countless hours of enjoyment out of the instrument, and she would certainly have been able to play passably well.

It's likely that you've still got some muscle memory from your earlier experience practicing. But in the absolute worst-case scenario, you are starting from zero. So what? You can still get years of enjoyment out of it.
posted by gauche at 9:12 AM on October 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

I played violin from ages 7-21, and very seriously during high school and the first few years of college. Looking back, I was really good, but not quite good enough to go to a conservatory. My violin is sitting in my closet. I'm really disappointed in myself every time I attempt to play, and I have some tendonitis and other physical issues that tend to flare up as well. I've recently starting getting into fiddling and playing other non-classical music, though - I'll probably never play Saint-Saens again, but I'm trying to have fun with it.

TLDR; Just have fun with it.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 9:15 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lots of people learn to play musical instruments as adults having never played before. You have a leg up on those people, just in virtue of having some experience. Go to it!
posted by decathecting at 9:20 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I played piano reasonably seriously until the age of 18 (being a music major was a possibility) but only very sporadically in the 25 years since then. About 18 months ago when I decided to get some use out of the digital piano we'd bought mostly so my daughter could learn to play. Your skills will come back faster than you think. It took me 8 years of lessons to get to being as good as I was at 16 years old, but when I restarted in my mid-40s it only took me about a year (of not even as much practicing--3 hours a week tops) to get back close to that skill level. (I'm still not as good as I was at 18 though!)

One hard part for me, at first, was getting past the regret at not being able to play as well as I used to. When I pushed past that, the feeling of playing for the joy of it came back. The other hard part is setting aside time. The third hard part is the g-d*mn failing eyesight (I finally broke down and got some reading glasses).
posted by drlith at 9:22 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Haven't touched my viola in 15 years, started teaching my daughter how to play the violin a few months ago. My music reading is crazy rusty, and my fingering is not sure at all (although different clef/smaller instrument since she's 5 may have a bit to do with both of those) BUT I'm honestly surprised by how much of the fundamentals I do recall. I can get a good sound, my form is pretty solid and my vibrato and trills are coming back fast.

If you had a solid foundation I bet you'd be surprised how fast it would come back with a month or two of solid practice. For guitar the hardest part is going to be winning those calluses back!
posted by dadici at 9:25 AM on October 16, 2012

Heck, my mom learned to play guitar well starting at age 45 with no prior experience, so I'd say, heck yes. Get going.
posted by Miko at 9:36 AM on October 16, 2012

If you take up an instrument again, and practice for 20 years, I don't know if you'll be as good 20 years from now as you were when you were 18.

However - I do know that you'll be better than you would be if you didn't take it up again at all.

Just do it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:46 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Played bassoon in HS/college, dropped it for twenty years, and picked it back up again at age 42 -- with lessons and practice, after about half a year I was able to play in Stanford theatre pit ensembles, and local orchestras that were actually pretty good. And I was actually somewhat better than I had been at age nineteen -- probably mostly due to having significantly better practice discipline than I had had in my wayward youth.

I would advise you to find an instructor as soon as possible, and get into a group. I restarted with an orchestra for adult beginners, but was able to move on to better gigs after a few months getting my chops back. But being able to play with and measure yourself against other players will help enormously in getting in the groove -- a good place to look for possibilities is community colleges. Especially as a horn player, you should be able to find bands to jump into fairly easily.

One more thing -- there are a *lot* of people who do this -- I met all kinds of cool people in the orchestras in the Bay Area who had dropped and picked up various axes of all varieties in their lives. So another benefit of your journey is that you'll get to meet more awesome musicians.

Pick up the axe! :-D
posted by ariel_caliban at 9:48 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

My mom learned how to play the hammered dulcimer (hard as shit) in her mid 40s... I picked up a cello after not having touched one in 12 years and I was pretty shocked that I could still play the Bach Cello Suites after a few hours practice. Not well, mind you, but I could get through them.
posted by nathancaswell at 9:50 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wonder if it would help to give yourself permission not to be awesome right away? It's possible to take part in something beautiful without being as skilled as it sounds like the folks you hang out with are. I'm a big fan of scrappy honk bands like the Leftist Marching Band (motto: "Our music is better than it sounds."). Google doesn't know of a honk band near you, but maybe there's something similar?

As far as modern technology, I noticed a bunch of traveling trombonists last year started carrying pBones. Dunno how good they really are, but it could be a cheap, convenient way to test the waters?
posted by jhc at 9:53 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

There's a helpful community at The Trombone Forum with many stories of older people picking up the instrument again. Lots even at your age picking up the instrument for the first time(!) and learning to to become able players. Wonderful support network there with lots of advice and encouragement.

This is totally doable goal. If you just want to play and build tone and even participate in a community band, totally attainable at any age I think.

Good brass instruments can be a loaded question. Depends on your budget and what you want to play (jazz? classical? pop?). King has always been known for great jazz horns. Conn and Bach make great symphonic horns, but quality control hasn't been as good as it used to. Yamaha is a solid brand, and Getzen is not bad either.

The pBone sounds good, is light and cheap, but there's nothing like the actual feel and fullness of brass.
posted by xtine at 10:15 AM on October 16, 2012

I played the violin for 8 years, then gave it up 20+ years ago. I just ran into an old teacher of mine and he was very encouraging -- he says when he gets adult students who used to play it all comes back to them within about three months. Go for it!
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:35 AM on October 16, 2012

Oh hey! I played French horn in middle school and tried picking it up again a few months ago (so, 10+ years later). I was decent in middle school and I'm...less decent....after ten years of no practice, but I was astonished at how fast the fingerings came back. Your tone will suck, your embouchure will suck, but they come back. I'm never going to be in a pro symphony orchestra but I've got my sights set on the local community one (or a HONK! band) and that's good enough for me. Also it's fun! And very zone/flow-state. I like it, so I do it. Go ahead.
posted by athenasbanquet at 10:52 AM on October 16, 2012

The worst thing that could happen already has, and when you pick up your intsrument again you'll realize what it was: all those years without playing.

Go for it.
posted by mule98J at 11:04 AM on October 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Not only will you be able to do it again, with enough practice you will be better than you were at 18. I mean, you learnt for at most a decade as a kid. You should still brought able to play in 10 years and you're not even starting from scratch. You may not want to practice that much, but I've met several people who are conservatory graduate level who began from scratch as adults.
posted by plonkee at 11:10 AM on October 16, 2012

I played piano very well in high school, allowed my skills to atrophy during college, and then lived with no piano at all for ten years. I finally bought a digital piano two years ago and have been relearning to play the piano.

Really, the biggest problem is that there are a lot of pieces that I can remember playing, that I remember loving to play, that I can no longer play. (There are a handful of pieces that I just don't know how I played - surely my fingers aren't any shorter at 34 than they were at 17?) And I don't know whether I'm ever going to be willing/able to put in the work to get to the level I was then. That's frustrating. But on the other hand, I'm a grownup now and I understand that to a large extent, if I'm not as good as I want to be, it's because I'm not putting in the work, and if I wanted to put in more work I could be better. This is easier to understand now than it was when I was 17.

And there are also a lot of pieces that I can still play - pieces I was able to pick right back up, pieces I love. And as an adult I have a lot more control over what I play - I don't have to rely on my teachers' taste and preferences the way I did as a kid. And I have a lot more knowledge of music in general and know what I like, so that I will never again spend hours practicing a piano solo version of "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You."

I think the hardest thing about resuming an instrument is carving out time in which to practice.
posted by mskyle at 11:21 AM on October 16, 2012

I played clarinet at a very high level in high school and put it down after 9 years. Picked it up again (this was about 20 years ago) and it felt like I'd had a stroke or something. But it's NOT the same as picking it up from nothing. The pathways will come back.

I think it would be good to get a teacher, if possible, and work through beginner books as if you WERE starting fresh. That gives you the ego boost of mowing through some things (and probably getting stuck on things you might not have learned correctly or well the first time out), rather than the frustration of trying to "pick right back up" where you left it.

Perhaps a more similar situation - I played around with my brother's guitar as a 10 year old, never got very good at all, tried again for about a year back 15 years ago, then really got back after it 3 years ago. This time it's stuck, and I've really enjoyed working on it. And I still think those early experiences, while not all that successful, gave me a context for working on it that made it easier than starting fresh.

TL;DR - go for it.
posted by randomkeystrike at 11:22 AM on October 16, 2012

Not 40 years, but I took a ten-year break from clarinet, from the day I played in the graduation band, to the day my little sister asked me how to play a couple tricky parts in the exact same song.

It comes back.
posted by notsnot at 11:32 AM on October 16, 2012

posted by Aquaman at 12:51 PM on October 16, 2012

If the location in your profile is correct, you might want to contact your local New Horizons group. The one in my area has some people playing again after 40 years and more out of practice.
posted by dilettante at 2:33 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and in March I started playing again after 17 years off, myself.
posted by dilettante at 2:34 PM on October 16, 2012

My dad (now in his 60s) played guitar in a band in his teens, and then basically never played again, but when he sees a guitar at a friend's place, he can still pick it up and throw enough chords together to play something vaguely musical.

So, yes.
posted by !Jim at 8:22 PM on October 16, 2012

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