- The Washington Times - Monday, October 15, 2001

Mary Layne, 43, had never tried her fingers at the piano until a few years ago. She had wanted to play since she was a young girl, but something always came in the way. Now, after four years of committed practice, she plays complex Mozart sonatas and Beethoven bagatelles.
"It's so relaxing," says Ms. Layne, a resident of Northwest. "It transports me from work" and occupies the mind and body.
Adults who take up an instrument later in life might not get the same recognition as the wunderkind piano player who plays Beethoven sonatas while barely reaching the pedals, or the young Suzuki violinist with the eager fiddle work. But the pleasures these adults receive from accomplishing these feats can be equally rewarding, many say.
Ms. Layne performs for small audiences when her teacher Mark Conrad arranges recitals for his students. But most of the time, she plays by and for herself.
Harold Yaffe, 53, of Alexandria, took up the clarinet after 27 years of relegating his instrument to "the cave, " he says. He had played during his childhood and adolescence and had a good foundation. He has surpassed his adolescent level of play.
"I am much better now. It took me about a year to get back to where I left off," he says.
Mr. Yaffe is currently working on Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto which is a 17-minute swirl of jazz and classical music, with sophisticated finger work, frequent high notes, drama and dreamy sounds. He says the piece was written for clarinet great Benny Goodman, who supposedly told Mr. Copland to simplify the music.
Mr. Yaffe will be performing the piece in November at the Levine School of Music in Northwest where he takes lessons from Brian Jones. He will also perform with the Capital Wind Symphony together with his teacher later this year, he says.
Mr. Yaffe and Ms. Layne are not alone in their pursuit of musical skills as adults.
"It's really common for people to come back to an instrument when they have achieved a certain amount of success in their career," says Yvonne Caruthers, a cellist with the National Symphony Orchestra, who also gives cello lessons. "They start looking for meaning in their life and something rewarding to do."

The quickly improved skill and success shown by Mr. Yaffe and Ms Layne can be attributed to the favorite refrain of all music teachers: practice, practice, practice. Mr. Yaffe, who is taking a hiatus from a job as an environmental consultant, practices up to 20 hours a week, while Ms. Layne spends up to 10 hours weekly on the piano.
"You have to be committed, and you have to practice every day," Ms. Caruthers says. "I tell my students, 'Get your instrument out and play every day, even if it's just for a few minutes, ' which easily turns into a half hour. But just do. Don't question it."
Children have a lot of advantages over adults who try to master an instrument, Ms. Caruthers says. They have fewer inhibitions and are better equipped physically to adapt to something new like gripping the cello, running their fingers across a piano's keyboard or blowing into a clarinet, she says.
"Holding a violin or cello bow is not 'natural,' and you can teach little kids to do it pretty easily," Ms. Caruthers says. "They struggle with a pen or pencil or a fork, so what's so tough about a bow?"
Adults can make up for some of these disadvantages through their superior persistence and ability to focus, local music teachers say.
"When an adult decides to pick up an instrument, it's usually with a real determination," says Mr. Jones, Mr. Yaffe's clarinet teacher at the Levine School of Music. "They don't have competing activities like soccer or gymnastics, the way kids do. They can focus."
Mr. Yaffe is on leave from his job, which allows him to practice so extensively. Ms. Layne makes it a point to play at least an hour a day after work as a crime researcher for different government agencies.
Another advantage adults have is they like to listen to classical music, as opposed to children's music of choice: Britney Spears and 'N Sync. By listening to how the "masters" interpret certain pieces, grown-ups can better perfect their own renditions.
"You have heard the music [youre playing] your whole life, and you have a connection with it," Ms. Layne says.
While an adult has more determination than most children, adults can gauge success more readily than a child and can lose steam quickly if they don't think they're making progress.
Sometimes Mr. Jones will suggest to students who seem easily discouraged that they try an easier instrument. The saxophone is generally considered more user-friendly than the clarinet.
And the piano is one of the most friendly instruments. When you hit the F key, the piano will always create the sound for F, as opposed to a cello, for example, where there are many ways of creating a specific note depending on the placement of your fingers.
Another easier "instrument" is vocals, which can even improve with age.
Jeanne Kelly, director of the Levine School of Music in Arlington, teaches vocals to more than 100 seniors.
"If you have a brain and breath, you can sing," Ms. Kelly says jokingly. "[Singing in a chorale] is something a relative novice can go into. You don't even have to be able to read music."
Ms. Kelly will sometimes tape the vocals for some of her singers if they can't read music.
Her seniors will be performing at the end of the year at a couple of senior centers and homes in Arlington.

Finding a music teacher should not be a challenge in this area, Mr. Jones says. There are enough professional musicians who also teach to go around.
The Levine School of Music, which has several area campuses, is one of the largest community music schools in the country with about 3,200 students, but the school can be on the pricey side for some. A half-hour lesson costs $38.50, while an hour costs $66.56.
Mr. Jones says a good way to find a music teacher is to contact a nearby high school and ask the band director if they know of any music teachers.
Ms. Layne picked up the newspaper and made about 10 calls before she found Mr. Conrad about four years ago.
"I just got a good feeling from talking to him," she says. She pays $50 an hour, which often turns into an hour and a half or more.
"Mark is great. He's not like a therapist. He doesn't cut you off when your time it up," Ms. Layne says.
Learning to play an instrument changes the way you listen to music, say students and teachers.
"I can understand the music better now," Ms. Layne says. "I am able to hear the left and the right hand and know what key it's in, and that enhances my enjoyment of it."
It becomes more meaningful, Ms. Caruthers says.
"I feel music with my body, mind and soul. It's like it's three-dimensional instead of two-dimensional."
Practice does make perfect, but an adult who picks up the flute or violin, or any other instrument, except perhaps vocals, is unlikely to become a professional musician, Ms. Caruthers says.
"It's partly because of what they are up against. They will be auditioning against people who have played for 25 years or more and who have a level of conditioning where playing the instrument becomes second nature and reflexive, " she says.
Mr. Jones agrees.
"Nobody may ever pay to hear them play, but there is some real love and hunger there," he says.
Ms. Layne describes playing the piano as more than just a pastime.
"It's part of my lifestyle. It's something that I have to do, or I wouldn't be happy," she says.

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