When Rio Rancho’s retired city manager, 60, tried a cello lesson, he found that practicing lifted his mood at the end of the day.
When a tennis instructor, 75, injured her knee and could no longer play, she began studying piano. She fell in love with the instrument.
When a construction company owner, 71, picked up the trumpet at 55 after studying it in his youth, he discovered there was a whole new world of music theory and technique.
And when a retired lawyer, 73, took up the guitar six years ago, he didn’t think he was so great at first, but he’s confident he’ll be recital-ready by the time he’s 80.
These are the stories of some of the Albuquerque area’s 60-and-up residents who began or resumed music lessons later in life. And as they tell the Journal of their joys and pride in learning their chosen instruments, their teachers report that their older students approach lessons differently than their younger ones and gain both physical and mental benefits.
Bill Biffle played trumpet from junior high school until freshman year in college. But it was decades later, when he started again, that he began to understand what mastering an instrument means.
“When I was young, you had the music books and you play and get better if you could. Now, there’s a tremendous amount of information, none of which I learned as a young man,” said Biffle, 71, owner of Huning Castle construction management. “I had no idea when I was a kid how hard playing the horn is.”
A self-described comeback, he hadn’t learned how to use his tongue at the mouthpiece or how to control the airstream until he took five years of lessons.
On his second time around, the instructor focused on jazz and improv techniques, which Biffle hadn’t studied before. Now he practices every day, usually in the late morning because his work schedule is flexible.
In his spare time he plays in several bands. “It’s a physically demanding act as well as an intellectual challenge,” he said.
Tennis to piano
Maria Nyberg-Garcia of Corrales spent much of her youth in Brea, Calif., as a tennis player and became an instructor. But keeping up with the game got harder as years passed.
“I had to give up my tennis because of bad knees,” said Nyberg-Garcia, 75, mom to two adult daughters and grandmother to three grandchildren.
So three years ago she contacted her friend, Evelyn Losack, 85, who has taught piano, organ and voice since she was 18 and who was happy to take on her friend as a student.
“I practice and practice,” Nyberg-Garcia said.
She uses the piano in her home that her daughters used when they were young. “I can pick up a sheet of music now, and understand a lot of the meaning behind the notes, the characters in the sheet music. It’s really more complex than I anticipated, but it’s good to learn what’s behind the philosophy of music.”
Losack said she’s noticed a difference between her young students and her older learners like Nyberg-Garcia. “The younger students, they don’t have the sense of rhythm. And it’s hard for some of them to discipline their hands. They’ll try to take the easy way out … they spend too much time on the computer! The older students, they’re determined.”
James Jimenez loved listening to 78s with his father growing up. “It always provided me with joy and comfort and solace during bad times,” he said.
Once he retired as Rio Rancho city manager, he and his wife began to travel, visiting Alaska, northern Europe and the Caribbean. They also began music lessons – he on the cello and mandolin, she on ukulele and guitar.
“I’m just at the point when I’m beginning to develop some decent beginner skills,” Jimenez, 60, said of his cello chops. “It’s incredibly rewarding to me, even if I just stumble through. It’s amazing to play notes that were written by Bach.”
Besides learning classical music on the cello, he’s studying jazz on the mandolin with another teacher. “For me to be able to learn to play those songs is so much fun.”
Since retiring from full-time work, he works part-time as the director of research and policy at Voices for Children. “No matter what my day’s been like, after an hour of practice, even if it’s a frustrating practice, I always feel better … to be able to make music is really satisfying to me.”
Readying for a recital
It’s equally satisfying for Chuck Wellborn, 73, a retired corporate lawyer. He’s another “comeback” who studied the guitar for two years starting at age 8, without much motivation.
He picked it back up in private lessons about six years ago. “It’s a lot more fun, because you have time to practice,” he said.
He enjoys learning jazz standards from his instructor, who also teaches him when to use a major or a minor chord. The one-hour lessons cost about $40.
“I try to understand the sorts of things that make jazz interesting to listen to, but give you a chance to personalize every song. Guitar is really a cool instrument.”
He hasn’t joined a group or performed, because he said he doesn’t think he’s good enough, at least not yet. “By the time I’m 80, I’m gonna be really good. It may not be realistic, but there it is.”