More adults taking music lessons

05:00 AM, Dec 07, 2013

Mary Bellini, left, began lessons with Olivia Frise after the last of her four children moved out of the house. She wanted to learn some peaceful music. (MATT WITTMEYER)/


Written By Melissa Balmain

If anyone deserves to be in this practice room at the Hochstein School of Music & Dance, standing beside a grand piano and joyfully belting out “O Sole Mio,” it’s 84-year-old Joe Mancini.

As a boy in Rochester, Mancini fell hard for his Italian parents’ opera records. So in high school, he did odd jobs and sold cardboard scraps to earn money, then traveled by bus and train to New York City on weekends to attend performances at the Metropolitan Opera House. Whenever he could, he would sneak backstage. Soprano Licia Albanese let him sit in her dressing room as she chatted with visitors. Tenor Giuseppe di Stefano once walked offstage while holding the last note of “La Donna è Mobile” and, spotting Mancini in the wings, winked at him.

Mancini’s own tenor, though, would seldom be heard outside the shower. True, he briefly took voice lessons in his 20s at the Eastman Community Music School. But when his teacher planned a solo recital for him — a big honor for a novice — Mancini chickened out a week beforehand, and the teacher angrily showed him the door.

I was very disappointed with myself,” Mancini says. “I never went back.”

Not until four years ago, that is, when he finally resumed lessons — this time at Hochstein.

I’ve matured a little,” the retired schoolteacher says, chuckling, during a break from a Friday session with instructor Sandra Boysen. “And with maturity, I’ve realized: What’ve I got to lose? If I’m bad, so what?” Mancini clears his throat for more singing as he rests a gnarled hand on the piano’s lid.

Better late than never!” he says.

It’s a popular refrain in and around Rochester, where more adults than ever are learning to make music. They are young professionals, middle-aged parents, and, above all, retirees. Some have sung or played instruments all their lives, but most are starting from scratch or picking up that clarinet or trumpet they haven’t tooted since middle school.

Hochstein and Eastman alone have roughly 500 adult music students between them, ranging from 20ish to 90ish, and trends suggest that number will grow.

We’ve been wanting to create more opportunities for adults because the demographic is changing — the population is getting older,” says Gary Palmer, Hochstein’s dean of students. “Adults these days are doing things that my parents’ generation wasn’t thinking of. It’s just a different world now.”

A world where children are reminding parents to do their piano homework, and where a music recital might mean an audience full of kids clapping for Grandma’s saxophone solo.

What makes so many old dogs want to learn new musical tricks? How does all this strumming, drumming, blowing and warbling change their lives?

The answers are as diverse — and often surprising — as the music itself, encompassing everything from renewed vitality to profound grief.

Soon after the last of Mary Bellini’s four grown children moved away, an upright piano moved in. It sits in the home office that Bellini, a math coach, shares with her husband in Greece.

I thought there was definitely time for me now,” says Bellini. At last, she could learn to play some of the soothing hymns she has always loved. “I think after you have four kids, you’re on a constant search for peace and quiet.”

James Longenbach, on the other hand, wanted to shake things up. When he began studying the lute three years ago, it was after 40-odd years as an amateur pianist.

I’ve played all the Chopin nocturnes, the Beethoven sonatas, and if you’ve played them all and you’re not a professional, after a time you just play — you don’t practice,” says Longenbach, a University of Rochester English professor, poet and critic. “I was repeating myself rather than reinvigorating real challenges. So the idea of learning a new instrument, of being a beginner again, was extremely attractive.”

Some adults see music lessons as a way to enjoy those tomorrows with loved ones — playing duets with family and friends, entertaining houseguests, joining an ensemble at their church. Others start because their children are taking music lessons and it looks like fun. Still others have kids who have quit their lessons, and they hate to waste a perfectly good horn/guitar/flute.

Rich Spencer had wanted for ages to start piano lessons. But the busy Pittsford financial adviser kept postponing them — until the recent death of a nephew.

I realized you can’t keep putting your dreams off until tomorrow,” Spencer says, “because you don’t know how many tomorrows you have left.”

Last spring, 58 years after canceling his would-be debut, Mancini took the stage at Hochstein in a tuxedo. Boysen, his teacher, wore a gown. While dance students twirled, the two adults sang a duet from Sunset Boulevard.

I got on that stage and I was looking around like a peacock — like, ‘Look at me, I’m onstage singing!’ ” Mancini says. At one point, blinded by a combination of bright lights and cataracts, he lost his place in the music. But he quickly found it again and all was well. After the recital ended, a couple of women told him how nice he looked in his bowtie, and he offered to send them another tie — autographed.

I can’t believe how cocky I got,” Mancini says, turning a bit pink. “I guess I was feeling pretty good about myself.”