It’s a Wednesday night in November and a doctor, a software engineer, a CFO and I are rearranging the furniture in a cramped, overheated room on the third floor of a late Victorian landmark in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood. A young professor arrives flushed from the cold and quickly jumps in to help. We swap stories about rush-hour traffic, complain about parking, exchange home renovation tips and inquire about upcoming holiday plans.
A staff meeting across town has just ended, and the sixth member of the group is running late. She texts to say we should start without her. Papers shuffle, pencils drop, someone asks where we left off last week. It could be the start of a board meeting or a parent association planning their next fundraiser. Then suddenly, the professor snaps his fingers, counts to four, and the sound of swinging eighth notes fills the air.
Halfway through the song, the bass player arrives. A top anesthesiologist by day, she deftly maneuvers the cumbrous instrument through a narrow channel, kicks off her shoes, and joins in for the final chorus. The patients and employees, spouses and children, the homework and the laundry will have to wait. For the next 90 minutes, it’s all about the jazz.
Ours is just one of several groups rehearsing tonight at the New England Conservatory’s (NEC’s) School of Continuing Education. Elsewhere in the building, a U.S. postal worker hammers out a Monk tune on a Steinway grand; a high school principal channels her inner Bessie Smith; a suburban mom, a journalist, and a semi-professional drummer study Afro-Cuban rhythms with a renowned Russian jazz pianist; a college student on a gap year explores a latent obsession with the saxophone.
More than 300 students participate in NEC’s continuing-education programs, which include classes, private instruction and small ensembles in classical and jazz genres. They come from New England and abroad, from a range of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. But they share a desire to grow technically and creatively as musicians and to carve out space in their lives for artistic expression, regardless of age, training or circumstance.
And they’re not alone. The American Academy of Arts & Sciences reports a rising number of adult students entering continuing education programs since the early 2000s, with a notable increase among 55- to 65-year-olds. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, growth in the humanities sector makes sense, but broader awareness of the benefits of art making on human health and development may also be a factor.
In recent years, numerous studies have made headlines about the positive effects of music training on brain, behavioral and cognitive development in young children. Often cited by arts policy advocates, these studies bolster arguments about the important role music education can play in a child’s overall development at a time when school music programs are falling prey to systemwide budget cuts.
But what about the effects of music education on adult learners? Can hours spent reading, practicing and performing music impact health in midlife and beyond? Popular writer Malcolm Gladwell asserted in Outliers that one can achieve mastery in anything they practice for 10,000 hours. Meanwhile, Suzanne Hanser, chair of the music therapy department at Berklee College of Music, noted: “Research shows that making music can lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, reduce stress and lessen anxiety and depression.”
Other studies link musical activity throughout life with enhanced immunological response, and improved memory, auditory skills, and language processing. In a culture obsessed with finding the fountain of youth, studying music may just be the holy grail.
For some, the continuing-ed program is one of the best deals in town. Students in NEC’s certificate programs, for instance, have access to the same facilities, perform in the same recital halls, and study with many of the same world-class musicians as full-time conservatory students for a fraction of the cost of a traditional master’s program. For those who go on to pursue advanced degrees or who transition to careers in music performance, business, education or administration, the return on investment is presumably high for both the student and the field at large.
For most musicians, however, health and economics seldom figure into the equation. At its core, music is a language—arguably, the best one we’ve got. At once, our most primitive and most sophisticated mode of communication, it has signaled danger, brokered peace, joined families, honored the dead, preserved whole histories and satisfied the human animal’s irrepressible need for self-exploration and creative expression for millennia. More than any other art form, music has the power to transcend cultural difference, connecting us to one another and to our ancestors through an endlessly recursive loop of creation and iteration.
On any given night at NEC, adult musicians gather to play, create, experiment and take risks together. In so doing, we re-activate our child brains and listen to each other as we did before the responsibilities of grown-up life took over. On a good night, we leave just enough space for an idea to take hold and echo in the lines and patterns that follow like poetry. On the best nights, we perform as one organism, tuning in to subtle non-verbal cues, shifting leadership and direction fluidly, yielding to the flow with curiosity and acceptance. These moments are few and fleeting, especially for those just starting out, but they change us in ways even science can’t fully explain.
Ronee Saroff is assistant director of digital content and strategy at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a certificate student in jazz studies at New England Conservatory’s School of Continuing Education.