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Elderly beginners enjoy violin / Many take advantage of teaching method tailored to different skills

I would shy from an invitation to try the violin--it seems like a difficult instrument that can only be played well if you've practiced since childhood--but recently a growing number of senior citizens have been taking up the violin for the first time in their lives.

Have I been letting ignorance deter me?

The sound of violins could be heard June 2 in a day-care service center for the elderly in Musashino, Tokyo. People in their 60s to 70s, many of whom are members of the Musashino Senior Ensemble, played the violins that day as part of music therapy conducted in the center to help prevent dementia.

"Ring your bells in time with the violins," the conductor told some elderly people who were playing handbells. Together they and the violinists played such famous Japanese pieces as "Furusato" and "Bara ga Saita."

"As long as I do this, I'll never become senile," said 63-year-old Jiro Muramatsu, a company president in the city and one of the ensemble's members.

His body moved gracefully as he played the violin, and I was surprised to hear he has played for only two years and practices just once a week. Muramatsu began playing the violin after seeing a notice about lessons for beginners in the city government's newsletter.

At the time, his music experience mainly comprised playing folk guitar a little about 40 years ago. He had never touched a violin, but thought if the city was soliciting participants, it should work out.

Muramatsu also wanted to try something new, as he had just passed 60.

For the first two months, he practiced without depressing the strings, only using his right hand to bow the string that produces the note of D. Though it was easy to make the sounds, the tone was mixed with noises like the rasp of a saw on wood.

Gradually, Muramatsu became able to play with his left hand as well. Six months later, he played at a music festival in Musashino.

"When I stood on the stage, I felt like I'd become more skillful in playing the violin," he said.

Muramatsu could play only seven notes at that point, but he was able to perform thanks to the coaching method devised by Hiromi Yamagami, 60, who taught his classes.

Yamagami graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts. After working as a professional musician, she has worked as the center's instructor since 1996.

Yamagami prepares four scores for each piece, for players with different skill levels. Beginners who can only produce D notes, for example, use a score containing just short and long D notes throughout. Because beginners play with more advanced performers, audiences can still enjoy the music.

"Though I played only D notes when I began the violin, I felt contented and I could play well when I joined the ensemble," Muramatsu said.

Everyone, he said, from beginners to people with long careers can feel fulfilled.

Another of Yamagami's methods is to invite students to join her music therapy activities, which she has pursued for 20 years.

The players visit facilities for the elderly and receive listeners' applause. Yamagami said players feel they have made a contribution to something, and as a result have more incentive.

Akira Kanbe, 83, of Musashino also learned the violin through Yamagami's lessons. He was invited to join an ensemble when he was 71 by a friend who said it was short of members. Kanbe felt he could not say no and began practicing the violin.

He gradually became enthusiastic about the instrument. After finishing Yamagami's lessons, Kanbe formed a music group with former fellow students of Yamagami and has continued his musical activities.

"I'll keep playing violin and golf until I die," Kanbe said.

Yamagami said she does not praise players with poor skills: "My learners are adults. They immediately notice a lie."

The important thing, she said, is to remove the psychological barrier for beginners.

"If people can continue practicing without getting fed up, they should realize how attractive it is," Yamagami said.

According to the nonprofit organization Zennihon Senior Ensemble Renmei, the number of groups of senior citizens playing the violin has been increasing. Many are starting to learn after retiring.

Organization head Akihito Serizawa said: "Playing musical instruments together with friends makes people happier. Many people around me are very healthy probably because they play music instruments."

Masaki Gunji, an associate professor of Seitoku University who is an expert on music therapy, said, "By trying the violin, elderly people with pride and intelligence may be able to gain intellectual stimulation."

Why don't we all abandon the idea that playing the violin is too difficult?

(Jun. 21, 2010)
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