Robert Estrin - piano expert

Do Musicians Slow With Age?

Discover the truth behind this interesting question

In this video, Robert discusses the idea that "getting old" means "getting slower"... is that a concept that can be applied to musicians as well?

Released on December 21, 2016

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to and, I'm Robert Estrin. Today's question is a very interesting one. It's, "Do performers play slower as they age?" And the answer to this question is surprising. Well, let's talk about this. Now we can talk about pianists, violinists, and other instrumentalists. You might think that as performers age, they would naturally get slower. After all, particularly the technique that some young players have, you'd think they couldn't maintain it as they get into their 60s, 70s. Some performers, even in their 80s and 90s. But there's really more to it. You will find that very young performers...for example, prodigies...oftentimes play very, very quickly. And as they get into their 20s and 30s, as they mature, oftentimes they start taking more time with the music. Is this because their technique has diminished since they were children? Absolutely not. Sometimes you can actually say more by taking more time with it. It's very important to realize that to cherish and nurture and caress each note, it can be akin to making love. It does not have to be rushed. And if you love your music, you want to craft it. Just like when talking with people. You don't want to talk so fast that it's hard to even digest what someone is saying.

Now here's the key. The technical aspect is one thing, but the other aspect is very important to realize. If you have a piece of music you've practiced, you may have played it through tens of thousands of times and, as a result, to you, it might seem slow because you can think it through so quickly. But somebody who has never heard that piece before, it could just go right over their head. So you want to take enough time for people to be able to digest the music. And this is something that's learned, the maturity of playing longer. Now there are no hard and fast rules. There are some older players who play very fast and younger players who take their time. I've heard dramatically different tempos from usual out of older and younger players. But generally speaking, the difference oftentimes between very talented student performers and professionals is the tempos they take.

Now on the flip side, many less seasoned artists tend to play slow movements too slowly and they can get bogged down because they're thinking the faster note value as the beat, instead of the longer note value. Thinking each measure or each half measure, instead of thinking every beat, can give a much more relaxed feel to the music and create a different type of tempo at the same time. So there are no hard and fast rules. But I would say, generally, older players indeed tend to get slower. Not because of technical restrictions most of the time, but because of a musical maturity. Thanks for the great questions. Again, and See you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

JJK on June 15, 2022 @9:29 am PST
One example might be Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations—obviously in his reinterpretation. But also length—almost 14 minutes longer in 1981 version than his 1955 recording.
Robert - host, on June 15, 2022 @11:51 am PST
That's a very interesting example of this since Glenn Gould certainly could have played any tempo he wanted to later in his life since he only lived to age 50.
Susan Schofield * VSM MEMBER * on January 9, 2019 @11:06 am PST
Would you comment on the adult learner? I started the flute when I was 62 (now 76) and enjoy it tremendously. While learning I feel 10 times slower than I did when I was a teenager in the band playing the clarinet.
Robert Estrin - host, on January 11, 2019 @12:02 pm PST
Playing and learning music is like anything else in life. Non-use causes atrophy. So, you are doing the right thing continuing to play music! People face different levels of physical and cognitive decline as they age. However, it's also possible that your recollections from childhood paint a rosier picture than the reality of the time. This is human nature, to remember the past with a rose colored lens! Ultimately, as long as you are enjoying playing music, that's what's important.
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on January 9, 2019 @8:15 am PST
I often travel to hear some piano competitions and it seems to me that while these youngsters have amazing capabilities and techniques, they play as if they were in a F-1 car race. The trouble is that the fastest gets the top prizes.
Gwenn Higgnbotham on December 23, 2016 @2:37 am PST
I always appreciate your musical perspectives, as well as your wife's most helpful
flute tips. Keep up the great work!!
Gwenn Higginbotham, Flautist
Akin-Ajayi Oluwaseun Collins on December 22, 2016 @6:46 am PST
Great stuff. Thanks.
Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on December 21, 2016 @7:42 pm PST
I've had discussions with a kinesiologist with respect to why golfers tend to lose distance as they age. His view is that distance is largely determined by the "speed" of one's nervous system, other factors being equal, and that as golfers age their nervous systems get slower, resulting in a slower swing speed and therefore less distance in the flight of the golf ball. If so, it would seem that this could apply to aging musicians also and along with increasing musical maturity could influence the speed at which he/she might, for example, comfortably perform a fast movement, such as typically found in the 3rd movements of concertos. It's an interesting theory, and maybe worth thinking about also.
AlessandroTronca * VSM MEMBER * on December 21, 2016 @7:13 pm PST
It's very true and, as always, so clearly and nicely expressed.

Thank you Robert and cheers from a middle-aged musician.

Maria * VSM MEMBER * on December 21, 2016 @12:00 pm PST
you are so right, Robert! As an older musician I take much more pleasure from the music I play than I used to when young, mainly I think because I'm listening more and understanding more of what the composer tried to say in his music. Take Bach, for example- when I was younger I found his music "thick" with notes- now I love the intricacy that a measured approach gives and I can get right "into" the music and loving every note.
Keep listening to what we play and enjoy it!
Robert Estrin - host, on December 22, 2016 @12:40 pm PST
Stop and smell the roses...
Christopher slevin * VSM MEMBER * on December 21, 2016 @11:29 am PST
Just had rotator cuff surgery on R. Shoulder . Doc says no piano for 3mos. Apart from practicing L Hand is there any melodic stuff I can play with left hand only?
Would appreciate your help.
Tammy Hall * VSM MEMBER * on December 21, 2016 @5:52 am PST
Great answer. As a flute player I find that most flute music is way too fast and tends to sound like practice sessions. Arpeggios and scales run amok. It sounds as if the performances have lost their musicality. Flutes, for that matter ALL instruments, have a wonderful tone and should be performed with that in mind. It seems that showing off has more value than easing the soul. It is the same with vocals. If I have to listen to another yodeling session of the 'National Anthem' I'm gonna scream. Even my adult children are over it with that style of singing. It parallels my argument that all instruments should just relax and give the listener an opportunity to truly enjoy the performance not feel like they have to race for the door.
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