When Seniors Say “That’s Just Kids’ Stuff”

Here’s a conversation I’ve had a few times before:

Scene: Assisted living facility, immediately following a music therapy group that included singing, movement to music, and instrument playing

Me: (picking up instruments) Thank you for coming today, Marta.

Marta: (handing me a djembe) I didn’t like that. That was just kids’ stuff. A bunch of noise.

Me: Oh, okay. Well, thank you for trying, Marta. I know that was something different than usual.

Florence: (another group member passing by, whispering conspiratorially) We really liked it. Come back soon. (wink)

This brief interaction serves as a reminder for me for two main lessons.

Lesson #1: It is my job to bring dignity and adult-ness to the music-making experience for my senior clients.

I remember talking with a music therapist back during my student days who never used instruments with older adults, because she felt that it was too childish for them. I have also observed “kitchen band” -type activities before that involved passing out cheap jingle bells and dowel rod rhythm sticks and telling everyone to play while someone banged away on the piano, seemingly without much effort to create MUSIC together. On the other hand, I have seen instrument playing energize and excite some seniors more than other musical experiences I have to offer. So, I have some methods for creating and maintaining the dignity and adult-ness of instrument playing experiences.

  • I use quality instruments. I choose instruments that look authentic (not like plastic kids’ toys) and that sound good. I also make sure to keep them in good repair and to weed out the damaged instruments.
  • I call instruments by their proper names and talk about how they’re made and where they come from, when possible. I’m working on collecting some of that information in my Tools of the Trade series. The Music Therapy Drumming site is another great place for information about instruments and how to play them. Speaking of which…
  • I teach basic playing technique. At minimum, I always make sure a client can get some kind of pleasing sound from an instrument. Many clients also appreciate knowing more standard playing techniques, like how to get a good bass tone from a djembe. Even if someone can’t reproduce a technique exactly, I think it shows them respect to at least show them how.
  • I make sure everyone is making music (not just noise) at his or her own ability level. Sometimes all a group can handle musically is playing a steady beat or starting and stopping together. So, I sing or play a familiar tune as the frame for their instrument playing. Sometimes I play recorded music as that backbone structure, and I use conducting techniques to facilitate solos or ensemble playing within the group. No matter what, we take whatever group members are doing musically to form our group song. Everyone is part of the music.
  • I use age-appropriate musical structures. When we sing a song or play recorded music to give structure to our instrument playing, I always choose songs that are familiar to the participants or that sound “grown up,” like some Irish fiddle tunes or African drumming music.
  • I listen when clients seem to be uncomfortable with trying instrument playing, and I always praise the group for trying something new or out-of-the-ordinary. Also, we always laugh together about putting out our gold record or going on the road for our concert tour.

I really do try to make instrument playing experiences feel like making real music with other adults, not playing around with a bunch of toddlers. Still, not everyone likes it. That brings us to the next lesson:

Lesson #2: Not every music experience works for every person.

This is true even for people who consider themselves to be “musical.” Just because they like to sing or used to play violin doesn’t mean they’ll enjoy improvisational percussion playing, and that’s okay. So, when I have a conversation like the one that started this post, I can do a few things:

  • Accept that person’s opinion as valid. This drumming stuff is a bit out-of-the-ordinary, at least where I live, in the Kansas City area.
  • Acknowledge what that person is saying, and thank them for trying it anyway.
  • Ponder what would make the instrument playing experience feel better for that person without taking away from the other participants’ experience. I can ask that particular person what they would like to do differently, or I might just need to think about what the particular barrier might be for them.
  • Make sure that person knows it’s okay not to come back if they don’t want to. Also, make sure that any activity or nursing staff members that might be assisting residents to a group know that this person isn’t interested in coming anymore.

Active music-making can be such a rewarding experience for seniors that it’s worth trying at least a few times. I admire all of the seniors who are courageous enough to try something new when they come to a drumming or instrument-playing group, and I will continue to do my best to help them have an enjoyable music-making experience.

Have you ever felt that an instrument-playing experience was too childish? What have you done to make sure that adults enjoy the music-making experience, too? Leave your thoughts below!

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4 thoughts on “When Seniors Say “That’s Just Kids’ Stuff”

  1. Stephanie says:

    Hi, Rachelle! Your post was very well-timed for me as I had drumming on the schedule for my adult aphasia group today… great reminders! I always try and talk about the origin of instruments when I can find the information, and I definitely agree with you about leaving the “kids” instruments at home. What a great reminder that if we keep dignity and age-appropriateness in the forefront of our minds, we can help adults – even those who haven’t played drums before – have a great experience!

    • soundscapemusictherapy says:

      So true! I feel so privileged to be able to help others experience drumming, too. What a great job we have!

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