I began working as a piano accompanist for the Creative Aging Choral Initiative completely by chance. The Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission wanted to create a senior’s choir as part of their Creative Aging program, and when I saw the opening for an accompanist, I jumped at the chance. My references were in order, my resume was up to date, and I felt like I had the experience to win the job. I submitted the application in person, I had my interview over the phone while waiting in a hospital parking lot, and…
I didn’t get the job.
I thought for sure it was because I was 22 years old, and they thought that I wouldn’t be able to connect with the singers as well. I admit I was apprehensive about teaching and assisting people when I was the same age as their grandkids. In reality, though, it was because the woman who won the job had more than a decade of choral directing experience, a degree in piano, could have picked her references from the Who’s-Who of choral musicians in northern California, and was simply more awesome than me in every measurable way. After meeting her, I couldn’t in good conscience begrudge the Commission for choosing her.
She promptly injured her hand and was unable to play, however, so I stepped in as a temporary (and later permanent) part of the directoral leadership of the group. I held sectionals with the men (as the main director was a woman and couldn’t sing in their range, despite her formidable talent!), directed some rehearsals, taught three month-long courses in choral harmony, and am in the early stages of planning a music reading and sight-singing course for current and future senior singers. It has been one of the greatest joys of my life thus far, and it has made me a better person and a much better educator (though I’ve still got a long way to go)!
This isn’t about me, however, and I’m sorry I spent so long in background. It’s just important to understand how inexperienced and unprepared I was to teach this specific age group, because that reality enabled me to learn many of the things I’m going to share with you.
Although I was involved with rehearsing a performing ensemble and was teaching music specifically, I think there’s a lot that can be carried over into non-musical educational environments as well. Most of what I’ve learned boils down into understanding five concepts: Youth, Empathy, Having and Tempering Expectations, Humor and Having Help.
It’s counter-intuitive to think of seniors as youthful, especially at my age. They’ve seen a lot more than I have, they have had their entire careers, bore and raised children, and have probably lost more friends than I’ve even known. But one of the things that has helped me teach aging adults the most is remembering that in your specific area of expertise, they are very young indeed! Many of the singers we brought into the fold had never sung before, or had not sung for 50 some-odd years. As their teacher, you are there to guide them and impart knowledge to them that you have and they don’t. As soon as I understood that I knew more about singing and vocal music than the singers I was helping, the age gap became irrelevant.
Seniors are also youthful in that they are very eager to learn and progress! The amount of effort I see many singers take to learn their music amazed and encouraged me, regardless of the results. Remember always that your students are there because they want to be, perhaps even more so than college students my age (who feel societal pressure to attend a university). They will take whatever steps they need to learn the material, as long as you present it to them in a way they can understand and retain between classes.
I wake up in the morning and I get out of bed. I stretch, eat, shower, get dressed, and usually drive somewhere. Many of the people in my choir have issues doing one or more of the things I just mentioned. In a physical activity like singing, it is important to remember the capabilities of your students and to play to their strengths. People don’t get to be old without battle scars. They are adults and will be honest about what they’re able or unable to do; we as teachers need to be creative in how we use that information. Some decisions will be simple: put hearing-impaired students at the front (to be closer to the director and to have strong singers behind them). Make spaces for wheelchairs. Only make the students stand when absolutely necessary, and even then, understand that some of them won’t be able to.
Other examples I ran into included seating one of the more robust singers next to a gentleman with Parkinson’s, so both of them could read off of the same music. Printing large music for sight-impaired folks or making space for a service dog were also steps we took. Again, presenting the material in an understandable and memorable way sometimes involves thinking outside the box, but being empathetic towards the struggles of being a senior is crucial in being effective in teaching them.
Having and Tempering Expectations:
Having expectations and goals is necessary for teaching a class. We began the choir with the question, “What do we want this group to be able to do?” The answer was this: we wanted the choir to be able to put on a full hour-long performance without any other acts or ensembles to fill out the time. It was ambitious, and in retrospect I think it was an excellent idea to aim high.
It took us two years to even come close to this goal, and in understanding the life situations of the seniors with whom we were working, it’s easy to understand why.
Older adults, by and large, value a steady schedule with routine appointments and activities. As someone whose calendar looks like a Jackson Pollock painting, I definitely understand the appeal! That said, being a part of an aging adult’s weekly schedule means that those who participate will be there with remarkable consistency. You don’t run into a lot of the problems you do with younger students: scheduling conflicts, extracurricular interference, or a simple lack of desire to attend class that specific day. The participants we had were there as often as they were able, with several of them signing up for every session for the whole two year period!
The “tempering expectations” part comes from an understanding of how often aging adults are really able to be a part of something like this. Singing is a physical activity, like I said above, and the inconsistency of an older person’s situation leads inevitably to a certain amount of flux in the attendance and participation of a group. Older adults are adults, and perfectly capable of handling the responsibility of being in a class, but declining health (or sudden health concerns), chronic illnesses, and familial obligations often call even some of the most committed learners away.
Understanding that led us to plan for the long haul, and it was successful mainly because the consistency of our core singers, their retention, and their continual improvement enabled a lot of the newer and weaker singers to learn and catch up more quickly.
In spite of all the negative aspects of growing older, the vast majority of seniors I have worked with enjoyed laughing (what a concept!). I feel like it hardly needs to be said that having and employing humor improves a learning environment. I was surprised, however, that the brief pauses between what was certainly challenging material enabled a lot of our scholars to focus more easily. In a university environment, I felt that although humor made the class more enjoyable, it didn’t directly affect how successful the students were at learning the material. In this setting, though, I believe it had a noticeable positive impact.
A note about ESL students: humor and jokes are obviously less effective when the person trying to understand them is from a different culture/language. However, older adults who are new to America are relatively rare compared to those who have been here a while, and as such, the average cultural awareness and understanding of humor was quite a bit higher than you’d find in a high school classroom. (This isn’t scientific research, of course, but definitely something I observed.)
Like all other classroom environments, it’s a lot tougher when you’re going it alone as a teacher. You’ve got to make use of all of the resources available to relieve some of the burden of responsibility you bear.
Having an additional co-teacher was extremely beneficial to the cohesion of the lesson plan that the director put forth. We had in the group (in addition to me at the keys) another woman who had considerable choral experience wandering back behind the group, answering questions, singing parts to reinforce sections, and generally being a stabilizing influence on the group.
This worked really well! Seniors are generally good at communicating their issues, and have no problem asking questions when they are having difficulty (anyone who has been in a college environment with an aging adult knows how aggravating this can sometimes be). Having a second person with the knowledge base to handle those issues who isn’t simultaneously trying to direct the choir allowed for a much smoother flow. The director handled problems many people had, while the “backfield” handled problems of individuals.
You will also find that student leaders are incredibly helpful in this setting, as you will occasionally find gems with a large amount of teaching experience. Let them help! As teachers, I’m sure we all know how it feels to teach content with limited understanding of it. We often gain a much deeper understanding of that content by teaching it than by passively learning it. Allow your student leaders to help, and it will bring up slower students while cementing their understanding of the material. The best part about doing this with seniors is that you’ll never find someone with 40 years of teaching experience studying in a high school class.
Finally, let’s talk about technology. I set up a Dropbox for the seniors to access all of the recordings of rehearsals. Its implementation was a trial in patience. A large number of seniors had difficulty with it. This isn’t news to anyone who has worked with older adults, or anyone who has helped their mom or grandma learn how to use a smartphone or tablet. That being said, the impact was definite and positive once the Dropbox was set up. Many students, however, used their own phones or voice recorders to avoid having to delve through the internet to get the recordings. Having noticed that, I would say my advice with using technology in class is this: be clear with what goal you want technology to achieve in your classroom, and give your students as much freedom as possible in individually fulfilling that goal. Be prepared to deal with the learning curve. And (if possible) don’t force your seniors to do something one way if they have another way that works better for them.
I didn’t intend on writing an essay. Sorry! Truth be told, while I’m rereading what I’ve written, I can safely say that much of this advice will apply to any students you or I teach, and that effective teaching methods are often effective regardless of the students you are teaching. However, good teachers will ferret out the tricks and strategies to be most effective in imparting their knowledge to the specific students they have. I can only hope that this post helps those who teach aging adults in their efforts to discover what works best for them and their students.
Please leave me comments and questions! I’d love to talk more about it and to hear other people’s input. Thanks for taking the time to read!