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Luisa Elena: a story of music, age and prejudice

Luisa Elena, at 69 years old, struggles with what for most is a simple solfege exercise. She moves her right hand “a tempo”, to help her with timing but she has trouble combining sight reading, proper tuning and singing. I look at her right in the eye and glare so she carries on. The rest of the class makes faces as if they are annoyed. Their attitude totally throws me off and makes me ponder about a few too many things.

There i was, An 18 year old substitute teacher for a whole month, in charge of the first year music theory class. All the students were much older than I was which is why I couldn’t understand what the problem was with their classmate. That very day I heard from Luisa’s own classmates and other professors that the fact that she was a fully enrolled student of the conservatoire was some sort of gift, like a charity… because at the end of the day, who learns at her age?!. Luisa Elena became a matter of utmost importance, pretty much an obsession to me.

In the very specific case of music education there is a stupid prejudice about age as a handicap, learning and dexterity wise. Prejudice which prevails in music schools and universities, where there is a strong belief that if you didn’t start at the age of 4… it’s too late and never the same. Yours truly, who started at a very young age as well, was willing to knock that huge brick wall (Such fibs!) to prove the fact that age represents absolutely no limitation to the music learning process. I committed to my idea and “adopted” Luisa Elena as my pupil, my protégée.

Reactions were diverse at the conservatoire. Many thought i was doing it out of pity (forgive them Father for they know not what they do!), others just thought it was a major waste of time… but at the age of 18, there’s a lot of energy, a lot of persistence and I was truly determined to make Luisa Elena the very best of her class and to even teach her basic repertoire so she could start learning piano a year earlier than the “legal” academic schedule.

To make a long story short, Luisa Elena made it up to 4th year (aural training). She had the best grades of her class, amazingly good first sight reading and a pretty decent piano repertoire. At the age of 72, she decided to bid farewell, thanking me with a big smile for believing in her and leaving me her collection of Ernesto Lecuona’s sheet music (some of them handwritten by the Maestro himself!). After she passed away I was left with the satisfaction of having proved wrong pretty much everybody at my music school. I was also left with a stronger determination of developing some method, some easier, dynamic and end result driven method for teaching music… let’s say my goal was to make it better than my old school institution. I am still fighting a good fight to make it possible.

Straight to the facts…

According to the Ecuadorian neuropsychologist, Eduardo Santillán Sosa, it is a true that immediate memory starts to slowly fade with aging but mental exercising through cerebral gymnastics, improves the brain’s dynamics and as a result an increased capacity for analysis, problem solving, decision making and improved capacity to remember and retain information.

In conclusion, learning isn’t limited to or because of age. We all have potential and talents that make us unique. The only ones who set limits and limitations are ourselves!. It is time to finally arise, to stand against prejudice and medieval fears. It is time to end up this retrograde mentality present in music schools, universities and why not, the system for youth and children’s orchestras back in Venezuela. Said and written by one of such system’s child. 

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