Jimmie Richard watched each of her five children take up an instrument and set it down again before she finally started making her own melodies.

She was a mere 69 at the dawn of her musical education. Now 75, she still studies theory and practices hymns on the piano during weekly lessons at the Cleveland Music School Settlement.

"The more I learn, the more I want to learn," says Richard. "The more I play, the more I want to play."

Such satisfaction defines success for what educators call the recreational music student — an adult who takes up a new instrument or returns to one he or she tried and abandoned as a child.

Though recreational musicians are difficult to quantify, music-industry officials say their numbers have been gradually increasing for about 10 years. According to the National Piano Foundation, the fastest-growing group of aspiring pianists is adults age 25 and older. Most of those are older than 40 — people who tend to have the time and money to spend on tuneful dreams.

Piano isn't the only instrument adults turn to, though it — like the guitar — is one of the most popular.

Sometimes the joy can be tainted by old ideas about achievement. While children tend not to set unnaturally high expectations for themselves, many adults do. It can be a matter of personality or a holdover from childhood experiences.

Plenty of adult students remember an overbearing parent who announced every wrong note. Even more recall hyper-disciplined piano teachers who rewarded mistakes with the smack of a ruler to the musician's small hand.

"Piano teachers are to blame for a lot of the problems here because they take the music itself so seriously," says Harre, 64, who has written about the topic on his Web site, www.musicalfossils.com. "They forget it's about people, it's by people, it's for people — and people are going to relate to it on a thousand different levels."

The less pressure the adult feels in pursuing music, the more room there is for joy to creep into the process of learning and practicing. "And the more joyful the process," Gould says, "the better it sounds."
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Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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