The Little Cellist is a brightly colored, chipper website aimed at children. There, you can find clips of Julian Lloyd Webber playing “The Swan,” from Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns, as well as quizzes, links to orchestra websites, and assorted games for budding musicians. Being past the mid-century mark, I am decades past being a “little” — in the sense of young — anything. Yet, here I am, a middle-aged but eager and diligent beginner, sawing away on the cello. The optimists say it’s never too late. I mean to find out if that’s true.
When I say “sawing,” that may be too kind to the sounds I coaxed from this noble instrument in the first few weeks. My husband said he ducked, expecting a huge dragonfly to dive-bomb him. My indulgent family endured more repetitions of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” than non-convicts should be expected to hear. But they bore it like men — as well they should (at least the offspring among them) considering the hours — no, years! — I’ve devoted to their lessons, rehearsals, auditions, and practice, practice, practice.
A lifelong music lover, I’ve raised two musical sons and one music appreciator. One is studying trumpet performance at college (where, he tells me, our game of “name the composer,” played informally in our car for years, is now part of the curriculum). Another plays both clarinet and saxophone in high school. The two younger ones attended summer camp at Interlochen, where their musical sophistication skyrocketed. The eldest dabbled in the bass guitar, revels in his brothers’ accomplishments, and seems to have iPod earbuds permanently implanted in his head.
Like many people, I played the piano as a child. But not well. Looking back, I can find excuses for my failure to master the instrument. My teacher was waspish, impatient, and bored. She clearly taught for something other than love of children. But, let’s be honest, the real reason I didn’t master the piano is that I was a lazy and disorganized child. When the pieces got hard, I reverted to playing those I already knew rather than girding for the tough slog through new material.
I’m not lazy anymore.
Yes, yes, I’m a bit old to be a beginner. But starting something at my stage of life is exhilarating. As my friend Rachel Wildavsky (a journalist who recently wrote her first novel) observed, “In middle age, you’ve been doing the same thing for so long that you feel as if you’re on a hamster wheel.” Not only that, but you’re not as fast on that wheel as you used to be. More often than I’d like these days, I experience what Vladimir Nabokov called “the pen poised pause.” A word or, more often, a name that I’ve known all my life will impishly hide from me, ducking behind other memories so that I cannot summon it. (Rick Perry, my brother!) So much of what we experience after age 40 is decline, so it’s terrific fun — as well as a psychological tonic — to undertake something completely new and to see steady progress day after day.
The brain is complicated. My son told me a poignant story of playing a concert at a retirement home. An elderly lady with advanced dementia, who could no longer remember most of her family, could nonetheless sit at the piano and play the “Moonlight” sonata.
The cello is harder, I think, than the piano (though to really excel at anything — even at playing the recorder — is not easy). The geography of the thing requires patient study. “I haven’t played any sharps or flats yet,” I naively announced to my wonderful teacher during an early lesson. She smiled. “You have; you just didn’t realize it.” The slightest off-placement of a finger on a string will produce a grating sharp or flat. Even the basics of holding the bow are challenging. You need a “soft” hand, and you must pull from the elbow. But be careful not to lift the shoulder! For the first few weeks, I counted it a victory just to succeed at bowing one string at a time without catching its neighbor by mistake.
Unlike my childhood self, I look forward to practicing every day. My ambitions are modest — perhaps to play duets with my sons. An amateur is someone who does it for the love of it. This may be self-delusion, but I think my brain has gotten a little sharper since I began. Or maybe a little flatter (heh). At the very least, I’m better today than yesterday, and a new world of experience beckons.
— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2011 Creators Syndicate.