When people hear that after retiring from my job, I began studying and playing the cello, they often say, “Oh, I love the sound of a cello! I wish I could do that. But I KNOW I can’t.”
Listening to their sad voices, I feel both sorry for them and very frustrated. Why are people so afraid of trying to play music? So sure that they can’t that they deny themselves this opportunity? Sometimes it’s because they never had any musical instruction in childhood and simply assume that playing music is too hard. Unfortunately, many music teachers and self-styled experts spread this myth. They warn away potential students, telling them that studying music is very difficult and takes hours of practice every day. They add that the cello is among the most difficult instruments of all.
This school of music teachers works on the assumption that every student wants to be a professional, to play perfectly. Every deviation from the highest standard earns a reprimand. But I believe that there is room for another viewpoint. People can learn to play instruments for their own pleasure. Perhaps they sound amateurish. So what? As long as they have the modesty to stay away from public performances, from forcing others to listen to them, why shouldn’t people have this pleasure?
Playing music is one of life’s most glorious experiences. Nobody should be deprived of it, especially through an unwarranted fear of any personal inadequacies or music’s difficulties.
I was lucky enough not to be afraid to try the cello in retirement. That’s because I studied the piano for four years in childhood. Then, during my four years at the High School of Music and Art, I received a wonderful gift: a cello scholarship from an incredibly generous professional cellist, Janos Scholz. However, along with the lessons came the unspoken directive that studying music was a sacred obligation, something like becoming a nun: all or nothing. So once in college, studying hard for other subjects, I quit both the cello lessons and my playing. All or nothing? It had to be nothing.
I dropped music completely from my life. Instead, I taught literature and raised my family. I said I had no time for music making. What I really meant was, “Since I don’t have enough time to practice as I should, and can’t play really beautifully, I have to quit the pleasures of music totally.”
It took me forty-seven years of being away from music making to realize how wrong that notion was. Amateurs who play bridge, golf, contact sports or even the guitar are not scorned for being less skillful than professionals. All that matters is that they play well enough for their own pleasure.
“Well enough.” What does that mean? People should decide that for themselves. For example, Noah Adams, a commentator for NPR radio, decided that he would be a successful musician if he could play Schumann’s “Traumerie” well enough to perform it privately for his wife. His book, Piano Lessons, describes his experiences achieving that goal.
I won’t claim that learning to play music is easy. It does require dedication and resolute practice. However, I have met other amateur musicians who first started playing in retirement and have learned to play well enough to bring real pleasure to themselves and fellow amateur players in their musical circles.
The Amateur Chamber Music Society lists 5400 players (by instrument, location and level of skill). It brings thousands of music lovers together. By now, despite my 47 year layoff, I’ve been playing in amateur chamber music groups for the last sixteen years. I feel blessed and happy.
Why is that? First of all, you can’t be “retired” when you’re playing a musical instrument. You are as physically involved as an athlete during a game. Your heart is pumping hard, your juices are flowing. Second, you are not using language, that deceptive, tarnished medium, to communicate with your fellow players. You are passing musical lines of dialog back and forth among you, and your lines were written by geniuses. The conversation is irresistible.
Be brave enough to get started. Go to a local music school or college to find an instructor. If that’s not possible for you, look among the many available self-teaching books. Anyone who has been able to learn to use a computer and some of our current technological gadgets has followed directions that are at least as difficult as those for learning an instrument.
Music has the ability to speak directly to our emotions. If you were fortunate enough to play music when you were a child, returning to it can help you recapture that expressive quality that you may have lost. However, it’s no less joyful for beginners. I can imagine someone who learns merely how to move the bow back and forth across the cello’s four strings to unleash its gorgeous sound, and is happy achieving that goal alone.
So let me encourage you to participate in this extraordinary world.