Friday, October 23, 2009

Never too late?

Years ago, my mother gave me a book titled Never Too Late. The cover had a photograph of a man playing the cello next to a little girl playing the violin, which is probably what caught my mother's eye.

The book was by a man named John Holt. Holt was an educator who wrote several influential books (including How Children Fail and How Children Learn). Early in his career as a teacher, he began trying to reform the U.S. educational system, but later came to believe that it could not be reformed and became one of the first proponents of homeschooling.

Never Too Late (this link takes you to a preview of the book where you can read several of its chapters) is the story of how he learned about music and took up the cello when he was 50. The comments I've seen about this book have been along the lines of "inspiring," "moving," "gave me hope."

I remember reading this book and thinking, "Well, okay, that's nice," but (you knew there would be a "but" somewhere in here, didn't you?) then I got to the end, where he had a list of all the things he had given up to pursue his dream of playing the cello. It was a very long list that included things like traveling, going to movies, socializing with his friends, and on and on. He acknowledged that he knew he'd never be that good a cello player but that it was worth it anyway.

I was shocked. It's all very well to want to play an instrument; I'm obviously in favor of that. But to give up every other enjoyable activity in your life? That's nutty, I thought at the time.

You have to have a balance. Even if you are a genius at music, you need to do other things that engage your mind or playing becomes a stale prison.

It's true that it's never too late to try, but to reach a level of proficiency equal to that of people who started when they were younger -- really, in whatever skill you're talking about, not just music -- it is too late. Maybe the nonmusician thinks that playing an instrument is like driving a car: you either can do it or you can't, like there's an on-off switch. Although to a car-driving afficionado there's probably all kinds of fine points of differentiation, even so, there's a point of competence at which a person has mastered the skills enough to turn the car on, start it, stop it, steer it, maneuver it in traffic, and park -- and you get a license attesting to all this. There's no license for cello playing (though maybe there should be).

I don't know if my mother gave me that book because she didn't understand what it was about or because she thought it would encourage me to be satisfied with amateur status. At the time, I was in the middle of all my battles and anxieties over my so-called career and wasn't ready to think about it that way. But I still think Holt was wrong to advocate forswearing every other joy in life. My conjecture is that he must have had some other issues that he wasn't willing to face, at least not in public.

The way I see it now is there is a long, long skill continuum. People can be musical at every point on it. The process of development is also a continuum, and the best way to learn is slowly and steadily. The most important thing is to keep at it regularly, even if you spend just a little bit of time some days. If you do this, you will learn and grow at your own pace. And live your life!


Anonymous said...

Thought provoking from someone like myself who has probably gone overboard with trying to play the piano...


Harriet said...

Do you feel like you're spending too much time at it relative to the rest of your life?

I remember being struck by Charles Cook's admonition to practice only an hour per day. He seemed to get a lot out of that hour. (Maybe he cheated :))