Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Better Late Than Never

If you were a teacher in the 60s you undoubtedly had (and may still have, as I do) copies of John Holt’s How Children Fail and How Children Learn. But you probably do not have a copy of his book Never Too Late My Musical Life Story unless you, like me, decided to learn to play a bowed musical instrument as an adult.

Holt, who had no instrumental musical education as a child, decided to learn to play the cello at age 40. But not insignificantly, I think, he had taught himself to be a fairly accomplished jazz whistler while in high school and was a member for his senior year of the Exeter Glee Club. Before he embarked on an instrument he had quite knowledge and liking for swing bands and a collection of their 78 rpm records. So I would say that he had been musical for some time before he became a musician. And in fact Holt started by playing the guitar and then later the flute before tackling the cello.

While I had some piano lessons as a child, I never reached any significant level of accomplishment. I decided at age 50 to learn the cello (vague visions of duets with my spouse while he played the piano). I struggled for a while, gave it up and have, just a year ago, decided to try again. Learning a bowed string instrument at any age is very painful both physically to your hands and to the ear – yours and those within hearing distance. One of the reasons I keep at it is new research about the stimulation of the brain that comes through tactile sensations in the fingertips.

A fascinating part of the book is a discussion of whether there really is such a thing as being tone deaf. Holt says that unless one is unable to hear a difference in tones (an inability that is manifested in a monotone voice), then anyone else can be taught fairly easily to sing in tune. Another of the many indignities of childhood is being told not to sing with the group. Holt tells of teaching a young boy who “couldn’t carry a tune” who then went on to some singing success. Why don't more music teachers know this? Maybe they do now.

While this book is framed around the cello, it has much broader lessons. It really is about teaching yourself how to learn. As Holt says, “Part of the art of learning any difficult act…is knowing both how to teach yourself and how best to use the teaching of others…” It’s about imagining and dreaming of doing something new and difficult; of facing down our fears whether it be of performance or otherwise; of looking ahead not just at past mistakes.

It’s time to go practice.

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