Thursday, April 7, 2011

Never Too Late

When it comes to learning about music, our culture has an "early is better than later" mentality. This works well for some children. And not so well for others. And adults who never had musical training as children are sometimes left holding a whole lot of wistful regret.

Unfortunately, we tend to hone in on the performance aspect of music rather than celebrating that we are, in fact, all musical beings. Music is a birthright, one of the marvelous side effects to being human. It's a gift we all share. Some of my favourite musical memories as a child are from times my whole family sung together, often in 4-part harmony, formally and informally. Surprisingly, piano recitals were always a bit of a low point.

I love stories about musicians who "started late". I mentioned Austin Scott in this post on The Importance of Autonomy, who started on the penny whistle as a teen and became a professional flautist along the way. Another high profile local musician apparently did not begin to play the piano until in his late teens, and now he's an expert on opera and will often coach professional opera singers during rehearsal for Pacific Opera Victoria performances.

I know of a homeschooling child who wouldn't practice the violin at age 8 or 9. Instead of struggling over practicing, his mom told him it would be best to wait, and a year or two later, he was ready to pursue the instrument because he really wanted it and was willing to take it on himself... and ended up winning a scholarship to an prestigious music program in California in his late teens.

Then there's Irving Berlin who began his musical career busking in saloons on New York's Lower East Side. When he was 18, he started making up his own tunes without knowing how to read or write music (which was fairly common back then). He taught himself to play the piano, using mainly the black keys, which put him solidly in the key of F sharp major for most of his songs (which were later transposed by others).

I recently listened to a TED Talk where it was revealed (to my great surprise) that one of my favourite modern "classical" composers, Eric Whitacre, didn't know how to read music when he went to college. He liked music, but wanted to be a rock star. His mind was changed when a friend convinced him to join the choir as an opportunity to meet girls and travel.

During this interview, he shares about how he became hooked:

"First was sitting in my very first choral rehearsal. And they said, "Open with the Kyrie," and I didn't know what a Kyrie was. I was raised without any religion at all. And then we start the fugue from the Mozart Requiem. And that moment changed my life. I couldn't believe how beautiful and agonizing and thrilling music and counterpoint could be. And so I joined all the choirs."

Whitacre had always loved music and had fiddled around with it on his own (learning to play the piano by ear), but he never had formal training until he was a young adult (and then he went to Julliard!).

John Holt, in his book, Never Too Late, tells the story of how he learned to play the cello as an adult. In his introduction he writes,
Most people who play an musical instrument learned as children. I did not. Few adults who have never played an instrument before take one up, least of all in middle age, and least of all a bowed string instrument (supposed to be the hardest). I am one who did. Though I came from a largely nonmusical family and had almost no musical training or experience while growing up, I began to play the flute at thirty-four, and the cello at forty, which I put aside a couple of years later and took up again at fifty. Now, when home, I try to play three or four hours a day, more when I can make time for it. To become a skillful musician has become perhaps the most important task of my life.

So, how does it turn out? Well, it will be different for everyone. But pushing or even encouraging a child to start early won't guarantee their future love of or passion for music. Authentic passion and dedication to one's instrument is likely the best predictor of musical "success", which in my mind is simply being able to play or sing well enough to have a really good time, in whatever venue the musician chooses, and whenever he or she feels like it.


Please check out Eric Whitacre's second "Virtual Choir" performance on YouTube. Over 2000 singers from across the globe recorded themselves singing one of eight parts from Whitacre's SATB piece, Sleep, and the combined effort has just been released.

I've been privileged to sing a few of Whitacre's compositions in local choirs and they always give me the most beautiful, spine-tingling, goose bump moments.

This is stunning. Enjoy.