Books for the Journey: “Never Too Late”

When I first started harp lessons, I knew absolutely nothing about the process of being a music student. I’d never studied an instrument, never had private music lessons. I had no clue about how to work with my teacher, what to expect in my lessons, or how to practice. And I felt totally alone with the thoughts, feelings, memories, and changes that emerged from the process of studying harp. A journal entry from that time reads, “Becoming a musician is turning me inside out.”

Nor did I know anyone else who was embarking upon trying to learn an instrument as an adult. My lesson was scheduled after a high school student and before a nine-year old, so I did not meet other adult harp students at my teacher’s studio. My friends had no musical interests, and looked at me with a “she might be a bit more off in her head than we realized” sort of glance when I told them I was both buying a harp and then paying for weekly lessons to learn how to play it.

What’s a woman alone in this situation to do? Why, hit the library and the bookstores, of course. I knew that somewhere, someone else had made the same incomprehensible decision to, seemingly out of the blue, learn to play an instrument, and that at least one of these people undoubtedly wrote a book about it. And so I began gathering books that became my companions for the journey to learn to play the harp.

I didn’t find any books written by adult harp students, but the experiences described by authors who were learning to play other instruments echoed my own, and gave me a sweet sense that I was not the only person on this path, and that I was not the only person whose life was so rapidly changed by the decision to study an instrument. In the pages of books I found that other adult students had the same thoughts and feelings, the same fears, and the same small triumphs that were bowling me over every week.

One of the first books I read was Never Too Late: my musical autobiography, by John Holt (Perseus Books, Reading, Massachusetts, 1978, 1991.) Holt was an educational reformer who decided at the age of 40 to learn to play the cello. This book details the story of his pre-music life, his choice to study cello,  and the life that emerged after that decision. The book is full of encouragement for an adult music student, no matter what instrument you fall in love with. He so accurately describes what happens in your head and in your heart when you start doing something that you know nothing about – playing an instrument – and that you are truly terrible at doing. And in the pages of this book, he encourages himself, and us, to continue to pursue this wild passion, no matter how bad we think we are.

I’ve printed out the following quote from the book and taped it to the front of all my music notebooks. There have been evenings after disastrous harp ensemble sight-reading attempts where these words were the only thing that kept me from giving up harp altogether.

“What I am slowly learning to do in my work with music is revive some of the resilient spirit of the exploring and learning baby. I have to accept at each moment, as a fact of life, my present skill or lack of skill, and do the best I can, without blaming myself for not being able to do better. I have to be aware of my mistakes and shortcomings without being ashamed of them. I have to keep in view the distant goal, without worrying about how far away it is or reproaching myself for not already being there. This is very hard for most adults. It is the main reason why we old dogs so often do find it so hard to learn new tricks, whether sports or languages or crafts or music. But if as we work on our skills we work on this weakness in ourselves, we can slowly get better at both.”

This book and all the others I’ve found and read during the past six years of harp lessons have been such boon companions that I’m starting a book list on my blog. The new page is called “Books for the Journey.” I’m not exactly sure yet what I’m going to do  – today my idea is to write a brief post about each of the books I put on the list, and this post is the first of those. I’ll see how that works out. I’ll include the publication information and the ISBN number so that anyone who wants to can find a listed book at their library or favorite used book store. And I’d love to hear about other books that helped you find your way on this music journey.

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4 thoughts on “Books for the Journey: “Never Too Late”

  1. My teacher had many adult students, and they formed their own club called “The Order of the Dead String.” They met to encourage each other, play the harp and share their love of the instrument. I hope you can find a similar “safe place” to find encouragement.

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    1. What a great name! Fortunately, once I started playing with the harp ensemble and going to harp workshops I met other adults afflicted with harp madness, so now there’s live people and not just books and my teacher to offer encouragement. Janet

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  2. Great idea Janet…thanks for the book list. I have not read any but I have enjoyed the “Music after 50” website and gleaned several good ideas and musings. I didn’t realize you have been a student for 6 years…thought it was less for some reason. I can so relate to this post. My teacher will often compare skills I am learning to things we learned as toddlers or children…for instance learning how to walk. Funny how as a child we never beat ourselves up when learning to walk if we stumbled and fell down. Why are we so self critical…my downfall which I’m hoping is the good lesson I’m learning to change on this part of life’s journey. I am so grateful for the VHC as it has been a big help since very few harpists live where I am.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Nanci. Glad to hear that you like the idea of the book list. Learning to play an instrument is such an ongoing schoolroom for learning how to be kind and compassionate with myself. And I can’t believe I’ve been taking lessons this long, either, which can so easily spiral into the “I should be further along….” if I let it. Yet another opportunity for kindness! Janet

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