Dr. Eugene Dowdy bravely accepts adult beginners into his string ensemble class, allowing us to saw away sitting next to serious music students who started playing at age 4 and actually practice between classes.
As I struggle in rehearsal to create “music” on an unfamiliar instrument–the violin–it occurred to me there is a great disconnect between what the conductor expects to hear and what the player actually creates.
Here it is: even though I am many years older, my violin developmental stage is frozen around age 12.
The disconnect is that while the conductor diplomatically attempts to extract nuance, tone, and phrasing from us, our fingers and brains are still struggling to play the correct notes in the correct order at the correct tempo. Dynamics? My eyes don’t dare stray from the staff to find pianos and fortes and various V-shaped markings (did you know a V-shape means four different things depending on its orientation on the page?).
One thing this floundering has taught me is to have patience with other adults who are starting out in a new field or learning a skill late in life.
Put me on a drum set, and I can play in my sleep, inebriated, and distracted, and have often done so. That’s because I learned the mechanics while a teen and spent many years and many long nights pounding out rhythms in smoky bars. I long ago learned where the notes were, and spent literally years bending, banging, and brandishing them. Any accomplished drummer can spot the amateur or beginner. Even if they hit all the right beats, some je ne sais quoi is missing to create a complete performance.
Same in any artistic field. An adult beginning painter may know all the tones on the color palette and how to hold the brush, but you can see the difference when you set that painting next to one by Bob Vila, or whoever that guy was who painted happy trees.
Dancing? Miss Rhonda can teach you the steps, but she can’t teach you how to sway your hips and shoulders.
Writing? First you need to master the building blocks–grammar, spelling, punctuation. But just because you won the Carroll County spelling bee in 5th grade does not mean you can write a screenplay or craft a column.
Yet, I have nothing but admiration for those of you who set out learning a new skill as an adult. While it is admirable to master one instrument and take it to the highest level, most of us won’t be playing recitals at Carnegie Hall. It is just as brave to leave your comfort zone and pick up a new brush, banjo, or ballet shoe and try a whole new scene.
The most terrifying part of this journey is when your instructor pushes you to perform on stage with your group of fellow beginners. You inwardly cringe knowing there are 12-year-olds in the audience who can play rings around you. But I’ve discovered there are also other adults out there who secretly yearn to be up there with you.
And if my public humiliation can inspire just one of those people, it will have been worth it.
At least that’s what I keep telling myself.