Musings on Learning Music




I want to recommend a great book by John Holt, called, Never Too Late. It is about his experiences becoming a musician later in life. He did not have the advantage taking lessons on anything as a child, but really loved music and tried some singing, some flute and finally set upon cello, seriously studying it starting in his 50s. Hmmm... sound familiar to some of you??

Linda and I used the book as a read-aloud during our trip. (There are many hours of driving when you go to Michigan, then to Minnesota via Canada, then home! We help pass the miles by reading a book.) The book is really inspirational! Yeah, it bogs down at times and he gets a bit preachy, but it is well worth the read.

(John Holt was an educational writer - he also wrote How Children Fail and How Children Learn among others.)

Here are some segments from the book that particularly spoke to me or that Linda and I thought you would appreciate!


Here (page 8-9) he is talking about being at a rehearsal and he gives a stream-of-consciousness description:

...The conductor holds up his baton (a skinny little white stick), and we begin.
It is a new piece, new for us, new certainly to me. I have a faint hope that since we are reading it through for the first time the conductor will take it at a slightly slower tempo, which will give me a chance to catch a few more of the notes. No such luck. We take it at full speed, faster, even, than many professional orchestras. Most of the players are considerably better than I am, and certainly better music readers; even if the music sounds a bit ragged, they are catching most of the notes. Ahead of me I can see the fingers and bow of our number three cellist flying over the instrument. No problems for her. For me it is a wild scramble. It is hard for me even to make my eyes move fast enough across the lines of notes, let alone play those notes. My mind is full of frantic thoughts. Here come some quarter notes, I can play them at least. But now a strange-looking passage. Are these octaves? How in the world do I finger this section? How do I play it when I don’t even know what it sounds like? Ah, three measures of rest. At least I can count this, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, play! Oops! Too soon; I am a beat ahead of the cellists in front of me. how in the world could I have miscounted those measures of rest? Could they have made a mistake? No time to worry about it; here come a bunch of sixteenth notes. I’ll never make them at this tempo. Try to catch the first note in each group of four, the way the all tell you. That’s a lot easier said than done. Damn! I’ve lost my place. How come those guys can read this stuff right off the paper? I’ll try to catch the other cellists when they come out of this passage. There! Back with them again. ... Now an easy, exposed passage for us, a chance to make some nice sounds. Oops! I’m not with the folks in front. What happened? No time to think about it. What in the world is this coming up? Try to imitate what the people in the front are playing. Look at the notes, don’t skim them, don’t give up. Lost my place again, can’t tell where the others are. Look ahead, there’s some low notes, watch them, see when their bows go down to the C string. There! Now! Back with them for a while anyway...

Did that sound like anything you’ve experienced??? :-) I laughed out loud 'cuz I sure remember times feeling like that!!


On his first flute lesson (pg. 121):

...Came the day for the first lesson; I found the building, went inside, feeling much less like a grown-up man than a ten-year-old late for school. I timidly asked where the classroom was, found my way to it, knocked on the door, went in, and there met my first teacher, Bill Grass. He was (still is) a very friendly, pleasant, easygoing, good-natured man, just the person I needed to help start me off on this journey of exploration and adventure.

Hmmm... that first day you came to rehearsal?? Some of you looked petrified!!


From pg. 123, still talking about his early flute lessons:

Like many adults playing an instrument for the first time, I was terribly slow. I tended to read music, think about it, and react to it one note at a time. It was all but impossible for me either to read or play a group of notes as a unit, a single muscular act. Another reason I was slow, something I still have to struggle against when playing the cello, is that when I played each note something in my mind wanted to ask, “Was that note right?” and to be told, “Yes,” before going on to the next. This self-correcting teacher in my mind was at times very useful, but I could never get him to shut up and get out of the way, all the more so since I was still very afraid of making mistakes. Sometimes Bill and I would play a little duet. I’d go along okay for a while, until I missed a note. Then I’d feel a flush of fear and shame, miss another note, feel my face getting red and hot, miss another and before long I would come to a stop...


Another paragraph about that little voice that gets in the way, from page 194-5 (now speaking of cello playing):

There are other crippling and self-destructive thoughts that I am trying, and slowly learning, to chase out of my mind. ... (M)y pianist and violinist friends are both very good readers, and while they were playing their parts very nicely, I was having trouble with mine. I began to feel not only frustrated but embarrassed, even a little ashamed and guilty. A voice in my mind began to say, “What’s the matter with you There is nothing in your part but quarter and eight notes, you ought at least be able to play them right.” Of course this thought only made me play worse. After a short while I took hold of myself, and began to say to that scolding voice in my mind, “Shut up; what difference does it make what they can do, or what I ought to be able to do? I am doing the best I can and that is all I can do.” After silencing that scolding voice, I said to my playing self, “Don’t worry, do your best, you’ll get better.”


Then he goes on to speak of starting at the beginning and how hard that can be for an adult. It isn’t hard for a child and describes watching a baby learning to walk (pg. 196):

...she was walking like someone on a ship in a very rough sea. In the hour or so I was near her she must have sat or fallen down thirty or forty times. Up she rose each time and went on her way. Not being able to do what she was trying to do may have been a nuisance, but not failure, nothing of which to feel guilty and ashamed.


And I love this (pg. 201)

If we’re working, doing our best, challenging ourselves, doing things that are hard for us, and sometimes very hard, paying attention to what we hear in our ears and feel in our muscles, not letting our minds wander or think about something else -- if we are fully involved in our music making, interested in it, excited by it, then we are learning. We may not and probably cannot know all of what we are learning. We are almost certainly learning much more than we think.


And he says in his introduction (pg. 4):

Another reason I am writing this book is to question the widely held idea that what happens to us in the first few years of our lives determines everything that will happen later, what we can be, what we can do. ... Not so. ... It is never too late.

It is a fun read! I recommend it.


A couple of other books that are useful in working on your practice:

The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance, by W. Timothy Gallwey, Pete Carroll, and Zach Kleiman

Soprano on Her Head: Right-Side-Up Reflections on Life and Other Performances, by Eloise Ristad


dot eLesson index dot SVNHM dot New Horizons International Music Assoc dot  Bandnotes.info dot
©Diane Muffitt