If you do much reading about the classical music world–and if you’re here it’s a good bet that you do–you’ll quickly notice that there are a few main topics that seem to obsess the community. One of these topics is that of the child prodigy. It seems that, with children becoming more and more precocious and with society becoming more and more focused on the creation of the super-child, the quantity of child prodigies in every field is exploding, and, not only that, becoming exponentially larger with each passing generation. The standard of playing within the classical community in general has shot up in recent generations, and, with very few exceptions, players who held the world stage fifty years ago or so would perhaps not make waves in today’s competitive classical music world. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that today we more or less routinely encounter children and early adolescents with a technical command that puts mature adults to shame, and students are exploring the heights of standard repertoire at much earlier ages. Creatively integrated teaching and teaching that draws on a larger-than-ever-before store of scientific knowledge regarding brain function, learning, and motor skills have created a performance scene that is rife with twelve-year-olds who can nail the horrific passages in the most difficult repertoire to the wall.
As something of an anomaly in the classical world–a performer who didn’t start on the instrument until my mid-teens–I sometimes find it a bit hard to summon professional sangfroid in the face of the child prodigy onslaught. I even had a mini-breakdown when I turned 20 (not my most recent birthday, sadly), because I had the bone-chilling realization that I was no longer a teenager, and the next thirteen-year-old could do exactly the same thing that I can…and, in a profession that is admittedly and sometimes discouragingly somewhat ageist, who wants the older version of the same thing? It’s easy to panic when confronted with what is difficult not to see as the next generation of hot shots–classical music really is a sort of juggernaut, churning out impressive kid after impressive kid. The celebration of talent is a wonderful thing, and every high-profile prodigy deserves as much of that celebration as we can garner, but what about those on the classical scene who aren’t fourteen and blazing through the competition scene?
Because of the immense pressure to produce star-quality playing at younger and younger ages that I observed when I entered the cello world, I had convinced myself (at age fourteen and about six months into cello lessons) that I was sunk. If I couldn’t do it by then, who needed me? I turned to a number of examples in my own life and outside my own life for inspiration. My own father, a gifted amateur pianist, was bitten by the cello bug in middle age, and he began taking lessons even before I did. He kept his head down and practiced late nights after coming home from work and has now played an impressive chunk of the major repertoire–some of it is very much in his upper limits, but, last winter, he had his first experience playing chamber music in an adult chamber music day program, and the joy that it brought him was infectious. The extent to which he has now achieved things beyond his wildest expectations continues to inspire me. While I was in high school, my mother knew how much music meant to me and how nervous I was about the later-than-traditional start that I got, and she presented me with a book by John Caldwell Holt entitled “Never Too Late.” The book is about an adult cello student’s experience with the instrument, and it was one that opened my eyes to all possibilities. You don’t have to be three to start an instrument successfully, and to play an instrument successfully, you need neither prodigious skill or blazing talent.
I continue to see daily reminders of music in my life–the music that happens outside of the professional world in which we have all become so attuned to quality and perfection. I have an adult student who is beginning to make her way into shifting, and there are moments in her lessons that briefly capture something beautiful, and it’s extraordinary to see someone begin to make music. Who are we to say that the perfection and bravado of youth has more music in it than those older than we who are seeing and experiencing the beauty of an instrument for the first time in their lives? An article from Spokane, Washington’s Spokesman-Review chronicles the author’s experiences as a beginning adult cello student. It’s an article that more people should read, and, quite frankly, write. The author, Mona Charen, writes of her visits to the Little Cellist website, a music-for-kids, coloring-b00k-and-games-oriented site for beginning musicians. My adult student cringed when I asked her to buy the Suzuki book for our lessons, and I remember having a distinct fear of being made to play, as a fourteen-year-old beginner, the Twinkle variations (I was spared by a merciful and wonderful teacher). The adult beginner brings just as much music–and in some cases, just as much ability–as the young beginner, but where are the resources and the support for this growing community? We in the classical music world are always searching for ways to connect with the audience and for ways to make music a place for as many people as possible. But so much of our world is a distinctly young person’s game. In always focusing on the next, youngest, flashiest player, music is rapidly limiting its relatability, but it is also, perhaps more gravely, limiting the types of people who can bring their joy in music to the party.
I hope that all adult students, late bloomers, and mold-breakers in our community continue to do what they do, whether it’s an unglamorous struggle through practicing every day or whether it’s a joy that is making itself available to you more easily than you had thought. Music belongs to no demographic, no region, and no one person. It’s something that belongs to all of us and to none of us; it is both personal and shared, but it cannot exist without the greatest number of voices that we can find. It really is never too late to make music, but it is certainly time to appreciate those who are finding it out firsthand.