On being a 50-year-old student

Ah, the first of the year!  Best wishes to the regular and occasional readers of this blog.  One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to get the blogroll on this new site transferred and updated from the old one on Blogspot.  Time management isn’t my biggest strength;  I get absorbed in something, lose track, etc., and the more mundane taks, like houscleaning, blogroll updating, etc., tend to get put off and off and off.  So sorry about that.  I had a small chunk of time and some mental energy to blog this morning;  it was either write this post or do blogroll updating, and I chose the former.

I mention Emily Stark’s blog [correction: as Emily pointed out in a comment, her last name is actually Wright; she authors the “Stark Raving Cello” blog, and while my creative imagination thinks it would be nice if it was the “Emily Stark Raving Cello Blog,” she declined my suggestion to change her name] from time to time;  hers is my current favorite cello blog, because she posts so many interesting and stimulating suggestions.  Among other strengths, she writes from a point of view that makes clear she’s still growing and learning herself.  She shares what she knows, passes along great ideas, all while maintaining an Oprah-like ability ability to be someone we can all identify with.

Once you’ve graduated from your formal training and started a career as a teacher, it can be kind of lonely; feeling like you are expected to be an expert all the time.  Emily shares her expertise without a pretense of being infallible and all-knowing.

That’s such an important concept–we are all lifelong students of music and the cello, some more experienced than others, some having had a broader training than others, but still developing all apects of our playing.  Maybe some people at the very top of the profession experience things differently;  I doubt Yo-Yo is still working on his technique, at least in any substantial way.  On the other hand, I imagine Lynn Harrell still practices lots of scales and exercises–he was (in)famous for his huge amount of practicing as a young man and for his dedication to huge amounts of scale (and other technical practice.  Now I don’t know about Mr. Harrell, but I do know through third parties that Yo-Yo often solicits feedback and suggestions from others.

This brings up the issue of taking lessons once you’re a professional–especially a middle-aged professional.  A chamber group I play with recently had a two-hour coaching session with a legendary chamber music player.  I’m not naming names because I haven’t cleared this with anyone else in the group.  I found it a marvelous experience.  We met with him, and received many wonderful suggestions about the piece we’re preparing to record, and some well taken observations about places where one or the other of us wasn’t really listening to the others.  In my own case, there was a passage where I was so passionate–and, slightly anxious about just getting the notes in this particularly awkward section, that I was overpowering another instrument playing a line that should be more prominent than the one the cello plays at that point.

Now one thing that’s usually a strength of my chamber-music playing is that i really listen to and respond to my partners.  So I was kind of surprised to have it pointed out to me that in this particular passage I wasn’t doing that;  I was really blating away as a soloist.  Exactly what I needed to hear.  I wasn’t living up to my own ideals, but didn’t realize it.

I wasn’t embarrassed, either. I guess by age 50, I recognize I’m human, and can still inadvertently, unawaredly fall into one of these chamber-music pitfalls.  So I think it was great for us to have this experience.

We aren’t going to incorporate every interpretive suggestion we received of course;  we got some great ideas we will use, and, I think, a greater awareness of our ensemble dynamics from someone who really knows what he’s talking about.

So I think one of the things I want to do in this new year is to be more open to feedback on my playing, maybe even take a few lessons.  I used to think there was some shame in being, say, a 50-year-old professional and teacher and taking occasional lessons.  Why not?  I live near Indianapolis. Who’s a better quarterback than Peyton Manning?  But where would he be without Tony Dungy.

One last thought along these lines:  both in my “official” student years and in facilitating discussions in which my students critique each other’s playings, I’ve found that some of the lesser-skilled players make some of the most insightful comments.  I’m not sure where this fits in to this discussion, except to say that if you’re someone of limited experience with the cello, it doesn’t necessarily make your observations and opinions any less valuable than professionals.

Happy New Year, happy music making, and my sympathies to all going through the eternal frustrations of learning to play the cello (or anything else).

–Eric

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “On being a 50-year-old student

  1. Emily

    Emily Wright

    Although Emily Stark has a good ring to it and perhaps people will mistake me for a Starker. 🙂 You’re just getting even for me calling you Sedberg repeatedly.

    Perhaps on my bigger, badder Midwest and Northeast tour, I could swing by DePauw and say hi or buy you a cup of coffee? Should be in late April or early May.

  2. Larry Hiemenz

    How about Tiger Woods as the model of a professional taking lessons? He was at the top of his game and remade his technique from the ground up.

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