First things first: I love Ari Goldman’s THE LATE STARTERS ORCHESTRA so much that I can almost hear, taste, touch and feel his musical experiences on every single page. I needed to get that out there right away because I’m about to detour into another book on my way back to the LSO. Normally, this is just not done. One should avoid confusing readers --- or, worse still, insulting authors --- by launching into comparative reviewing, but there are exceptions to every rule, and my musician’s gut tells me this is one of them.
Back in 1980, when I was still immersed in grad school, some music education majors in a motley campus orchestra where I played flute were raving about a fantastic new book published the year before. Actually, they were complaining because the library had only one wait-listed copy of John Holt’s NEVER TOO LATE: My Musical Life Story (1979), and the university bookstore was sold out.
When I finally got my hands on a borrowed copy, I read it from beginning to end in a couple of sittings; it was that good. Holt became a cultural hero to me, not only because he was a pioneering force in the North American home-schooling movement, but because he dared to do something almost unheard of back then. Against all scientific and pedagogical odds, he took up the cello at age 40 and became really good at it.
Among the most quoted and cherished words from NEVER TOO LATE are these: "If I could learn to play the cello well…I could show by my own example that we all have greater powers than we think; that whatever we want to learn or learn to do, we probably can learn; that our lives and our possibilities are not determined and fixed by what happened to us when we were little, or by what experts say we can or cannot do."
John Holt died at the young age of 62 in 1985, but his legacy has permeated the baby-boomer generation that succeeded him --- that diverse, defiant and driven demographic that Goldman and I proudly share.
And in a nutshell, his words could be the mantra of THE LATE STARTERS ORCHESTRA, even though Goldman never directly mentions Holt’s ground-breaking work. But he didn’t have to. Many of the people and organizations encountered on this fascinating and sometimes bumpy journey toward musical “competence” (Goldman’s preferred term) are subtly or consciously adherents of Holt’s profound belief in the power of the mature adult brain, fuelled by the passion of the mature adult heart.
Thanks to recent advances in neuroscience, especially the potential of neuroplasticity in reimagining learning, today we know that children and adults are “wired” differently. But living that knowledge, putting it to the test day in and day out, is something else entirely. And it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Goldman, a former New York Times reporter and now “old school” journalism professor, as well as the parent of a very accomplished cello-playing son, captures the humbling and sublime moments of his musical quest with eloquence, insight, and just the right seasoning of humor.
Drawing on his exemplary reporting skills, he persistently asked questions, probing the minds and hearts of other late-beginning musicians, their teachers, their friends, their families --- and, most importantly, himself. Some questions like, “Why do we late-starters practice and practice only to achieve mere ‘competence?’” generate such diverse responses that they may as well be unanswerable. Yet some of the most powerful encounters between music and language are reflected in Goldman’s remembered conversations with his late teacher, the noted American cellist Heinrich Joachim.
The bond between them continued long after Joachim’s death; somehow the old master’s voice would penetrate those depths of frustration we all feel when our progress stalls and everyone else seems to have the talent we lack. If only every student had a Heinrich Joachim keeping loving vigilance over their musical welfare!
The real-life orchestra from which Goldman’s memoir takes its name, the New York Late-Starters String Orchestra ([...]) is an intergenerational ensemble founded in 2007 by and for amateurs. Its membership includes players who gave up their instruments decades ago when “life” got in the way, those who always yearned to play but deferred their dreams until middle age or later, or those who accidentally discovered a passion for making music rather than simply consuming it.
For Goldman, the LSO became a pivotal connection that both supported and extended his musical growth. He describes the excitement and insecurity of travelling further afield to experience the original East London Late Starters Orchestra in England, the intensity of summer music camp in a remote New England resort town, and the climactic achievement of playing an informal recital at his own 60th birthday party. At each stage of the journey, there are moments of revelation, affirmation and utter surprise that this tenuous entity, this thing of becoming a real musician, is his to claim.
At about the same time as Goldman embarked on reclaiming his love for the cello, I took up the bass viola da gamba (a fretted six-stringed cousin of the cello that was all the rage in the 1700s). Now, when I play in our small amateur community baroque ensemble, I not only hear the encouraging words of John Holt, I also feel the powerful presence of Goldman and his magnificent tribute to middle-aged (and beyond) musicians everywhere.
THE LATE STARTERS ORCHESTRA is, simply, a masterpiece. Finish practicing, then go and read it.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch.