Sunday, November 28, 2010


Five Years

Five years ago I was approaching 55 - a milestone I guess; an appropriate time to do a self-assessment: "Had I done what I wanted to do with my life, so far? Had I pursued enough of my dreams? Was I satisfied with my life to this point? Did I have any regrets?" My answers were generally positive. My older children were leading successful lives with good jobs. My youngest was doing well in middle-school. I had one granddaughter (and a year later, a grandson). I'd had a good career; worked hard; saved some money. I'd been fortunate to travel extensively, even spending several years living overseas. Best of all, I retired early.

We'd arrived in Alaska 35 years ago at the crest of the pipeline boom, flat broke and hoping to "get on" with someone. After a few years working in the oil fields, I got a job at one of the local salt mines. We made a small down-payment on a 10-acre lot several miles off the highway, down a long gravel road, way outside of town. We put in a gravel driveway and brought in an ancient 14-foot travel trailer and put up a small A-frame cabin with plastic-covered windows for that first winter. Fortunately electricity arrived just a few months later; it took eight years for the phone company. Most of our paychecks for the next 20 years went to boards, nails, windows, wires, pipes, sheetrock and paint as we slowly expanded, and modified, and upgraded that first small cabin into our current house. Last month our dusty pot-holed road was finally paved - next summer we'll finally be able to ride our bikes on it, maybe even rollerblade!

By the time the downsizings started at the salt mine, I'd already read the tea-leaves and had run the numbers. I could see that the [mis]managers were going to drag the whole place under with an endless round of "right-sizings", "thinking outside the box", "doing more with less", "optimizing to strengths", and other such absurdities. I jumped at one of their employee buyout offers. We initially thought about relocating "outside" somewhere, but in the end we decided to stay right here - a good school for Z was our number one priority.

So in November 2005, I was in a good place. I couldn't complain. I'd accomplished pretty much what I'd set out to do with my life to that point. But I did have one regret - that I'd never learned to play music. I had started playing the clarinet in junior high, but I didn't stay with it. Then I bought a cheap violin in my early 30s and spent several months trying to make it sound nice. I remember thinking then how much I'd have preferred to be playing a cello instead. I didn't get very far before I mangled my left forefinger in my workshop, putting an abrupt end to my dreams of playing music.

So, at 55 with a little time on my hands, I started thinking again about my old violin; which quickly led me to think about a cello. I began to recognize and focus in on the cello parts in random music. I watched Yo-Yo Ma on TV, and started wondering about what it must be like to be able to play one. Was it too late to start? Would my forefinger be a problem? Could I stick with it? Did I have it in me? I seriously considered a viola I saw in the classifieds, but since it wasn't a cello...

Then one night I saw a clip in the news about a guy who'd just graduated from medical school at age 72. He said something that caught my attention. He said that back when he started med-school he clearly understood it was going to be a long hard road, but his kids had tried to talk him out of it - pointing out that he'd be 72 before he got his MD. But, he said, he realized that regardless of whether or not he went to med school, soon enough he was going to turn 72 anyway. So what would he rather be at 72? a doctor? or just some old guy who'd let his dreams slip away?

The next morning I drove to Anchorage and rented a cello.

So now, today, I've spent five years learning the cello. I think I'm giving it a good effort. I take lessons regularly. I practice [almost] daily. I play in a local strings orchestra. My skills are growing slowly but steadily. Pieces that frustrated the heck out of me a year or so ago aren't that hard anymore. I really enjoy learning new pieces.

Still, I wish I "felt" more musical after all this time. Most days I seem to run out of "musical energy" after a few hours. I wish I were better at sight-reading. I wish I could pick up rhythms more easily. I wish I could play faster. I wish my vibrato was better. And double-stops, and... I wish my left thumb and right shoulder didn't hurt while I play (although at my last lesson we may have finally figured out what was behind the thumb problem).

Well, that's how it goes. I've learned this much at least: The more I improve, the more I find there is to work on. Progress is slow and hard to recognize. Instead of suddenly being able to play something well that used to be impossibly hard, improvement is gradual and almost imperceptible. Although once in a while, I'll realize that "something" seems to be a lot better. But there will always be so much more that I could learn.

For many years this was the time I wrote out various musical goals for the next year. It has turned out to be more useful for looking back to see where I was and where I thought I'd be. So, here's what I've done with last year's [5th Year Goals (posted 12/2/2009)]:

Finish Suzuki Book 4 - I'm about half-way through Book 5.

Complete 2/3 of the [Percy Such] Position Etude Book - I'm about half-way through this one.

Return to the [Mooney] "Double Stops" book - Not yet, but I did return to Mooney's "Position Pieces".

Work on playing faster - Some improvement, but this is still my biggest challenge.

Improve sight-reading skills - ?

Use vibrato while playing - I have not done much on this in the past year.

Continue learning Tenor Clef - I've gotten reasonably comfortable with Tenor Clef, but it recently took a while to reacquaint myself after several weeks of not playing in it.

On my quest to complete 10,000 hours of practice: in the last year I've logged another 500 hours or so, bringing my total to about 3,500 hours. At this rate it will take at least another 13 years.

I don't think I'm going to do "goals" any more, I'm just going to keep on playing my cello. And I expect that I'll keep getting better at it, however slowly. There's so much more to learn. But I do [finally] feel like I've come quite a ways after all. I feel I am finally a cellist.

This is my 560th post on this blog. I'm thinking it will [probably] be my last. Thanks for reading.

It was inspiring to read your blog! Keep on playing!
I am so glad you followed that dream. I'll miss you if you don't post again, but if the blog has served its purpose in helping you record your evolution, then it's done what it set out to do. It sounds like you're steeped enough in the cello that it's become part of your life that won't fade. Congratulations!
Oh no! All my favorite bloggers have slowly stopped. I really enjoyed reading everyone's trials and tribulations because I often was dealing with the same issues. I will miss your insightful comments. Keep on celloing!
Loved reading your story--even though it sounds like it might have been easier to become a doctor than a cellist. :-)

I hope you will continue blogging. I appreciate the detail and the honesty in your postings.
I hope you don't stop . . . playing cello or blogging about it.
You are living an interesting life and building your dreams. Hope to keep hearing about your progress. All those little things do add up.
Best wishes and happy holidays.
I felt the same about the violin. On the other hand I stuck with clarinet. Sight reading improves with sight-reading and vibrato is nearly impossible it seems to me. I suppose I'll get it eventually. The last several months I've barely blogged, thought I'd chuck it, did give up one but am back on it! It would be a shame to see you go. You have so much to say as evinced here, and you say it so well. Reconsider. Oh, and yes Major Pettigrew's Last Stand was delightful, oh to find another book as fresh and gallant. I AM NOT erasing you from my blogger roll. Write if only occasionally.
You have been a positive influence over the years, even though we haven't agreed on everything.

I hope you start a new blog or keep writing here if only occasionally. I'm getting the sense you have nothing much more to offer, and perhaps life is logarithmic - the next five years may have less information than the previous five put together. But it's still worth letting us know how things are going.
One of the highlights I remember from your blog was your replacing of your own soundpost.
Found your blog when I learned someone found mine via a link on yours. Thanks! Just like you, my blog started off about cello, but quickly became about my life in general. Once my life calms down a bit and gets back to normal, I'm hoping to get the blog back to me and my cello.

Take care!
Well done: you started something pivotal in so many people's lives, and this blog has been a gift to me and my students. I'll get up there soon!

Much love,
Hi there, I also blog look for the web site
Now you have done so much and you are evolving as a performer (not just a cello practiser). I think you are wise to have a period whereby you don't have such high targeting goals such as your practise hours. Much can be done in small amounts really if focused and really specific in what you are trying to achieve.You've worked on some lovely pieces and I hope that the desire to play even more lovely music will be an incentive to continue. Surprising as it sounds many professional players have never performed the very pieces that inspired them to take up the instrument they have chosen to study.Other issues have taken over.It happens for some people like that. I am fortuneate and I have performed some wonderful pieces with people who also loved them. Why not get into a small chamber group 3or 4 people to start and so on. That would be fun too!It might be a drive away but worth it.Forgive me for advising but you have done so much to date.Do continue
After the whole "Chinese mother" wsj thing, I've been thinking of the good and the bad of things, including music and practising. Funnily enough, I'm also reading some stuff by American Psychologists about output failure in kids and the things that stick out from what they are saying is the difference between success and failure is
* identifying what's getting in the way
* working on it persistently and consistently
* Setting long and short term goals
* achieving them

and then moving on to the next issue.

May I hazard to say that your setting goals may be an important factor in your success?

And blogging is a way to publically announce your goals and remain accountable for them...
I love this blog. Incredibly inspiring. Sad to see you end it, but 5yrs is a great innings. My only thought is that it's a pity others will miss out on your journey as this page fades into web ether. There aren't enough books about adults learning musical instruments. Perhaps this should be one.
I'll be 52 soon, luckily haven't yet retired, been with cello for nearly 2 years. Apart from learning cello I also wanted to go back to piano when I have more time after retirement.

BTW I was search for Percy Such and I found you!
I am just 41yo and it's inspiring to read your blog. I loved to play some kind of instrument since young, but could not due to financial situation. But right now, i am thinking of learning the piano! After reading your blog, I am no longer apprehensive of the challenges ahead! Jo from Singapore
I found your blog just a few months ago, right after (in the first week of February) I had bought and touched for the first time in my life, a bowed string instrument—in my 70th year!

Congrats for getting as far as you have, starting at 55—I have a long way to go, and I'm going to go as far as I can by myself, with all the resources available on the 'net, it shouldn't be impossible.

Not enough $ for lessons; trying to live on SS and VA disability. I'm making it, but just barely.

The 'cello is a beater I got for $200, put 200 more in it at the luthier, then got and installed by myself a set of Pegheds® tuning pegs—love 'em (not a commercial, just sayin').

When someone asks me why I chose the 'cello, I pause dramatically and say... I _didn't_ choose the 'cello—it chose me! And it's true.
When asked how long I've been playing, I glance at my watch, and guestimate..."Oh, 'bout fifteen hours now." :-)

I went to LA in March for the Cello festival, and it was a wonderland of delights, I heard six 'cello concerti, all six of the Bach Suites, and a master class by Lawrence Lesser! Fantastic!!

It's only been playable for about 5 weeks now, and I can do a C scale pretty much w/o looking, can play the first of TTLS, and am working on "The Swan" right now, figuring out the fingering & bowing by myself.

Anyway, I'll be checking out some of your former posts looking for hints & stuff. Wish me luck!

Thanks & regards
Bill Turlock
I am impressed with your progress, especially with starting at a later age in life. Playing the cello does take years to master; I have a huge appreciation for what fine artists have put into their art, and I am sure we both know that you can't appreciate that fully until you have tried.
I am totally impressed with your dedication and I presume that by this time you are very accomplished and hopefully satisfied that you met the challenge. I turned 90 a few days ago and am not musically inclined despite the fact that my grandfather Fred Geib was a rather famous tubist in the early and mid nineteenth century. His genes passed me by completely. I did try to please him by suffering through 6 years of piano lessons in my teens but can only play a poor rendition of the Edelweiss Glide.
Just like the others who wrote in your blog, I would love to see you return to writing more because it was fascinating to read about your earnest desire to persevere.
I so agree.. just like me, i have just discovered him/her. How i wish i can continue to be inspired by his present experiences, as im also an adult, 42, learning the cello passionately. Im in suzuki book 2.
Keep on writing, please.
I just found your note this morning, 6 years after your last post.
Please continue.

Your journey with your cello, inspires me. A LOT.
Thank you.

Very interesting story. Thanks for the post.
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