Clearing the Late Starter’s Path

both images from
both images from

Fountain of AgeWith practice, my cello playing improved but not my relationship with our neighbors.  —Ari Goldman



Okay…here’s the ethical dilemma I wrestled with: if, during my year of reading only what’s on my shelves at home, a library book promises to enlarge upon the subject one of those books addresses, is it okay to take it out?

The rule-setter on the program waffled badly.  Of course I wound up taking The Late Starters Orchestra by Ari L. Goldman (2014, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) home.

Goldman’s premise meshes perfectly with Betty Friedan’s in The Fountain of Age:  the years after 50 are a time for renewed learning and growth.

Goldman, a Columbia faculty member and former writer for the New York Times, started taking cello lessons as a young man.  He found a beloved teacher, he bought a practice cello, and he embarked on the discipline and practice of learning an instrument.

But life, in the way of work and love, marriage and family, intervened, and it was not until Goldman was the age I am now–staring down the road at 60, trying feebly to slow the car down as it rushes toward that marker,–that he returned to the cello.

The Late Starters Orchestra is the structure for his journey; a forgiving and welcoming group, the New York City organization requires no auditions. If you are game, they are, too; come and play.  The book tells us about the orchestra, patterned after the original Late Starters Orchestra on the east end of London.  There’s another group, the Really Terrible Orchestra in Edinburgh, Scotland, made famous by popular writer and member Alexander McCall Smith.

Goldman goes to hear the Really Terrible Orchestra when it comes to New York.  He says that it is really terrible.

I like a broad ramble in a memoir-y kind of book, and Goldman takes us all over.  His narrative is framed in memories of lessons with the beloved Mr. J., who, like all great teachers, shared much more than his expertise. We meet (and I really liked) his wife Shira, who has a much more democratic approach to music than her husband.  Goldman tells us about his youngest son, Judah, also a cellist, and a very kind and expansive child.  When Goldman asks to play with the youth orchestra as a man in his 50’s, as a wrinkled and time-stained “kid,” Judah, a member, doesn’t flinch.  He kind of thinks his dad is cool.  Of course, that doesn’t last forever, but neither does Goldman’s seat in the youth company.

But the part where Goldman and Friedan really mesh is in the discussion of the aging brain.  Goldman presents evidence that learning music, especially, after 50 keeps the brain young.  Friedan posits, too, that the years after 50 are ripe for growth rather than decline. Friedan is giving me the broad and sweeping outlines of this thought; her research and her depth are compelling.  Goldman gives me an example–one man’s narrative proof that Friedan’s well-researched findings are correct.

It’s exciting to think that the years I am entering can bring me new learning, new accomplishments, new pursuits.  Will it be music?  Despite what Goldman writes about the distinct advantages of learning an instrument, probably not.  People joke about tone deafness and tin ears and talk about how rare those really are–but I am living proof such attributes exist.

I am drawn to some technological learning–years ago, when we had our first computer (with DOS), I began messing around with desktop publishing.  I set it aside when life got crazy busy. Now the desktop comes loaded with programs that offer incredible scope–I want to explore that.  And maybe, after a lifetime of work in service/educational based fields, maybe, I will explore some entrepreneurship.

It makes sense at this point in time, both on a physical, keep-the-brain-alive-and-alert level, and in a very practical sense. For women, especially, the years after 60 open up.  Kids are, pretty much, grown; it’s often a time of down-sizing coupled with a time of financial comfort. Why not strike out–why not do those things we always dreamed of?

Goldman made his dreams come true…modest at the beginning, the dreams morphed and modified as he pursued the cello, but he stuck with it.  He’s proof that Friedan is on the right track…and I like the track she sweeps clean for us in The Fountain of Age.  It’s one I plan to follow.


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