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Almost Intermediate: Adults Learn Lessons In 'Late Starters Orchestra'


By our measure, Ari Goldman is a successful man. A former New York Times reporter turned college professor, he is deeply religious and a happily married husband and father. But for all of that, there was something missing in his life. Goldman yearned to play a musical instrument.

ARI GOLDMAN: The cello is sort of the music of my soul. It's the instrument that speaks most directly to me. I never thought that I would be able to play a cello.


NEARY: Now, Goldman does play. He's a member of the Late Starters Orchestra and has written about his experience in a book of the same name. The orchestra is a musical home for adults who have taken up music late in life.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICIAN #1: We're doing the Mozart?

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICIAN #2: Do you want to look at the Mozart? It's the hard one. (Laughing) This is the hardest one.

NEARY: Goldman plays in a string trio with two other members of the orchestra, Ron Sharp and Cameron McFadden. They met one recent Sunday morning in a rehearsal studio in New York City. McFadden, who plays both violin and viola, says he first picked up an instrument when he was in fourth grade.

CAMERON MCFADDEN: And I stuck with it for about three weeks. And some of the fifth-graders told me that violin is for sissies. And they emphasized it by punching me in the shoulder. So I quit.

NEARY: McFadden, like a lot of other late starters, was well into adulthood when he started playing again. Ron Sharp took up the violin on a whim when he was 44.

RON SHARP: My friend wanted me to learn the banjo. And she left a musical instrument catalog in my apartment. And I went straight to the page with the violins. And I thought why do I want to have one of these wonderful instrument? They're so beautiful. And I started taking lessons. And I've been taking lessons now for 10 years. And I think I'm almost at the intermediate level now.


MCFADDEN: OK. I'm ready now.

SHARP: (Laughing) OK. One and two and one and two.


NEARY: Ari Goldman was in his twenties when he first began studying the cello.

GOLDMAN: I found it much harder than I ever imagined. I mean, it's wood and strings and only four strings. It looks like hey, this would be easy. But every step is really really hard. And I kept it up for several years in my twenties. And then just the press of life, family, career - I put it away.


NEARY: It was many years later, when his youngest child began taking lessons, that Goldman was inspired to try again. Goldman says pretty much anyone who begins seriously studying music after childhood qualifies as a late starter. Age gives them the advantage of maturity and commitment. But learning a musical instrument when you're young is infinitely easier, not to mention it guarantees a more tolerant audience.

GOLDMAN: When a child learns an instrument, he or she has a whole cheering squad. You play for people who come over and you play "Twinkle, Twinkle." Everybody goes wow, that's amazing. That's so wonderful. As an adult, if you play "Twinkle, Twinkle" or "The Farmer in the Dell," people go that's what you do on the cello?

NEARY: What's so important about playing with an orchestra?

GOLDMAN: The cello is a very tough instrument to play. And you have to be really good to play solo. You don't have to be that good to play in an orchestra. And you can suddenly be playing Bach and Mozart and Dvorak, even though you're playing just a little part of it. That is what being part of an orchestra means to me.

NEARY: After the trio finished rehearsing, some new members of the orchestra began trickling in and joined them in making music.



UNIDENTIFIED ORCHESTRA MEMBER: Eh. You know what? We messed up.

NEARY: They got off to a bad start, but they simply began again.


NEARY: Maybe the best thing about the Late Starters Orchestra is this - everyone works hard, but no one expects perfection. The orchestra say cofounders Andrea Lockett and Elena Rahona is strictly egalitarian and non-judgmental.

ELENA RAHONA: You know, all of the people in our group, a lot of them are professionals. They're at the top of their game. They were at the top of their game. And here they are having to really be on the spot. And I think it is a very humbling and exposing position to be in.

ANDREA LOCKETT: And so it's a great act of bravery to come and sort of stand on the cliff and be very exposed in a small group.

UNIDENTIFIED ORCHESTRA MEMBER: Yeah. That was better. That was great.

NEARY: In his book, "The Late Starters Orchestra," Ari Goldman takes us through his own musical journey - from his frustration at not having had the chance to learn as a child through the performance he gave for family and friends on his 60th birthday. And all along, he wondered would he ever deserve to really think of himself as a musician?

GOLDMAN: I am a musician. Now I can say because I have spent this time investing in it - investing in lessons, in practice, in joining the Late Starters Orchestra. It's given me the confidence to say that I am that. I'm a musician.

NEARY: Ari Goldman. His new book is "The Late Starters Orchestra." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.