REVIEW: The frustrations and joys of starting late

Jun. 27, 2014 @ 03:32 PM

SUMMER READING: The staff of The Herald-Sun Books section will share our recommendations for great summer reading all summer long.

“The Late Starters Orchestra”
By Ari L. Goldman (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $23.95)

Anyone who has devoted time to learning an instrument in youth and rediscovered it years or decades later will want to read “The Late Starters Orchestra,” Ari L. Goldman’s memoir of rediscovering the cello as he approached his 60th birthday. I am drawn to Goldman’s story for personal reasons: I once seriously studied the cello, but put it down, only to play it on occasions in fits and starts.
About five years ago, I began playing again, but with a different goal in mind.  My 57-year-old fingers don’t work as well as they did at 20. Rather than slog through repertoire way above my grade, I play tunes by ear, principally as a mental exercise, and for the sheer mysterious joy of making sound.
Goldman’s journey is much more in earnest. A former New York Times reporter and now a professor in Columbia University’s Journalism School, Goldman started playing the instrument in his mid-20s, “under the guidance of a wonderful cellist named Heinrich Joachim, whom I came to call Mr. J,” he writes. Goldman discovered Joachim by miraculous accident. He was on assignment and knocked on the wrong door. When Joachim came to the door, Goldman saw his cello, asked if he played, and became his student. Goldman told Joachim how he once loved to sing in the synagogue, but with his voice change during adolescence, had given it up. “‘The cello,’” Joachim tells him, “‘will give you back your voice.’” Goldman pays wonderful tribute to this patient and wise teacher, who remains his musical spirit guide throughout this journey.
As Goldman approaches 60, Joachim has been dead for decades, but a confluence of events makes Goldman want to try playing again. He wants to “live up to Mr. J’s faith in me,” and sets himself a goal – to play cello publicly at a party to celebrate his 60th birthday “to prove to myself … that I was a musician.” This memoir is about that journey. Goldman tells us of his experiences joining the New York Late Starters Orchestra (audition not required), an ensemble inspired by a similar group in London, England, and meant for musicians who start late in life. He attends a summer music camp put on by the East London Late Starters Orchestra, and contrasts the camaraderie of that experience with the cold professionalism of a summer camp in Maine.
He also becomes involved in his son and youngest child Judah’s musical life. Judah takes up cello and is a natural at the instrument, and Goldman dutifully takes him to group classes with a teacher who uses the Suzuki method. He also sits in and plays music with the Morningside Orchestra, an ensemble for young people that his son performs in. Judah graduates to guitars and amplifiers, but continues to play cello and begins composing. While Goldman grieves “the loss of the compliant cello prodigy I had been cultivating,” he also realizes that music is Judah’s way of connecting with his friends and the world and “with me.”
Trying to get better as a musician can be frustrating, as Goldman reminds us. The reward can be in the effort. I still remember the first time I played in the school orchestra in junior high, the mysterious sense of being just one part of a big collective sound, the pure joy it brought. If you’ve been there, Goldman has a few things to add.