I’m learning violin. I’m forty-six. I’ve never played an instrument. Why now? I’ve always wanted to learn violin, and one day this very instrument made its appearance in my life as if to announce It’s time. I had heard violin was a difficult instrument to learn. It’s true. And for a person with a third grade understanding of how to read music, it’s even more difficult. I ask myself What’s the problem? There are only four strings. Right–G, D, A, E. The G is the top string, the lowest note. The E is the bottom string, the highest note. Where are the other notes? Well, you use the same strings, but you finger them differently, and that gives you the different notes. Uh oh, something else to remember. A lot of something elses to remember. And then there’s the matter of applying the right amount of pressure to the bow, oh, and proper handling and placement of the bow and speed and playing only one string at a time. What?! And that’s after you’ve properly tuned the violin and tightened and rosined up the bow. I begin to wonder if I can do it. I wonder if it’s worth it.
And then I think of my daughter. Our family has learned a lesson in perseverance from paying attention to Sarah these past few years. I home schooled her until she was in fourth grade. Upon entering public school, she had her struggles academically. She worked hard and overcame many challenges. We applauded her persistence. Then she set another goal for herself. At the end of sixth grade, she announced she wanted to play an instrument in seventh grade and join the school band. She added it to her course selection when she met with her guidance counselor. This surprised us because she had never played an instrument and had little knowledge of how to read music.
Sarah decided she wanted to play the clarinet. My husband DJ had played clarinet in school but certainly didn’t remember enough to teach her. But things worked out. Our son’s girlfriend Celeste not only knew how to play clarinet extremely well, she also had an extra instrument for Sarah. Through the summer Celeste gave Sarah clarinet lessons, and in September Sarah joined the school band–just like she said she would.
This new undertaking presented Sarah with a new set of challenges. Most of the members of the band had been playing instruments since fourth grade. They knew their instrument, how to read music, how to play in a band, how to balance music practice with homework assignments. This was all new to her. But she persisted. She even took private lessons with the band teacher during school. She didn’t give up, and we were all rewarded for her diligent efforts when we attended her first band concert that winter.
As the house lights in the auditorium dimmed and for the first time we watched one of our children perform in a band concert, DJ and I were so proud of Sarah. But it wasn’t until this summer, six months after the concert, that we really began to comprehend the triumph of that day because we ourselves decided to learn something new. For me it’s the violin. For DJ it’s the bagpipes.
It’s not just that we are learning something new. It’s also that we are remembering something old. As we embark on music lessons essentially for the first time, we are recalling what it means to be a beginner at something. Here we are at midlife and we are pretty adept at most things we do on a regular basis. We know how to drive, how to keep house, how to write a research paper. We’ve been doing our jobs and cooking our meatballs for a while–we feel competent in those things. Maybe we can even say we’ve mastered a few things by now. And those we haven’t, like, say, parallel parking, well, we find we can pretty much get by without perfecting. We just drive around the block and find another place to park. But kids don’t always have that luxury.
Kids have to learn new things. Sarah learned the clarinet in seventh grade. Learning is a lifelong pursuit of not only those things that bring us joy, but those things necessary to operate as citizens of this planet. Think of preschoolers and kindergartners and all they accomplish those first years they’re in school. Not just how to decode squiggles on a page and realize they are symbols that represent ideas–a process we call reading–but also how to wrap their fingers around a pencil and replicate those squiggles themselves when they learn to write. In addition to these extraordinary skills, these young people also learn about math and science and, a huge life skill–how to interact with other people. If we never encouraged children to try and try and try again, where would they be? Where would we be?
If we don’t try new things every once in a while in our lives, we run the risk of forgetting what it’s like to struggle and fail and struggle and fail and struggle until finally, one fine day, all those hours of toil and trouble culminate and we lay the bow on the string, play that first clear note, the one we always somehow knew we could. It’s just the beginning.