Let Your Inner Artist Become Your Second Act

6 min read
J. Hustein, used with permission

Enjoying the cello

J. Hustein, used with permission

I didn’t have a musical bone in my body growing up and if I had, my practical and working-class family wouldn’t have nourished any notion I might have about becoming a starving artist. But I did pursue a non-traditional path anyway—for girls at that time, and from that social strata. I found my way through the hurdles and devoted my entire career to being a psychologist. While some consider this vocation an art, for me it was very much a left-brain, cognitive, and rational profession that fit me quite well for 45 years—until it didn’t.

My second act required something radical in my mind, not an extension of anything familiar. And what could be less similar to my first act than starting to play the cello?

Not that I aspired to become a pro and play with a symphony, though that would have been nice. Neither did I need to generate an income stream from this foray into music. And it’s a good thing, because then I would likely have joined the ranks of starving artists, without any of their talent! But once I started thinking about playing the cello, and without conscious intent, my path to the future was set.

At first, I simply enjoyed the idea, imagining the pleasure I would derive from listening to music played on an instrument with my own hands. But it also occurred to me that at my current life stage, I needed a hobby that maintained or even enhanced my cognitive functioning. After doing the research, as you would expect someone with my background to do, I realized that learning to play a musical instrument, especially later in life, was considered one of the best ways to keep the brain fine-tuned.

Taking up a creative hobby like playing an instrument, writing a memoir, or drawing with charcoals helps your brain build connections between neurons and grow more nerve cells. But this happens later in life only when you stimulate the brain with activities that fuel it maximally. It happens that newness or novelty, complexity, and problem-solving are very robust tonics for the aging brain. Happily, engaging in the arts strengthens these very qualities in ways that prove to be more effective than other endeavors.

My plan to learn to play the cello was a healthy choice. So I took the next innocent step of going to a shop that sells and rents string instruments, especially violins, violas, and cellos. Just to look—at least that’s what I told myself.

The place was a hole-in-the-wall, up a steep flight of stairs. The dingy walls adjacent to the stairs were lined with string instruments hung on hooks and the shop itself seemed like something out of the nineteenth century, and maybe it was. Instruments and cases, plus other accoutrements that musicians needed, left a narrow and circuitous path to the counter where a woman with grey hair and warm eyes greeted me.

Since I couldn’t formulate a question about what I wanted, and couldn’t speak musician talk, I stood there mutely exploring the scene—which felt immensely pleasurable, though I can’t tell you why. It just seemed like a good fit—no logic in that thought. I felt at home. That’s all it took. I was smitten.

Long story short, I impulsively rented a cello, a bow, and a case to hold them. What attracted me to the cello was its enormous size and its mellow, velvety, haunting sounds—an instrument made of beautifully polished wood that I could wrap my arms around and feel its powerful vibrations in my body when the strings were played. Quite a delicious sensation! That was a good enough reason and a starting point for me. The only problem was that I didn’t know how to play it.

There’s a popular belief, held by musicians as well as non-musicians, that the cello is a particularly difficult instru­ment to learn. Unlike the guitar, the cello has no frets—the ridges of wood set across a fingerboard that helps a musi­cian’s fingers press the strings at the correct point to play a note by touch. The cello’s long fingerboard, on which the left hand plays notes, gives no clues as to where to place the fin­gers. An aspiring musician must learn to pick out the notes by feel and sound, a very subtle process. And that’s just the beginning of the complexity.

Beyond the difficulty of learning this instrument is the commonly held idea that musicians must start training early and the admonition, “Don’t bother if you are a beginner over age 10!” Well, I was 70, and what others thought no longer held any sway with me. And besides, I thought of the words of Dr. Gene Cohen, psychiatrist, and gerontologist, who suggested that learning causes physical changes in the brain and that the continuous learning of a wise elder is the ultimate stimulant for the brain.

So I found a teacher who had respect for older adult beginners and I practiced diligently, daily for years, and sometimes disheartened, but I persevered. I’m happy to report that now, more than a decade later, I can hold my own in a string trio and two quartets (two violins, a viola, and me, the cello) and even a senior community orchestra. Of course, I’ll never sound like Yo Yo Ma but you could recognize a Mozart piece if you heard me play it. And, more importantly, I don’t need to please anyone but myself with the sound.

I’m not unique. I wrote about others’ artistic second acts and chronicled more than twenty journeys of late-blooming writers, musicians, and visual artists in my book: The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist After Sixty. Whether your second act leads to a pleasurable pastime or a new career, the starting point is the same: wonder, curiosity, determination, and the desire to keep your brain sharp.

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