A beginner's joy

Susan Young enjoys playing the cello as a beginner. (Supplied Photo) jpg, KI

I don’t know about you, but I’m currently experiencing a bit of “COVID fatigue.” Of course, we need to remain vigilant now that the second wave is here and flu season looms on the horizon. But recently, I’ve been looking for ways to get a bit of a break from all things COVID-related.

My yearning for a healthy distraction eventually took shape as an interest in learning to play the cello. As a young girl, I briefly played cello in my school band. I loved its deep, soothing sound, which filled me up in a way I could appreciate but not really understand at the time. But now the cello is calling me again.

First, I had to embrace the idea — and frustrations — of becoming a beginner at this stage of my life. And, of course, I had to find a cello and a teacher.

For many of us, becoming a beginner as an older adult is not appealing. We often have a pretty fixed idea about who we are, what we’re good at and what we enjoy. So we tend to direct much of our time and energy to familiar interests and activities.

But we know there are good reasons — besides being stuck at home so much because of COVID — to stretch ourselves out of our comfort zone from time to time. You may have heard various experts say that learning new things, such as a new language, is not only possible for older adults but also extremely beneficial.

Studies show that healthy neuroplasticity — basically the brain’s ability to adapt and create new neural pathways — helps us stay engaged and builds flexibility and resiliency. Neuroplasticity is nourished in older adults when we undertake an unfamiliar activity that requires prolonged and active mental engagement and is meaningful in our lives — which pretty much describes learning something new.

Having bolstered my courage by reviewing some of the recent research into neuroplasticity, I was ready to become a beginner yet again and start my search for a cello. I began by looking into buying a good quality second-hand instrument but was unsuccessful searching on my own, so I was grateful for a friend’s suggestion that I meet with a luthier, Marcel Picard. My first learning: a luthier is a maker of stringed instruments.

Marcel kindly offered to sell me a beautiful used cello, but, unfortunately, it was beyond my price point. He then suggested I rent an instrument until I’m able to purchase a cello with good sound quality. This allows beginners to learn, he said, and practise first rather than investing in something that we may not stick to. As we were wrapping up our visit, he remembered Joe’s Musical Instrument Lending Library housed at the Tett Centre on King Street and suggested I try there first.

So off to the lending library I went. This amazing resource — with over 750 instruments — lends to students and community members alike. This bounty is thanks to the late Joe Chithalen and his love of music. The annual fee for library membership is just $15, and this allows you to borrow an instrument for up to 60 days.

When I visited the library, two young men helped me on my quest to find the right instrument. They quickly put me at ease and told me that each instrument is cleaned and put aside for three days in compliance with COVID-safety requirements. An added bonus for me, they said I had my pick of cellos because the music program at Queen’s University was not up and running due to, you guessed it, COVID.

After chatting for several minutes, I felt comfortable enough to ask if there was a suitable cello with fret markers to help with finger placement. They were sympathetic to my status as a beginner and found me an instrument with clear markers in white tape.

I trundled off with my library cello, feeling a little silly about the markers but focusing on the gratitude I felt for all the help I’d received from friends and strangers up to this point. Being a beginner definitely requires humility when you have white hair!

So let the work begin: learning how to hold the bow; learning the names of the strings; and working on my fingering. During my first few attempts, I felt like I was pushing through thick mud, each step sticky and difficult. Now it’s starting to get a bit easier and I’ve begun to enjoy myself and the tender, resonant sound of the cello lifts my spirit. Next step, find a teacher who’s happy to work with older beginners.

So do I think it’s worth it to embrace the challenges of learning something new and wrestling with all the awkwardness of being a beginner at my age? Even at this very early stage of my “cello journey,” I can say a big “yes” to that. I’ve met some interesting folks, I’ve learned about luthiers, I’m listening to classical music (especially the inimitable Yo Yo Ma playing the Bach Cello suites) again, and I’m making friends with a new ally who’s always there and ready to be played whenever I’m feeling a bit lonely or isolated … and I’m just getting started.

Maybe it’s time to think about what new activity or interest you want to cultivate as our weather turns blustery and we all head back inside for the next few months. Let me know how you make out!

Susan Young, a mindfulness facilitator and professional certified coach is working on a book about longing. She can be reached via email at info@susancoach.ca.