I started playing harp as an adult. Well … full disclosure? I had 6 or 7 lessons when I was 13, then took a 9-year hiatus and started seriously when I was 22.
And, this morning, I learned that Mason Williams, the man who wrote and recorded one of the most famous guitar instrumentals of all time, “Classical Gas” — he didn’t start playing guitar until he was 19.
So, you don’t have to start at five to live your life as a musician.
And you can start waaaaay later, if your goal is to just make music for yourself.
Harp seems to be an especially rich instrument for that – and last week I got some insight into why. I was giving a school program and, in addition to a school-full of kids who were bussed in, there was a music-education major.
After the program she and I got to talking about what an amazing teaching tool the harp is for music theory. The way it’s designed, it’s a literally physicalized metaphor* for principles that are simply theoretical on other instruments.
(*yeah, I know ‘literally physicalized metaphor’ is probably a contradiction – I don’t know how else to explain it – maybe you can…)
But she also pointed out something I’d never thought about: one great thing about the harp for beginners is that it’s one of the easiest instruments to just make a beautiful sound on.
In fact, as another harpist pointed out to me last night, you actually have to develop a certain skill level before you can make it sound bad.
I’d never thought about how big a ‘plus’ this ‘instant beautiful sound’ is for kids, but the music-education major pointed out that kids who play clarinet or violin have to suffer the ridicule of their friends while they’re squeaking and scratching their way to a good tone.
And that’s also true for adult beginners. I almost never hear a harp-spouse complaining that their significant other practices harp.
Now, more and more people are taking up harp in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60’s or later. Some end up as performers, others as therapeutic harpists in hospices and hospitals. And a few summers ago, at my performance retreat, one adult beginner told me that her performance dream was just to play for her grandchildren.
This is all completely do-able on the harp.
The point is that the harp is particularly suited for “Beginning [to play] in the Middle [of your life].” And there’s a retreat coming up at the end of this month called “Beginning in the Middle” that is specifically for adult beginners on harp.
For the people who attend “Beginning in the Middle,” it’s sometimes the first time they’ve touched the instrument – their first moment of commitment to a lifelong dream.
For others, it’s a chance to learn from world-class harp performers and teachers who meet them as adult beginners: a very special class of people who are expert at something else in life, and who have chosen to begin again, to learn something they are not expert at.
I am an adult beginner. And I love it.
I love the experience of learning. I love the clumsiness and the insight. I love feeling of my brain making connections.
And I love that, as an adult, we bring a lifetime of experience to each new thing we learn. And when we put ourselves in the position of learning something new, it’s humbling, funny and wonderful. It’s funny to be suddenly completely uncoordinated at a new activity. It’s humbling to realize how much we have learned about what we do know and how we need to open our minds to learn new thing. And it’s wonderful when a new thing we learn suddenly fills in a missing piece in our minds.
So if you’ve ever dreamed of playing and instrument and heard yourself say, “But it’s too late now…”
This is EXACTLY the right time.
And if that instrument you wanted to play is the harp … then I know exactly where you should be March 22-25. And I’m going to be there, too!
Beginning in the Middle Festival – March 22-25, 2012 – Williamsburg, VA
I am glad to hear you say that… and to see the picture of all age of people starting out on the harp. My father could not afford an instrument for me when I was at the age of around 11 when they start kids… So , all these years I have pined for a flute. At Christmas , my oldest/younger brother who plays many instruments, bought me a flute… I was excited and petrified , I’ve bought a book a, DVD and CD… there the flute sits… I think that tomorrow afternoon, I will uncase the flute and take my first lesson on the DVD … thanks for the encouragement… If I can play Twinkle Twinkle.. I will be happy
Twinkle Twinkle is great! I played “Row Row Row Your Boat” the other night on stage – and people applauded!
I believe you have to be willing to be bad to be good. In fact we have to be bad to be good. We don’t start out being good at things, especially as adult beginners (er… did I already say that in blog?).
But if you are DOING it badly … then you ARE DOING it. So brava for you! I encourage you to embrace every squeak and sqwonk, and to pull the flute out every day and put it to your lips and blow — even if nothing comes out, because by doing that, you’re taking responsibility for your own voice, your own relationship to music.
And YOU just inspired me to blog more … which always scares me even though I really want to do it. Thank you!!!
Love this article. I’ve played on and off for years! I own an old Wurlitzer and recently purchased a Reese Harp. I love them both. Just a 59 year old string plucking fool! Renée from Maryland.
Great! all music lover, I also started later for harp, now I will retired this July from full day job, but after that just do two hours a day teaching Chinese in fun way, I will have more time to play my harp, piano, cello and ukulele.
Sometimes, it is a piano peice I play on harp just for fun. Its great! I will have more time to play my music, and work less of making a living.
I am a 75 year old beginner and love every moment I am at the harp, even if it is just scales and simple exercises. My wife says she likes that sound too.
See you on the 25th in Richmond at the Byrd Theater.
Wild to see that whole room full of harps with the really big ones across the back. They sort of become architecture. Imagine a city made in the shape of a large harp with an escalator running up the sound board to take everyone home and each string flowing water or light. Cool thought.
Deborah, this is wonderful. Beginnings can be intimidating at any age, but they are also very powerful. Adult beginners on any instrument open up new possibilities of expression and enjoyment. I believe it is important for us to find beginnings of all sorts throughout life, play the role of the discovering child, and enrich ourselves at all stages of existence.
Wow! Beautifully said, Steve. What you said makes me want to go find a new beginning. Right this minute. Starting now! Thank you!
I was a late-starter to playing music. I was introduced to music as a child, and one of my few regrets is that I didn’t stick with it…but because I didn’t, I’m much more ‘ferocious’ in terms of developing myself as a professional musician. After years of unrewarding academia, it’s time to switch to doing an ancient art – music making.
I want to go out there, and tell people “You can play music!” And when they say “I can’t do that” work with them from there. EVERYBODY can play music – it’s hardwired into the brain. Many people think that if you didn’t start as a child you can never play music, and that, my friends, is a big fat lie! My experience has been that people are introduced to instruments they may not have an affinity for, and give up b because it does not touch their soul. Others may switch to another instrument, and it becomes theirs. The first instrument of many – the piano – is very well suited to learn music theory, and is an important tool for almost any melodic musician.
But you don’t have to learn theory to play music! Just pick up the damn instrument and start noodling with it. Listen to a tune in your head, and put it on the instrument. Christina Tourin taught me the greatest, liberating force of a musical instrument…improvisation! Take a tune, bend it, twist it, toss it in the air, look at it from both comfortable and uncomfortable perspectives! Improvisation is taught as sprinkles on a sundae, but it should really be the ice cream!
The piano – f s/he starts with another instrument, my bets are that at sometime during their ongoing musical development, they will begin to do some work with a keyboard.
The harp spoke to me 5 years ago, and I’m a 57 year old guy trying like hell to get good on this instrument. I live in Hawaii, where I’m the only guy that I know that plays a harp. Novelty aside, I could make my mark here – and it’s sheer determination, dedication, practice, and the occasional harp conference, a class or two with people of Deborah’s caliber that will get me there.
I’ve always avoided reading music until the last few years, and now I relish in it! A whole new language and tons of material have opened up to me. I also ear-train, improvise, AND read music as well. All on my own time and my own dime. I wake up at 0430 to practice for a couple of hours (in-between walks and cat-breaks) before heading off to work.
And you know what? The road to professionalism and quality playing is a whole lotta fun – I’m enjoying every single moment of this journey!
Aloha, and the very best to you all!
I started harp 10 years ago at the age of 47 and my friend started 6 months after at the grand age of 76! With an EXCELLENT teacher and a passion that I just can’t put into words, I was priveledged just this fall to participate in a Masters Class with Alice Giles AND another one with Yolanda Kondanassis! Who woulda thunk it? 😉 Bottom line . . . IT’S NEVER TOO LATE!!! This will be my 5th year at BITM and I can’t wait – the staff and instructors, classes are EXCELLENT! Even if you go without a harp, you will learn and be inspired! See you at BITM!
Thanks for your post, I really needed the encouragement. I’m 21 and I’ve had harp lessons for years, but I never really got the hang of practising. Two years ago, I decided I really wanted to get very good at the harp, so I’ve started taking lessons again. However, sometimes it’s hard to stay motivated if you see people exactly your age winning major competitions and then I start thinking again ‘perhaps I’m too late to become really good at the harp’… But if you, Deborah, started at 22, perhaps there’s still some hope for me :).
Yes! Absolutely. I know that thought. I had it all the time (and I STILL have it!). It’s only a thought, but not true. It is not too late. Not at all. Not even a little. My teacher, Tony Montanaro, used to say, “You are never late or early for anything. You are always right on time.”
And you … are right on time!
Another thing about competitions … they’re great in many ways, and wonderful to help you set learning and performance goals — but they’re only one way to reach an audience and speak to an audience. There are many, many other ways — infinite numbers — that you can do without ever winning – or even entering – a contest. And, by the way, I used to collect all my rejection letters, blow up the most painful or impersonal sentences to 200-300% then papered my bathroom in them. Making art and humor out of rejection gives you a sense of power, and a great perspective.
So don’t worry — there are many paths and you can start on them at any point — and each is full of riches, at least for the soul if not for the bank account. Go forth and make your own joyful noise.