Better Late Than Never: Starting Music As An Adult
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Better Late Than Never: Starting Music As An Adult

I can hardly remember a time I did not want to be a musician—at the very least, a vocalist. (Some singers who can also play an instrument maintain that if you don’t play an instrument, you’re just a vocalist—not a real musician.) Everyone in my family had a certain amount of natural talent. Both my parents could play the piano. When I was around five or six, my dad tried to give me piano lessons. I just couldn’t get into them. I don’t know why. Finally he gave up and he didn’t even try with my sisters. We were all good singers, and I had a natural talent for hearing the harmony to any tune. (I still do). We did a lot of singing.

Since rock music and folk music had established themselves, naturally what I really wanted to do was play guitar. Or be in a band along with people playing guitars. But I was told that since I hadn’t learned piano, I had forfeited my chance at trying anything else. At any rate—and my sisters totally agree with me—our parents did their best to discourage us from getting into the music scene or hanging out with musicians.

I think that they worried that we would run away and connect with the folk music scene and end up in bed with Leonard Cohen. That wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility—it’s what every other passably attractive girl who ran off and connected with the folk music scene did.

Anyway, I reached middle age convinced that no one would ever be interested in my singing or jamming with them. I indulged my musical jones by joining up with the choir of some Methodist church in every town we ever lived in. It wasn’t enough, though. Each director seemed to have a stable of long-established soloists that he preferred, so I never got any extra work.

Fast-forward through a karmic chain of circumstances to being in Jacksonville, FL in my late middle 50s, where finally things started to move. A guitar fell into my hands. Through a friend of my husband, I met a musician who gave me the most encouragement I’d ever had in my life. I met more musicians through the same source and found myself in the world of jams and open mics.

That’s where I had confirmed what I’d sort of known all along—practically all these guys (most of them were guys) had started learning the guitar and playing in bands when they were in middle school. Great; if I got cracking right then, I might be as good as they when I was 90 years old. Maybe in some future life I would have the wit and gumption to wear down the opposition and start my dream at an earlier day, but the Buddhists say that my business is to improve the life I’m in now.

There are other reasons, some better, some worse, that people’s dreams get derailed. Sometimes it’s a matter of finance; sometimes they decide to follow ambitions that seem more realistic in the long run. After all, of all the musicians I know personally, and as a habitué of open mics I now know quite a few, only two have managed to make their living totally by music. The rest, as good as they are, have day jobs.

That doesn’t mean that a dream laid aside can’t be picked up and dusted off. You probably won’t be the next John Mayer, but that’s not the point.

One of the villains in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was Peter Keating, the competent but unoriginal architect whom the public seemed to prefer over the brilliant but difficult Howard Roark. At his mother’s urging, Keating had given up his real dream, which was art, to pursue a career that was more practical, more lucrative. Years later, when the public’s preferences mature and Roark’s career is on the rise, and the people who had supported Keating turn their backs on him, he realizes that although he’s made a pile of money and made his mark socially, he hasn’t really been that happy doing architecture. Finding himself with unaccustomed time on his hands, he buys some canvases and some oils and tries to get his painting going again. He shows some of his work to Roark, who looks them over and shakes his head with sorrow and pity. The implication is that it’s too late; he’s lost his chance forever; he’s sold his soul and can’t ever get it back.

In my opinion, whatever point Rand was trying to make, both men were wrong. I’m not sure that it’s even possible to sell your soul; even if John Fogarty was forced to surrender the rights to some of his songs to his label, Fantasy, to get out of his contract, nothing could negate the fact that he wrote them, and nobody else. Charging him with plagiarism for writing more stuff that sounded like it was written by John Fogarty is just silly. Hell, he is John Fogarty; who’s he supposed to write like? You might as well say that once a cow has released her milk to someone else’s use, she’s going to have to produce something else. Or once you’ve donated your hair, the hair that grows in its place is any less yours.

And Keating should have given himself more of a chance. He should have done some more messing around with oils so he could get himself back in the groove and recall what he felt like when he first began painting. Taken some refresher art courses. Certainly he should have known better than to offer up the first two canvasses he’s done in thirty years to someone who had to be the most cutthroat art critic on the planet. He might not have become another Picasso, but maybe he wouldn’t have even if he’d kept at his painting. However, he might have produced work that didn’t suck too badly and found his place and lived a better, more honest life.

Even if you feel like you’ve sold your soul, you can grab it back as soon as you make up your mind to grab it back. Take it back and nurture it and let it heal as much as it will. Even if you don’t achieve money and fame from your art, that was never the point. The point is finding your own place on the stage, immersing yourself in the world of artistic expression as fully as you can.


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