Feels Like the Sec­ond Time. Or Maybe the Third.

Au­thor and Mu­si­cian Ari Gold­man De­tails the Plea­sures and Dif­fi­cul­ties of Get­ting Started Late

Forward Magazine - - Arts & Culture - By Anna Gold­en­berg

‘One of the mes­sages of the book is that you can’t wait for bril­liance.” Spo­ken by Ari Gold­man, vet­eran jour­nal­ist for the New York Times, au­thor of four books, in­clud­ing 1992’s “The Search for God at Har­vard,” and my for­mer pro­fes­sor at Columbia Jour­nal­ism School, these words seemed odd to me — the life les­son I’d taken home from the 10 fran­tic months at J-school cost­ing two an­nual salaries was that you should al­ways bend over back­wards to get ev­ery de­tail per­fectly right

Gold­man, it turns out, isn’t talk­ing about his pro­fes­sion but about his other pas­sion: play­ing the cello. When it comes to his mu­si­cal en­deav­ors, he con­sid­ers him­self any­thing but per­fect. (“If I had to make a liv­ing as a mu­si­cian, I’d starve,” he says.) He first took lessons in his mid-20s, but stopped play­ing at the age of 35, be­ing too oc­cu­pied with his job and fam­ily. When he wit­nessed his youngest son play­ing the same in­stru­ment in a youth orches­tra, he asked if he could join, be­com­ing by far the old­est stu­dent. The ex­pe­ri­ence was later com­mem­o­rated in an ar­ti­cle for The New York Times, af­ter which he was in­vited to join the Late Starters Orches­tra, a New York City group of am­a­teur string play­ers of all lev­els. Newly mo­ti­vated, he hatched the plan to be­come good enough to play for his guests at his 60th birth­day party.

He de­scribes what it took to reach this am­bi­tious goal in his lat­est book, “The Late Starters Orches­tra,” which is full of candid ob­ser­va­tions, funny scenes and in­ter­est­ing back­ground in­for­ma­tion about mu­sic his­tory and psy­chol­ogy. It’s an easy read, and any­one who has ever at­tempted to play an in­stru­ment will sym­pa­thize with Gold­man’s strug­gles, which he de­scribes with self-dep­re­cat­ing hu­mor.

My ini­tial hes­i­ta­tion to write about a book of a for­mer teacher of mine (what if I found out de­tails about his per­sonal life I didn’t want to know?) turned out to be as un­founded as my anx­i­ety about the in­ter­view (would he com­ment on my note-tak­ing tech­nique?). Gold­man talked openly about his mo­ti­va­tion for writ­ing the book, the chal­lenges he faced, and what be­ing an am­a­teur mu­si­cian has in com­mon with his ap­proach to Ju­daism.

What was it that made you write an en­tire book

— called “Big Cello, Lit­tle Cello” for the New York Times about play­ing with my son, and I re­al­ized there was more to say, and more of a story to tell, and that there was a mes­sage for other people. It’s not just about mu­sic, it’s not just reach­ing for mu­sic, it could be any sort of thing you as­pire to that’s hard to do, and that seems a lit­tle be­yond you. Es­pe­cially for people later in life, when you re­al­ize that there are things you’ve al­ways wanted to do but never had a chance to do, and never had a chance to pay at­ten­tion to. Whether that’s learn­ing a lan­guage, or gar­den­ing, or play­ing bas­ket­ball, horse­back rid­ing — what­ever sort of dream you have that you de­fer. Amer­i­cans are liv­ing longer [and] get more leisure time. I wrote the book to tell the story of this life­long quest, and I hope to in­spire other people to mu­sic and to other pur­suits.

Ju­daism plays a sig­nif­i­cant part in your life.

It’s very hard to write about mu­sic be­cause words can never cap­ture [it]. I very much ad­mired mu­sic writ­ers and mu­sic crit­ics, but I ad­mire them even more now. To find the lan­guage to de­scribe a mu­si­cal piece or ex­pe­ri­ence, and to cap­ture sound that by its very def­i­ni­tion is be­yond words is hard.

In the book you cite stud­ies that show how mu­sic in­struc­tion can sharpen your brain. Did you feel any ef­fect yourself?

It just gives me a lot of plea­sure and com­fort. It’s a re­treat from our overly plugged-in world. There are just so many elec­tronic stim­uli in our lives. For me, play­ing a clas­si­cal in­stru­ment is a way to dis­con­nect. There are no wires, no plugs. It’s just wood and strings and it’s kind of pure.


Good as Gold­man:

Ari Gold­man re­counts his strug­gles in re­turn­ing to cello in his book ‘The Late Starters Orches­tra.’

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