Adults find it's never too late to express themselves
New York — The recital has come of age. Adults from all walks of life are standing up to be heard. They are taking the wind out of the musician's mystique by showing that you don't have to be young to start or a professional to be good.
Sandy Kiefer, a cellist who teaches many adults, says more adults than ever before are studying music for the first time or continuing music they started as a child.
There are as many reasons as there are musicians, but the most common ones are that people now have the time and money they didn't have as children or in school. Studying music may be something they've always wanted to do. In some cases they were intimidated by bad teachers when they were young. (Unfortunately , Ms. Kiefer notes, there are many bad teachers around. Most professional musicians must teach to support themselves, but she estimates that probably less than half of those who do, enjoy it. Learner beware! Finding the right teacher is very important.)
Commonly, as adults, many people find they can finally overcome the childhood anxiety about looking bad and go ahead with things they have always secretly wanted to do.
Many turn to music when they find that, despite successful careers, there's something missing in their lives. One teacher calls it the Edith Bunker syndrome - finally doing something for personal enrichment after a lifetime of doing ''the right thing.''
Yet despite their resolve, Ms. Kiefer says a common question the adult beginners ask is, ''Do you think I'm crazy?''
But she adds that, of the many adults she has taught over the years, only two have ever completely stopped.
''For many it represents a big decision and commitment, especially if they have busy lives,'' she says. ''They are usually serious and very determined. In many ways adults are a lot of fun to teach. You can discuss technique and repertoire from the beginning, which is harder with children.
''They're doing it for themselves and know what they want to achieve. Many deliberately choose the cello, for instance, because they know they can play in small ensembles. It's another avenue for social interaction.
''Most important, it really is putting to rest once and for all the idea that 'you can't teach an old dog new tricks.' ''
She says most people bring at least a love of music, which is a good place to start. But exerience isn't as important as commitment. She estimates that an adult practicing seriously for half an hour, daily, can be playing duets within a year.
''But most adults don't do it to become professionals. They do it for themselves,'' Ms. Kiefer concludes. ''And that certainly takes the pressure off the learning process.''
Probably the most important part of playing music as an adult is having fun. Otherwise, why do it? asks Arthur Houle, a jazz pianist who teaches many adults.
Mr. Houle, who has been teaching since he was 13, believes the biggest hurdle is people's attitudes toward music and musicians. Rather than putting himself on a special pedestal, he tries to show that music is a natural part of everyone's life. Everyone feels rhythms and hears sounds, he points out, and music is just another way of expressing that. He notes that in other times as well as in other countries today, it has been acceptable for all members of society to play an instrument or sing if they feel happy or sad.
He traces an elitist attitude toward music, in part, to 19th-century music conservatories. Music was reserved for accomplished performers. Professional musicians' lives became lonely and competitive. That tradition continues today, with private music lessons geared for the concert performer.
Mr. Houle maintains that it's cruel to insist everyone must be taught this way. In fact, he notes, only a tiny percentage of music students ever have a real concert career today. Most musicians must teach to support themselves. For the majority of people, music is a means of sharing and simply having fun. Many people who love music and are actually good get turned off to it when their only exposure is through private lessons.
''Add formal recitals and you've probably cut out three-quarters of the people who would like to play music for the joy of it but who don't want to be put through the torture of recitals,'' he adds.
Mr. Houle has students compose their own songs from the beginning so they see that music is a natural part of them rather than some strange, alien set of exercises.
He works with classical music but doesn't always start with it, nor does he use method books of any kind. ''Bach didn't have John Thompson books for his kids. If he had, we wouldn't have all the wonderful music he wrote for them to learn on,'' he says.
''I try to find a way into a student's heart and use that as a way to teach them more about music as a craft,'' he adds.
Lessons aren't the only place adults are performing. Many join community orchestras, which are experiencing a rebirth throughout the country, according to Ms. Kiefer. Several of her own students have formed a group known as the Together Women Quartet. Others may entertain quite respectably at parties or just for friends. The point is, they're doing it.
Les Lieber, a New York ad executive, has been a believer for years. For more than 17 years he has run ''Jazz at Noon,'' an informal jam session at Freddy's on 49th Street. Every Friday, for three hours or so, friends and associates come and go in this world where the true amateur - ''he who loves'' - reigns. These sessions are heart and soul for the sometime musician, but the group also regularly invites a guest professional.
''It's a way for people in business to blow off a little steam. I try to make it memorable for the people who are here,'' Mr. Lieber says.
Their guest professional one week, jazz clarinetist Eddy Daniels, added an especially touching note. The drummer on one set was a surgeon who had treated Mr. Daniels's cousin. Mr. Daniels said he was grateful to have a way to thank him for what he'd done.
The list of ''family'' regulars is staggering. It boasts people from every walk of life from all over New York City. Who is there depends on who can get away at lunch, even if they have to make up lost work time.
''This is what makes me live,'' says Mr. Lieber. He's not alone.