The Poster Child for Adult Education

My school, the San Francisco Community Music Center, ran this story about me, my teacher Jono Kornfeld, and my ”musical journey” in their December newsletter. Although the word “journey” bugs me because of its New Agey connotation, making The Perambulator did have its mythic moments and epic twists and turns. I’d like to share a few things I learned when I first embarked into the study of music.

I wanted to study music as a child, as a teen, in my 20’s —always— but when did I actually start? In my forties. I’m grateful I finally got over myself and did it. First lesson: It’s too easy to postpone your life away.

Although as an actress I’d been able to carry a tune when in character, I’d always been afraid to sing in my natural voice. The first singing teacher I happened to find was perfect: a mommy-type personality, nurturing, encouraging, unconditionally supportive. Eventually I realized I needed someone tougher, so I moved on to a coach who compelled me to reach a professional level. However, when I took up the guitar I had no luck at all in finding a suitable teacher. I ended up with overuse injuries and had to put the instrument down for years. I recently found a wonderful online instructor—inexpensive and mindful of the dangers of overuse. I wish I’d spent less time playing and more time looking. Second lesson: Finding the right teacher is crucial.

In the beginning when I practiced singing my cat would always run out the door. Several years passed. Then one day I started doing my scales, and instead of bolting outside in disgust she came over and curled up on top of my feet, purring. I knew I was getting better then! As my father the professor liked to say, “Making mistakes is how we learn.” We need to accept that for a very long, uncomfortable time our musical expressions will be sadly below par and only fortitude and diligent practice can change that fact. Third lesson: Be process oriented, not results oriented. In the common parlance: Learn not to care that you suck.    

Making music is a time consuming, athletic activity. Some years back I was studying piano, guitar, and voice. Overwhelmed with material and songs to practice, I actually felt fleeting and absurd envy toward the little kids at the school because they didn’t have to go home and make dinner! Then I discovered that if I spent about 80% of my time on the difficult sections and the rest just running through the songs it took much less time to improve noticeably (plus was easier on my body). When I told my teachers this they scowled and expressed skepticism but could not deny the good results. I realized the only edge adult students have over younger ones is wisdom. So I began to ask more questions, developed better listening skills, and continued to refine my rehearsal process. I also learned how to rest. Fourth lesson: Use wisdom to transform limitations into strengths.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I like to think of myself as a “musical Julia Child” because like her I did not discover my true calling until middle age. (Julia Child started cooking in her 40’s and began her TV career in her 50’s.) In an interview she once said that she always felt about 6 years old. To me, that means joyful, curious, fiercely connected… with a sense of wonder. When we follow our dreams, even the smallest, most modest of whims, we connect with the 6 year-old residing within each of us. And I’m not necessarily talking about some massive creative endeavor. Six years old? Maybe a batch of cookies or a long walk outside.

Don’t postpone your life.