I find it both exhilarating and scary to be a student at my age. I don’t mean just learning from travel and nice little lectures offered at the local college. I mean going for it full-force. Cranking out a product for someone else to evaluate when it’s not required for a degree or a job promotion. When there’s no “have to” involved. To risk criticism and even failure simply because you want to learn to do something you’ve never done before, or you want to get better at something you’ve done forever.
Two years ago, I started taking on-line writing classes at an exploratory level and discovered I really enjoyed the genre known as creative non-fiction, which applies techniques of fictional story-telling to actual events and can encompass everything from full-length memoirs to personal essays. I’ve worked with a local writing coach and attended my first writers’ conference where I sucked up seminars like the proverbial sponge and had an opportunity to meet a favorite author in person. (I also found writers to be a much less cranky group than the typical crowd at music educator conferences.)
Currently I’m taking an on-line class with students who are far better writers than I am. The instructor is very supportive and although I have yet to submit my work for peer review because I’m too intimidated, I know this class is taking my skills to another level. As I read the work of experienced writers, the more critical I become of my own work and the more I strive to improve. I am so grateful that there is still time and still room in my head for this to happen at age 60.
The other place where I find myself pushing the learning envelope is with choral singing. Unlike writing, I have been a choral singer and professional music educator for my entire adult life. So, we’re talking about stuff firmly established in my wheelhouse.
A little over a year ago, my husband and I made the difficult choice to leave our current choral group and audition for what might be considered the premier vocal ensemble in our region, if not the state. It was a gamble for people like us on the far side of 50.
We were accepted and welcomed into the orbit of a conductor who would pick up our voices like old rugs, take them outside and give them a good shake. Who would transform our been-there-done-that piece-three-times-wake-me-when-it’s-over mentality to “My God, this song is gorgeous. Where has this music been all my life?”
To say this conductor has revitalized and re-energized our passion for choral singing is an understatement. I find myself hearing her voice in my head, every time I sing, especially when I’m with my church choir and have to sing soprano. We have rediscovered what it means to practice and what it feels like to once again be inspired by a teacher. We are surrounded by singers who are younger and better than us. We must bring our A game to every rehearsal and performance.
I guess that’s my point. Where in the aging instruction book does it say, stop giving your best? Where does it say, just keeping on keeping on is good enough? While our bodies are still functional, why should we drop down to our B or C game? Yes, it’s scary to step out into uncharted territory. I cringe every time I hit the submit button on a piece I’ve written, knowing that it will probably get rejected but that means I must write it better the next time. I worry that I’m going to forget part of the memorized piece in the concert especially when there’s syncopated clapping involved, (Rhythm was never my strong suit.) but that means I must practice it yet again. I find I have to push back hard against the forces of complacency that say, “Stay safe. Stay comfortable. Just keep doing what you know you can do. Why work so hard when you don’t have to?”
Because the process feels good. It means I’m not stagnant, that there’s movement beneath the surface, even if that movement is mostly flailing. And sometimes there are rewards. The reward of singing with a group in which our voices are worked like dough in the master baker’s hands—mixed and kneaded and given time to rise and rest until the most delicate and sumptuous creation comes out of the oven. The reward of a writing mentor reading one of my pieces and saying, “This makes me just want to slam my head on the table and say, why I couldn’t I have written that?” The reward of a letter written in a shaky hand sent to my church after a piece I wrote was published on a denominational website, asking for more of my essays. Umm—I’m a beginner. I don’t really have a collection yet. But I’m working on it.