Starting Late, But Not Too Late
Wed, 07/16/2014
Culture Editor
A devotee of classical music, Ari Goldman finds his voice by returning to playing the cello. Kali Kotoski
A devotee of classical music, Ari Goldman finds his voice by returning to playing the cello. Kali Kotoski

As he was approaching his 60th birthday, the author and journalism professor Ari Goldman took up the cello, an instrument he had played on and off — mostly off, of late — for the last 35 years. He decided to adopt a regimen of regular practice, lessons and playing with a group, and set a personal goal — playing publicly for many friends at his 60th birthday party.

He recounts the challenge of learning something new in his sixth decade in a memoir, “The Late Starters Orchestra” (Algonquin). The title refers to an actual New York City amateur string orchestra, LSO, made up of adult beginners and those returning to their instruments after long intervals of not playing. 

When a fellow late-starting musician hears him say that he’s afraid that he’s not good enough to join another amateur orchestra, she encourages, “You come. You may not live long enough to be ‘good enough.’”

Goldman’s determination and thoughtfulness in his mature quest are inspiring, and may lead others to take on new challenges, whether playing an instrument, or writing a screenplay, or learning to tango. The book shows that there are many ways to define accomplishment, even if one doesn’t become a star or champion, and may be always the amateur, striving for “good enough” rather than perfection.

Goldman first took up the cello in his 20s. As a child, he had a golden voice, and he was highly praised in synagogue when he’d lead services. But as he grew older he lost that voice, though he always loved music. He had been thinking of trying to learn to play the cello when, as a reporter covering a story for The New York Times, he knocked on the wrong door and met Heinrich Joachim. This accomplished older cellist would become his beloved teacher and mentor. Goldman took weekly lessons for seven years, and then, with pressures of work and family, put it aside.

Two decades later, he took the cello out of the closet when his youngest son Judah, then 6, showed an interest in it. The boy began taking violin lessons, and a few years after that, Goldman actually joined his son in his middle-school orchestra, happily playing along with 10-year-olds, for a season. Goldman père found that he needed more practice than they did.

Goldman also realized he should be playing with adults. He found the LSO, which had been established in 2007 and inspired by the East London Late Starters Orchestra (ESLSO) and the Really Terrible Orchestra of Edinburgh ((RTO), which supported the notion that everyone should have a place to play music. Joining LSO members at the Manhattan coat factory-turned-performance space where they rehearsed, Goldman enjoyed the music and camaraderie.

At first, he was inhibited by the fear of making mistakes. “The scariest thing is playing when you’re not supposed to be playing,” he says. He came to see that his fellow musicians were forgiving, and that even great musicians make mistakes — they just know how to cover them so people don’t notice.

While the book is a narrative of the year leading up to his 60th birthday party performance, Goldman, who now teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism after two decades as a reporter for The New York Times, looks back at his life experiences to write a memoir with a larger story about music and taking risks. Along the way, he muses about his teachers, great cellists, and about his studies of music and memory as well as his childhood, marriage and career.

Goldman is  author of three previous books, two of them memoirs that also reflect on a year or two, and also on a lifetime: “The Search for God at Harvard” and “Living a Year of Kaddish.

A lifelong diarist, he based the new book on notes he had been taking about his musical experiences. “Certain experiences are too good to keep in your diary,” he says in an interview.

“My life has been around writing, I’ve enjoyed that, had some success,” he says. “I love that part of my life but I decided that there was something I wanted to do, something else I wanted to learn.” In the book Goldman, an observant Jew, talks about the connection between Judaism and classical music, about the rules, the canon, the traditions, the music of the synagogue, and how, for him, taking up the cello was a way to find the voice he lost.

“I’m drawn to classical music more so than to rock or pop or show tunes, because of the great tradition, an ancient tradition that I want to be part of and help sustain.” He adds, “I’m a classical kind of guy when it comes to my music and my religion.”

As for the connection between journalism and music, he says, “Within the set rules involving accuracy, balance, protecting sources, ethics, you can demonstrate compassion, emotion and feeling — there’s still room for your own voice and personality to emerge. The same is true of music,” he says “While there are ways to play a Bach cello suite, there’s room for you to bring yourself into it, to show emotion, feeling, and compassion, and present it in your own voice.”

“If I were a fiction writer, perhaps I’d be more drawn to jazz. As a journalist, I’m drawn to classical music.”

At his 60th birthday party, “From Bach to Carlebach,” he assembled about 100 friends, many of whom didn’t know about the musical part of his life, and wore a tuxedo jacket and his favorite bow tie. His son Judah helped him with the Bach piece, but then he played solo. He wasn’t nervous but rather felt “absorbed by the experience.”

He describes his “sense of joy, satisfaction, relief, and the promise that I could do even more, and that I wouldn’t stop.” He felt enabled by his past — pushed forward from behind by the inspiration of Mr. J. — and “schlepped forward” by Judah, who encouraged him all along, while others were skeptical.

He writes, “After the party, I felt that if I never played another note on the cello again, I would die a happy man. I was a musician.”