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The Time of Your Life: Now or Never

Following is an excerpt from Chapter One of The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist After Sixty, by Francine Toder, PhD.  Dr. Toder had a 40-year career as a practicing clinical psychologist, as well as professor of psychology at California State University Sacramento, before turning her attention to the question of creativity in older age.  Not only did she write The Vintage Years, in which she explores the neuroscientific aspects of older-age creativity, and profiles more than 20 later-blooming individuals who took up music, painting, writing, etc. after the age of 60; but she herself, in her late 60s, learned to play (and continues to practice) the cello. 

The Vintage Years was published and recently released by Aziri Books (March 25, 2013).

Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand-and melting like a snowflake.
—Sir Francis Bacon, 1561-1626

In 2004 a young and idealistic cello teacher living in New York City decided to do a music experiment to satisfy her curiosity. Biana Kovic thought, “I once heard that most people die with music in their heart. On hearing this statement, I felt a strong urge to do something.” She quickly contacted senior residences and agencies to seek volunteers. After more than a year’s search, she identified an eighty-nine-year-old woman named Matty Kahn who lived alone and independently on the upper west side of Manhattan. In the film produced to document this experiment, Matty had a youthful appearance and engaging smile. She looked eager and she energetically agreed to participate in Kovic’s research.

Kovic planned to test her theory that older people could indeed learn to play music. While her students were mostly adults, she was curious about whether she could teach the cello to senior citizens, even very old ones. Kovic promised Matty Kahn a month’s worth of free cello lessons in return for being the subject of this experiment. Matty was later featured in Kovic’s award-winning documentary, Virtuoso—It’s Never Too Late Too Learn.

In the documentary, Matty’s left hand went up and down the fingerboard playing notes, tentatively at first, and then she began naming the notes out loud as she played. She beamed with pride but seemed matter-of-fact about her playing, joking with the videographers. Her fingers betrayed her age with visible signs of arthritis, but she didn’t seem deterred or in pain. A smile of satisfaction crept over her face, which deepened as she concentrated on making pleasing sounds. Not self-conscious in the least with the cameras rolling, she appeared focused on her own enjoyment as her upper body relaxed and swayed with the notes, suggesting her transcendence to a timeless and ageless place.

I wish I was privy to the thought process that led her to sign up for cello lessons. This commitment was a big departure from her day-to-day life. I wondered if it was curiosity or the desire to learn something new. Perhaps it was the recognition that time was running out and that there were some musical yearnings from her past that could still be satisfied. Maybe she wanted to take on a new challenge, or perhaps she made a bet with someone that she could do it. Likely, it was all of these and more.

Kovic’s article and documentary about her elderly student learning to read music and play the cello piqued my curiosity  Although Matty’s spirit of adventure may be unusual, I thought there must be other similarly curious seventy- and eighty-year-olds taking on activities that nobody guessed they would embrace or could tackle. It inspired me to think about the benefits of being over fifty or sixty and taking on the study of an art form in earnest. The psychologist and scholar in me wondered if there might even be some advantages in embracing such a challenge later in life rather than in childhood or early adulthood. In fact, getting older does have benefits, and it turns out that it may be easier to learn some things after the age of sixty—a central theme in this book.

Matty Kahn did learn to play the cello, and it enhanced her life in several ways. It enabled her to feel masterful and proud that she could turn her life-long interest in music as a listener into performing, even if it was for an audience of one. An unanticipated outcome was the fame she experienced as the star in Kovic’s documentary, which earned three film awards. In her published interview, Kovic volunteered, “I asked Matty to share some of her thoughts on two subjects that interest me the most: learning and aging. Her response was that learning keeps her going. It is the only companionship she has, especially at times when she feels lonely remembering that most of the people that she has known and loved have passed away.”

While anecdotal and unscientific, Kovic and her eighty-nine-year-old student saw and experienced first hand that old brains can, in fact, do some things as well or better than twenty-year-old brains.

Sidestepping the Stereotypes

francine toder-now-or-never-insert1There is a popular belief, held by musicians as well as non-musicians, that the cello is a particularly difficult instrument to learn. Unlike the guitar, the cello has no frets—the ridges of wood set across a fingerboard that help a musi­cian’s fingers to press the strings at the correct point to play a note by touch. The cello’s long fingerboard, on which the left hand plays notes, gives no clues as to where to place the fingers  An aspiring musician must learn to pick out the notes by feel and sound, a very subtle process. And that’s just the beginning of the complexity. Beyond the difficulty of learning this instrument is the commonly held idea that musicians must start training early and the admonition, “Don’t bother if you are a beginner over age ten!”

We are all familiar with the stories of child prodigies like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who gave his first performance of his own compositions at age five. Like the young Mozart, artistic children who are described as geniuses reinforce the belief that great artists must start young. But the talent pool would be quite small if this adage were strictly true. The myths about musicians’ ages and the value of precocity and early-identified genius were clearly irrelevant to Matty’s decision.

While my curiosity about the relationship between aging and artistic interests started out as academic, I soon realized that I had a personal interest in the topic—developing my own artistic self. Up until this point in my life, if I had an inner artist, she was in a deep sleep. My interest in music was mostly limited to attending concerts and playing classical chamber music CDs. Other artistic pursuits never made it beyond the occasional museum or gallery visit.

I first learned about Kovic when I started to wonder about my own possible retirement and about the next phase of life. My forty-year career as a psychologist was devoted to helping people repair themselves and then continue developing in positive ways, but it wasn’t until I began to contemplate retiring that I realized there were unexplored corners of my own life craving light and attention.

What followed was a six-month consideration of what life would look like without the work that had defined me and that had been as much a calling as a profession. Much like the clergy, psychologists have an all-encompassing sense of responsibility for their “flock.” Psychologists tend not to retire early and often don’t retire at all. I wrestled with the feeling that I was abandoning my patients and my profession, as if I was a quitter. Not particularly rational, part of me wanted to work until I was carried out, as proof that I had given my all.

francine toder now ornever insert 2When I finally arrived at the end of my struggle, landing in resolution and relative peace, I decided to retire and began to explore the void I would be creating. Remembering Kovic’s experiment fired up the aging engine inside of me. It piqued my curiosity about whether I could embark on such a journey, maybe with the added advantage of being a full twenty years younger than Matty.

I knew only too well how difficult the transition could be from working life to the life of relative leisure. Recalling some of my past clients’ trepidations and fears of retirement as well as their fantasized expectations of nirvana, both extremes highly exaggerated, reminded me that I needed to do my own homework. And so I did.

The homework involved taking stock of myself at this point in life, including a review of my assets and those attributes that would get in my way. Even at a superficial level, I knew that my perseverance would serve me well and that my short attention span and self-doubt would work against me.

In anticipation of some rough going, I searched my inner and outer life for clues about any interests, long dormant or just bubbling to the surface. One that kept popping up, learning to play the cello, seemed preposterous but also intensely exciting. Being not particularly musical and post sixty-five meant the odds were very much against me, but in some way that became part of the challenge and motivation.

I would like to say that my motives were pure and that I’d always yearned to be a musician, but that would not be true. My upbringing was very practical and my family saw the fine arts as frivolous. No encouragement here.

What attracted me to the cello was its enormous size and its mellow, velvety, haunting sounds—an instrument made of beautifully polished wood that I could wrap my arms around and feel its powerful vibrations in my body when the strings were played. Quite a delicious sensation! That was a good enough reason and starting point for me.

On the other hand, I reasoned that I had finally arrived at a place in life where the daily grind would be behind me. My time would still be punctuated with routines but at a slower and less driven pace. The interests I’d cultivated in the past were still there and, while they remained satisfying, there was little to challenge me.  Music, I vowed, would become my challenge and would play a bigger role in the next phase of my life.

Something had shifted inside of me. Interest in continuing to work receded and the urge to study music became stronger as my six-month exploration of retirement progressed. Deciding to make a big change in life usually means running the idea through two filters, the outside and internal worlds. I did just that.

francine toder now or never insert 3The feedback from the outside world was not encouraging when I first began to talk about taking up the cello; musicians and others who claimed to have my best interests in mind thought it didn’t make any sense to start at my age. Their positions mirrored their beliefs about what is possible, but I felt stereotyped and stigmatized. I believe that when they looked at me they saw an old woman, graying hair and wrinkling skin, someone like their bubbas or nanas, and without malice they reduced me to a number that suggested my irrelevancy. Maybe it was my mistake to consult younger musicians who lack the perspective that comes with age. My own adult kids were amused at my interest in taming a wild cello, not in a disrespectful way, but with surprise. They didn’t seem to understand that retirement is not the last stop on the train ride.

Feedback from within myself was just as non-supportive; kind of the way adults pat little kids on the head and humor them when they say something ridiculous. I humored myself as if it was a passing fancy. I vacillated between feeling sure and unsure. I worried that I would embarrass myself, even as a student. I worried that any teacher I found would sit in judgment and think I would be more satisfied knitting a sweater than tackling a cello. I even worried about how I would lug this large wooden object around since it was more than two-thirds of my size. Seeing myself through others’ eyes, especially with the critical thoughts I imbued them with, made me cringe. In my mind, a jury of nameless and faceless others disapproved of my plans and judged me harshly.

Coming of Age

In my twenties, thirties, forties, or even fifties, my perceptions of what others thought and even my own self-doubts might have made me pause, but fortunately no longer. This is a new stage in a new age. Coming of age may now refer to a number like sixty, the first point in life marked by the freedom to choose your own direction and freedom from constraints like others’ needs and expectations. At this precise moment in life when a bit more time and energy is available to you, coupled with curiosity, you can invent your next life chapter. Ironically, after decades of work and the general busyness associated with managing life in the middle years, your later years may actually include more physical and creative activity than was possible when time and other resources were in short supply.

The Vintage Years is about the benefit of pursuing the life of the artist after sixty. Broadly defined, that includes writing, playing an instrument, pursuing the fine arts of one sort or another, or immersing yourself in any activity in a novel or creative way. I use the term artist very loosely. It’s as much about the way you might approach things as the form it takes, bringing openness and a child’s fascination to your experience, that which the Buddhists call “a beginner’s mind.”

With limited expectation of performance you can have the best possible experience for its own sake, with no worries about getting more proficient, competing with or impressing others, or having any particular goal outside of enjoyment. In fact, this is the hallmark of the over-sixty lifestyle. Not needing to prove yourself or be worried about what others think about your choices, you are finally free to explore and choose options without the nagging “shoulds” and goal-driven pressures that defined past times.

The Vintage Years is a nonfiction book. There are no made-up stories or hunches about what might be possible for you in this phase of life. The stories in subsequent chapters are about real people reinventing themselves, uncovering lost or dormant interests, or fine-tuning self-knowledge collected over a lifetime.

Many post-sixty folks volunteered to share their stories of exploration at an age that history suggests is best suited for reviewing life while sitting on the porch watching cars go by. I hope that you can identify with them so strongly that you, too, will begin to imagine yourself playing the violin or guitar. If you are not drawn to music, take a stroll through your local art supply store to see whether watercolors or pastels get you excited. Perhaps there is a secret writer in you needing inspiration or a reason to emerge. Or, your art form might be gardening, acting—anything that results in creative expression.

The Brain at Sixty

All sorts of books have been written about the years following retirement, but this book specifically focuses on the fine arts because of the benefits they provide to an aging brain, and conversely because the aging brain has capacities that actually help develop the budding, late-blooming artist. This is a circular, reinforcing process, and you are the beneficiary.

Bloom Post End

A new essay by Francine Toder on creativity and the neurosciences will be forthcoming here at Bloom in May.

Homepage photo credit: nosha via photopin cc
Cello photo credit: nosha via photopin cc
bass at intermission photo credit: haglundc via photopin cc
Here comes the sun! photo credit: KatinkaBille via photopin cc

5 thoughts on “The Time of Your Life: Now or Never

  1. Brava, Matty Kahn.

    Delighted to have completed and got a publishing deal for my first novel in my early sixties. Hugely cheered by Matty’s achievement and encouraged to believe that I can do much more.

    No excuses for us over 60s for not giving our best shot.

  2. Great essay! The only thing I’d want to add is that retirement shouldn’t have to be the trigger. I know a lot of us aren’t going to be able to retire at 65, or 70, or ever, but that shouldn’t preclude getting in touch with that creativity. While it surely takes more energy for an older person to invest in his or her inner life and still keep working, it might also be that much more necessary.

    • As the book author of “The Vintage Years” I never intended retirement to be the trigger for creativity. “After sixty” doesn’t imply retirement and for many of us that is not possible or even desirable. It’s just that post sixty we tend to have better focus and generally more time and emotional stability to pursue the arts.

  3. I was inspired by this article and immediately bought The Vintage Years ebook. I’ve been procrastinating about immersing myself in the arts since BEFORE I was 60. I’m now 75 and my song is still unsung. Oh, I’ve dabbled a lot, and friends and acquaintances consider me an ‘artist’. But I’m only a potential artist … artists, after all, create art, and I do very little. One of the biggest obstacles is that, because of my critical financial situation, I also need to make money … a challenge in itself. It would be great if the two could be connected. Nothing is too good to be true. Small steps, and one at a time, even if the road ahead could be short.

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