Never Too Late (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1978; full text found on-line, 20170625) is a memoir by John Holt (1923–85) of his experiences learning in mid-life to perform music, without much background. Holt’s best-known books are from the mid-sixties and deal with teaching small children. This book, on the other hand, is squarely about the adult learner.
A lot of the text rather rambles, but below I provide extracts of what seem to me the finest parts.
This book narrates Holt’s various encounters with music, from childhood onward, with some philosophizing on independent learning. The two most important tales feature the flute and the cello. Holt took up the flute in his mid-thirties and then set it down again a couple of years later. At forty — the same time he wrote his first book — he took up the cello and by the time of this book he had been at it for thirteen years.
Chapter 10 and the Epilogue (only) are good enough that I sense they could stand alone.
Chapter 10 (pp. 187-217) deals at discursive length with mental habits of self-reproach (“crippling and self-destructive thoughts”, p. 194) by learners. The Epilogue, “Clearing a Space” (pp. 234-42), deals most directly with the difficulties a learner in mid-life and later has in mastering a new skill. Much of the matter from Chapters 2 to 9 meanders among unfocused recollections about music in his life (“I never heard any of [my father’s brothers or sisters] sing, hum, or whistle, any part of a song or tune”, p. 20), although there are gems here and there.
There is a nod or two to Holt’s best-known advocacy, educational reform:
For many years, with many others, I tried to make schools more kindly, interesting, competent, and serious. It now seems clear that in the near future this will not happen, mostly because there are so few people, in or out of schools, who want it to happen. To those few people who can’t stand what schools are doing to their children, I now urge that they look for ways to take their children out altogether and have them learn at home. (p. 240-41)
This work of deinstitutionalizing people and society now seems to me perhaps the most fundamental and important political task of our times. (p. 183)
But the value of the book is in Holt’s reflections on his own difficulties in learning, outside of an institution — self-directedly, as an adult.
Difficulties in learning
Midway through the book Holt offers an autopsy of his failure to progress with the flute (“Not Ready Yet”, pp. 133-35). He lists six issues that were mostly resolved by the time he turned to the cello (below I name them in my own words). Three of them are relatively simple:
Physical exertion. Playing the flute “gave me no way to discharge in physical energy the tensions I felt in trying to play it” (p. 134) — it did not release as much tension as he needed it to. He says elsewhere that “music is athletics, a sport more difficult and fascinating than any I have ever played” (p. 237).
Poor “mental model” of what flute music should sound like. Holt fixed this by listening thoughtfully to a lot of music.
Collaboration. “I did not play enough with other people.” But Chapters 1 and 11 contain chatty, readable descriptions of musicians’ interactions, and it seems that by the time he came to the cello, Holt had learned to appreciate what he calls “the Fellowship of Music” (p. 180).
The other three issues are major ones and I deal with them below in depth:
“Clearing a space” for learning
Fear and shame
Independence and resourcefulness, and the role of the teacher
“Clearing a space” for learning
When he was learning the flute, music was
still only a hobby, not at the center but at the edge of my life, not connected with any of my concerns about politics or the world or human life. (p. 134)
I have the sense that Holt was aware of this issue’s importance long before he resolved it. In 1969 or ’70, as a result of new thinking about education while working with Ivan Illich, “the gap I had felt between my work and my hobby had disappeared” (p. 186). And yet, based on the first stories (“The Beginner over His Head”, pp. 187-94) in the following chapter, it sounds as though his level four years after that was still terribly low.
The issue of clearing space for learning also arises elsewhere in the book and I think the best résumé of Holt’s thinking about it is: “Time is my problem, not ignorance about what to play” (p. 211). The problem is not only time but single-mindedness.
Holt takes the phrase “clearing a space” from (he suspects) Matthew Arnold (1822–88), who learned to play the piano after uncluttering enough spiritual Lebensraum to do so. The main points he makes under the heading “clearing a space” are:
To make more time for music, I have had to give up many pleasures I have enjoyed for years. ... I don’t go any more to the ballet, which I have always loved, or to the theatre or movies, which I liked to go to once in a while. ... Outside of the Boston Symphony, which is too beautiful to give up, I go to few concerts. There are many other recreations that have given me great pleasure in the past, that I may rarely or never do again — sailing, canoeing, swimming, skiing, squash, tennis, soccer, skating, fishing, wilderness camping, mountain backpacking. I realize this without the slightest regret. (p. 237)
Friendship ... also has to give way. (p. 238)
More and more I am going to have to choose between playing and listening. ... To produce more music, I am going to have to consume less. (p. 238)
Holt also feels a conflict between the desires to write and to work on music:
I am like the rope in a tug of war, the writer pulling one way, the musician the other. ... When the writer is in command, working on a book or an article for my newsletter, words are in my mind all the time, music making seems remote and trivial. When the musician is in command, I think music all the time. ... Words seem a distraction. (p. 238-39)
And there is something of a change from the voice in Instead of Education (1976; Boulder: Sentient Publications, LLC, 2004; published the same year as this book), which fulminates against social injustice. Here, although he grants that many social problems and issues still “seize his mind” and he “can’t stop thinking about them” (p. 240), Holt says:
One of the things I have had to learn to do, not just to make time for music, but to keep some sanity, is to give up the idea that I have to know and do something about everything, or everything bad, that is happening here and in the world. ... I already have all the bad news I can stand. (p. 239-40)
Mental “space” and single-mindedness are a problem only because time is a problem:
Even if I can keep a space clear for music, time may also tell me something else — that the experts were right. Perhaps people in their fifties, like me, really do have something missing in their nervous and muscular systems that makes it impossible for them to become skilled musicians. ... Perhaps I will hit a speed barrier, a point beyond which I just can’t make my brain, eyes, arms, hands, and fingers work any faster. Perhaps I will find that even though I learn and improve, I do it so slowly that to play as well as I would like to would take me eighteen hours a day for fifty years — hours and years that I don’t have. ... By the time I can no longer dodge such a truth, I will have had many glimpses of it. Maybe I will be ready for it. ... Meanwhile, none of this has happened. If Nature has waiting for me up the road some kind of impassable barrier, she has so far given me no clear signs if it. (p. 241-43)
There is one more aspect to consider in the question why time and space should be at issue. Earlier in the book Holt relates cellist János Starker’s (1924–2013) advice (p. 179):
It’s extremely difficult for someone of our age to learn to play this instrument well, because we have to develop a whole new set of muscles, and a whole new set of coordinations. On the other hand, we have an advantage. … We can think of problems, and find solutions.”
“Problems”, indeed, are part of the process of learning. Mental “space” is needed to work on them:
There seem to be so many more kinds of problems in music, and so many more ways to work on them. It is a limitless field for thought, invention, experiment. (p. 238)
Fear and shame
This has been a trademark part of Holt’s arguments for educational reform. Here he says, of his flute studies:
I was too frightened and ashamed of my mistakes, and the possibility of making mistakes, to be able to give myself wholly to the music (p. 134).
He coins the name “Szigeti syndrome” (pp. 90-93) for the feeling of sympathetic embarrassment he experiences while attending a performance by violinist Joseph Szigeti (1892–1973); Szigeti’s arthritis led to many technical mistakes, which mortified Holt.
What I finally came to understand is that I was not thinking about him, not feeling for him at all, but imagining myself up there, making those mistakes, and imagining all those three thousand people sneering and laughing at me. (p. 92)
Szigeti played on, in what was probably a very tough, thoughtful, and beautiful performance. But I could barely get past the wrong notes to hear the music. (p. 92)
It’s illuminating that Holt thinks this 1952 performance “must have been one of his last public appearances”, although in fact Szigeti did not stop performing until 1960.
Holt says that helping children to be free of the fear of making mistakes, over several years between his encounters with flute and with cello, unburdened him of much of his own earlier worry about the same thing (p. 143). He considers fear and shame to have been his biggest obstacle as a learner.
I have to keep in mind the distant goal, without worrying about how far away it is or reproaching myself for not being already there. This is very hard for most adults. It is the main reason why we old dogs so often do find it so hard to learn new tricks, whether sports or languages or crafts or music. But if as we work on our skills we work on this weakness in ourselves, we can slowly get better at both. (pp. 196-97)
And he has thought a great deal about fear and shame in learning, and ways of escaping them. A propos of causes of shame, he mentions a student who went from an insightful but inexperienced teacher to an experienced but uninsightful one. He says the student could have returned to the less experienced teacher but
he would have seen it, quite rightly, as a going back, a kind of retreat. Sooner or later, he must have thought, if he was going to be a good player, he was going to have to take lessons from a real teacher and if these lessons were going to be a misery, what was the use of going on? So he quit. (p. 155)
One way to escape feelings of fear and shame in learning is to avoid eliciting words of consolation by making excuses for one’s poor performance — he calls this “no alibis in advance, no appeals for sympathy” (pp. 169-70).
Independence and resourcefulness, and the role of the teacher
Holt is sometimes portrayed as minimizing the role of the teacher in education, but that seems to me to misconstrue him. Wary, yes, he is. In this book he says:
Teaching is a very strong medicine, which like all strong medicines can quickly and easily turn into a poison. (p. 209)
But he says very clearly that another way of minimizing fear and shame in the learning process is to have benefit of a teacher’s critical and expert guidance:
I need ideas — beyond those I have already — about ways to work on a number of specific weaknesses: … . I need more critical feedback, more criteria for judging my own playing, more things to pay attention to in practice. … I practice very attentively right now, but there still might be something important that I am overlooking. Most of all, I need the experience of playing for a critical listener, to get over any stage fright I might feel about that, and to learn to play my best under pressure — just as in sports. (p. 216)
Holt then adds his trademark caveat — a teacher’s guidance must not be all-dominating:
Even while giving me this help, the teacher I need must accept that he or she is my partner and helper and not my boss, that in this journey of musical exploration and adventure, I am the captain. Expert guides and pilots I can use, no doubt about it. But it is my expedition; I gain the most if it succeeds and lose the most if it fails, and I must remain in charge. (p. 217)
The same ideas come up in the “conditions” Holt set when, early in his own cello studies, he was asked to teach the instrument to a young person who had trouble sitting still:
In agreeing, I made a few conditions. I insisted that playing the cello, and studying with me, be the boy’s idea, not his mother’s. He had to be free, and to know that he was free, to stop studying with me or stop playing altogether any time he felt like it, without having to feel ashamed or guilty. He had to be free to cancel a lesson if he wanted to. And I insisted that the whole matter of practice be left entirely up to him. Practice done in the spirit of why-do-I-have-to-do-this is worse than none at all. The only good practice is that done with zest and enthusiasm. I wanted this boy to play the cello for his own delight, to find out for himself that practice brought improvement, and to decide for himself how much improvement he was willing to pay for with work. (p. 150-51)
He remarks that for parents to be involved in even such minor things as helping to tune a child’s instrument may be read as “a kind of subtle hint that he ought to practice” (p. 152), and that undermines self-direction.
As for Holt’s own flute studies,
I was not independent or resourceful enough in my practice. I tried to do whatever my teacher told me, but I rarely thought of different ways to work on the problems he pointed out to me. … I did not understand enough about what happens in our minds, nervous systems, and muscles when we learn music, to take an intelligent, critical, and imaginative part, the leading part, in that process. I was not yet ready to be at the center of my own learning (p. 135).
Holt describes what he calls the “mental-muscular model” (p. 197) of musicianship. He names eight things that have to be learned in mutual coordination and then makes two important points about the process of learning them. First, the process of mastering the mutual coordination of these things is not a linear process:
Structures of knowledge … are much greater than the sum of their parts. (p. 202)
Second, this learning is “not verbal” but carried out by the body (p. 199). Holt believes that the learner’s self-observation is vital to progress.
He illustrates this point on analogy with how we know how to change pitch when we are whistling or pressing strings against fingerboards — we understand through perception of ourselves: “trial and error; feedback; satisfaction, pleasure when it came out right” (pp. 114-16). Another example is his story of teaching a supposedly tone-deaf person to sing by harnessing the learner’s self-perception (pp. 99-104).
Holt’s fullest development of this theme now follows:
There are no rules for getting a good sound from a stringed instrument. There is nothing that we can tell a novice that will enable him, then and there, to make a nice sound. ... The thing to do is to bow [DPB: rhymes with “go”], and as you bow, to listen. When you hear a note that is nicer than most of your notes, think “Aha!” — and keep bowing. You may not know what your muscles did that was different, but whatever it was, they will tend to do more of it.
What all this boils down to is a kind of law of learning that I have finally come to understand and accept:
WHEN YOU’RE WORKING, YOU’RE LEARNING.
... If we are fully involved in our music making, interested in it, excited by it, then we are learning. We may not and probably cannot know all of what we are learning. We are almost certainly learning much more than we think. By our work and our attention we are helping to grow the musical structures I spoke of earlier. If we are patient, we will find, as I am constantly surprised to find, that we know more than we consciously learned, even things that we never set out to learn.
... There is nothing mysterious or magical about this. The point about structures of knowledge is that they are much greater than the sum of their parts. ... As we build into our minds, nerves, and muscles these musical maps I have spoken of, we are using a finite amount of information, of conscious learning and practicing, to build structures that will generate an almost infinite amount of information, and what is more important, do it almost without conscious thought.
... This can create a paradox, a tension. At times we must think very hard with our conscious, planning, questioning, critical mind. At other times we must tell that part of our mind to shut up. (pp. 200-2)
It seems that at the time he wrote this book, Holt was still really struggling to master technical proficiency — he says, for instance:
What I need most, right now, is not someone to help me with interpretive problems. ... What I need is good advice about how to learn to play faster and read better. ... I need help with hard problems of fingering and bowing in the music I am playing with others. (pp. 213-16)
In the Epilogue Holt describes his most current state, and all the things he describes are cases of growing into facility at playing. He says his left hand is getting more flexible. He is pleased to find he can now see more notes at once than before. “I knew all along that I should see more notes, should look ahead, but I couldn’t do it. Now, even when I am not trying to make it happen, it is beginning to happen. It is as if my eyes themselves have changed.” The biggest improvement is the changes he feels in his bow arm (p. 235).
Holt thinks the “method”, meaning a book of graded exercises, is a helpful tool for the beginner, but he is also grateful that his teacher, Hal Sproul, encouraged him to encounter technical challenges directly in major works that by any standard were too hard for him (pp. 143-45). He is fascinated by little tricks and rules of thumb to improve proficiency. Some of those used by his flute teacher Bill Grass (1926–2005) appear on p. 123. Holt also describes his own “inventions” — for tuning and for remembering specific intervals as an aid to sight-reading (p. 162-68). The Appendix lists his mnemonics for quickly remembering 19 pitch-intervals (pp. 243-44). In my experience, both as a learner and as a teacher, it’s helpful to devise one’s own mnemonics rather than using other people’s.
Mated with the non-verbal process of learning is Holt’s praise of Izler Solomon (1910–1987), as a conductor who talked very little and did not even interrupt the orchestra’s playing very often to make corrections. Solomon let players go as far as they could on their own. In general, says Holt, a teacher should not aim for more improvement in a day than is feasible for people (pp. 174-77).
Apart from Holt’s clear statements about the teacher’s role, the thing I expect to stay with me most vividly after reading this book is my own reflection on the place of non-verbal learning in self-directed study. In Instead of Education Holt says:
Reading, unlike dancing, is not a muscular act (2004: 59)
and this is related to firm ideas he has about what is and is not learnable. Curiously, in the present book Holt says it is not our business to decide what people are capable of learning:
It is not our proper business as teachers, certainly not music teachers, to make decisions and judgments about what people are or are not “capable” of doing. It is our proper business, above all in music, to try to find ways to help people do what they want to do. ... Keep looking, keep asking, keep working on the problem yourself. If you want to make music, don’t let anybody tell you, and don’t tell yourself, that it is totally impossible for you to do it. (pp. 103-4)
Speaking for myself, I am not persuaded that learning to read is a “verbal” and “non-muscular” process. I think the mind is a virtual muscle — “virtual” in the sense of “effective” or “simulated”, meaning that we interact with it usefully by modeling it as though it were a muscle. That is why learning by gestalt can be so effective at times.
Holt’s emphasis on direct perception of oneself in the process of learning leads me to reflect that “self-study” can mean both study by oneself and the study of oneself.
I think that what Holt is describing in his wrestling with musical performance applies to almost anything one tries to learn in adulthood.