She first picked up her cello at 40. It carried her through the hardest time of life
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When Elizabeth Brown Fell was nearly 40, a violinist friend of hers asked her to join a quartet.
Fell had done a bit of singing, but nothing professional or serious, and had never played an instrument. The quartet needed a bass instrument. Her friend threw out a suggestion ... What about the cello?
And so — never having seen or touched one — Fell bought herself a cello. As the daughter of a piano teacher, she’d always had an interest, but between running her first-aid training business in Guelph, Ont. and parenting two young boys, she’d never found the time.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Fell said. Now the cello is one of her greatest joys. Today, at 54, she plays in the Kitchener-Waterloo Community Orchestra and is in demand for weddings and functions. And given the calamaties life later threw her way, she had no idea how important this lifelong learning experience would become.
Fell may seem exceptional, because conventional wisdom says you need to get started in childhood to have a hope of mastering something as complex as the cello. Adults who make resolutions to learn an instrument (or a new language, or any difficult skill) are thought to face almost inevitable frustration and failure.
But that’s “a complete myth,” said Shauna Butterwick, professor emerita of adult education at UBC.
"Neuroscience has shown that our brains are plastic for our entire lives,” she said, adding adults may even have some learning advantages. Unlike a kid who has to be pestered to practice, “They have a lot more drive to do justice to that work and do it well.”
“There’s more of this going on than most people think about,” Butterwick added — after all, tons of adults learn entirely new skills when they switch careers.
Everyone has to find learning approaches that work for them, Butterwick said, but there are a few common threads.
In more formal environments, adults need teachers who won't speak to learners as if they're children, and appreciate the years of knowledge, experience, skills and learning strategies they bring, Butterwick said. The other ingredient is family, work and community support: “You’re in a different situation; you’re not like a child or person in university. You need a learning environment that recognizes multiple demands on your time.”
People do give up, but not always because it’s just hard, Butterwick said. Sometimes people find out they actually don't like something. Or any number of "other factors" could strike — challenges that arise in adulthood, like aging parents, job issues or illness.
Fell put her cello away for seven years after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Holding her business afloat, getting her kids to and from rep sports and keeping herself healthy was all she could manage.
Then one day four years ago, she realized how much she missed the challenge and enjoyment, and she picked the cello back up. She landed her orchestra seat a few months later.
“It gave me something special that I enjoy that wasn’t work or contributing to someone else’s life,” she said. “I absolutely love it.”
That love has helped carry her through the toughest time in her life. Cello was a great source of solace during her 21-year-old son David’s eight-month struggle with severe mental illness.
“I was round-the-clock caring for him. It hurt me for him to think I was suffering because he was suffering. (Cello) was one of my ways to show him that mom is all right,” she said.
Then after David’s suicide in August 2016, music provided momentary shelter from her grief.
“When you lose a child, you’re in pain now for the rest of your life,” Fell said. “(But) when you’re really concentrating (on playing), you can’t cry and really deeply indulge in personal emotions and other thoughts. Feelings will come to you … but you have to focus.
“It gave me a bit of peace and beauty in the face of the worst possible disaster.”
STICKING TO IT: How to cultivate motivation
Anne Wilson, who researches the psychology of motivation at Wilfrid Laurier University, says the classic wisdom about setting specific, attainable, measurable goals and celebrating small sucesses does work.
But "If you have a really big major goal in mind, like learning the cello, it may not be that you can always break that down into small daily wins," Wilson said. "We often ... think about how great it's going to be when we achieve those goals. There's a lot of evidence that if we find things that we intrinsically enjoy about the journey, that can really help us to perservere."
Love of learning kept cellist Elizabeth Brown Fell motivated, as well as love for the cello itself.
She’s tried to teach others, even going as far as printing out exercises and getting together to practise. "But if they don't care, they're not going to continue. It can't be about getting recognition. There has to be a deeper interest for you to go through what it would take to attain that goal," she said.
Our January series Late Start is about adults who have trained their brains to do incredible things. If you have a major New Year's resolution that feels daunting, here's your chance to get inspired. Know someone who learned an impressive new skill as an adult, like swimming or a language? Email email@example.com
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