Stay young, I told myself--and took up the cello

April 9, 2001

Yearning for self-renewal and peace of mind in the latter years of his career, this doctor found a way to rekindle his passion for living.

 

Stay young, I told myself—and took up the cello

Yearning for self-renewal and peace of mind in the latter years of his career, this doctor found a way to rekindle his passion for living.

By Richard L. Green, MD
Allergist/Pittsburgh

In my late 50s, I began to spend a lot of time contemplating my own mortality. My father, with whom I'd practiced allergy for 22 years, had passed away two years before. My mother's health was deteriorating. I had survived prostate cancer and a radical prostatectomy. My three children were in their 20s and launched on their careers.

I had navigated the peristaltic waves of managed care and clearly had reached a plateau. What would I do with the rest of my life?

One thing was certain: I wanted to keep practicing medicine. I enjoy seeing patients, and still believe I have something worthwhile to offer to the profession. I also knew that, with my youth behind me, time was now my most precious commodity. This was my window of opportunity to explore new interests and acquire new skills.

After toying briefly with the idea of golf as a new, life-enriching hobby, I remembered my wife's Uncle Joe, a sharp, vivacious man who lived into his mid-90s. Uncle Joe had been a successful businessman, but his real love had been the violin, which he'd played throughout his life. He'd played in quartets and chamber groups, for guests in his home, and, in later years, for nursing home residents. At one time he'd even played in Cleveland's symphony orchestra.

Uncle Joe had a zest for life that mirrored his enthusiasm for music. Even in his final days, there was a spring to his step and a twinkle in his eye.

I knew that the secret to a fulfilling life was to maintain an active interest in something. What better formula for graceful aging than to follow Uncle Joe's virtuoso lead? Mastering an instrument would keep my mind young and soothe my aging joints, and playing the works of great composers would provide a wonderful link to the past.

Once before, in my 30s, I had sought a lifestyle adjustment. Then in peak physical condition, I'd begun jogging, and eventually I became a marathon runner. While running is still my passion, I realized that I now needed a hobby that could be continued into my 60s and 70s. Making music seemed the perfect choice.

I decided on the cello. A stringed instrument, I thought, might afford me the opportunity to play in a chamber group or even a community orchestra some day. I liked the sound of the cello, which I'd played for a short time in junior high school. And I figured it might be easier to master in midlife than a violin or viola. The cello was an elegant instrument, one that seemed to command respect and attention.

Suddenly, it seemed, everywhere I looked, the cello was there, beckoning. I remembered the Czechoslovakian film, Kolya, about an aging cellist still making beautiful music. And then, into the movie theaters came Hilary and Jackie, the story of the expert cellist Jacqueline du Pré. Finally, I read the books For The Love of It, and Never Too Late, two testaments to the rewards of amateur cello playing. My mind was made up.

I rented a cello at our local music store and was referred to a Swiss teacher for lessons. As I sat in her waiting area, I swallowed my pride while she finished a lesson with a 6-year-old prodigy whose level of skill I would never attain. I endured the long drive to the lessons, and even the teacher's drill sergeant demeanor. But pretty soon I found that I had neither the time nor the interest to continue. The cello was returned to the music store.

A year later, I decided to try again. I'd never given up on the idea of playing, and now I resolved to make room for the cello in my busy life. I signed up for lessons, this time with our local high school orchestra conductor, a violinist who taught cello on the side. His children were my patients, and he lived nearby. This time, to solidify my commitment and ensure that I would stay on course, I bought my own cello.

Today, after almost two years and close to 100 lessons, the cello continues to enthrall me. I'm fascinated by the diversity of my teacher's interests and the breadth of his knowledge. He already has me playing Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Handel. Sometimes, my wife accompanies me on the piano, or I play along with classical CDs that come with cello scores.

I try to practice daily, though my medical schedule does not always permit. To vary the acoustics and scenery, I play in different rooms of our house. I love to practice on beautiful afternoons, looking out the window at nature's harmony.

When it comes to the cello, I realize that I'm nothing more than a neophyte, a babe in the woods. I make plenty of squeaky, cacophonous sounds. My fingers move tentatively, my bowing is erratic, and I often forget what I've just been taught. But I do know the names of the cello parts and how to tune the instrument, and I'm learning the different fingering positions, vibrato, harmonics, and some physics of the musicality of strings.

At my age, I know there are limits to what I will accomplish. I may never reach the level of skill and confidence to play with a chamber group or community orchestra. But that doesn't matter.

The cello is a source of inner tranquility for me. Like any other relaxation technique, it provides a sense of serenity and harmony, allows me to be creative, and keeps my mind agile and my joints moving. It's an ideal antidote for the stresses of modern medical practice. And it has come at the perfect time in my life, when my children are grown and I am becoming increasingly mellow in my work.

Playing the cello makes me feel connected to some of the greatest and most creative people to have walked this earth. It allows me to meet new people and expand my horizons. The instrument has become not just a part of my life, but part of my being, as well.

 

Richard Green. Stay young, I told myself--and took up the cello. Medical Economics 2001;7:115.