Yes, yes, I'm a bit old to be a beginner. But starting something at my stage of life is exhilarating. As my friend Rachel Wildavsky (a journalist who recently wrote her first novel) observed, "In middle age, you've been doing the same thing for so long that you feel as if you're on a hamster wheel." Not only that, but you're not as fast on that wheel as you used to be. More often than I'd like these days, I experience what Vladimir Nabokov called "the pen poised pause." A word, or more often, a name that I've known all my life will impishly hide from me, ducking behind other memories so that I cannot summon it. (Rick Perry, my brother!) So much of what we experience after age 40 is decline, so it's terrific fun -- as well as a psychological tonic -- to undertake something completely new and to see steady progress day after day.
The brain is complicated. My son told me a poignant story of playing a concert at a retirement home. An elderly lady with advanced dementia, who could no longer remember most of her family, could nonetheless sit at the piano and play the "Moonlight" sonata.
The cello is harder, I think, than the piano, though to really excel on anything -- even the recorder -- is not easy. The geography of the thing requires patient study. "I haven't played any sharps or flats yet," I naively announced to my wonderful teacher during an early lesson. She smiled. "You have, you just didn't realize it." The slightest off placement of a finger on a string will produce a grating sharp or flat. Even the basics of holding the bow are challenging. You need a "soft" hand, and you must pull from the elbow. But be careful not to lift the shoulder! For the first few weeks, I counted it a victory just to succeed at bowing one string at a time without catching its neighbor by mistake.
Unlike my childhood self, I look forward to practicing every day. My ambitions are modest -- perhaps to play duets with my sons. An amateur is someone who does it for the love of it. This may be self-delusion, but I think my brain has gotten a little sharper since I began or maybe a little flatter, heh. At the very least, I'm better today than yesterday, and a new world of experience beckons.