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How many times can you start over again?

by Lauren McCabe on November 13, 2013

Lauren McCabe Mandolin

How many times can you start over?

I think of this in musical instruments: piano, clarinet, flute, harp and french horn, the instruments that I played by age sixteen. I began with piano at the behest of my parents and the intention of playing the harp, my true desire, the instrument that at age seven no one was sure I was serious about playing (I was).

Then at ten I couldn’t resist the lure of the school band and the idea of learning any one of a dazzling array of instruments. I played the clarinet, then flute and finally french horn, a noble instrument with a complex knot of brass at its heart center. It had a brave sound that made me think of kings and knights, and as I marched around my house bellowing into its mouthpiece, I imagined myself as the herald of something important, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

After four faithful years of playing the piano, I marched up to my parents and begged them to allow me to play the harp, proving my musical candor with a piano performance of Beethoven’s Fur Elise. With luck, a harp teacher was offering group lessons after school, and I learned that instrument with a motley group of students, odd children drawn to the instrument for deep and mysterious reasons.

My dalliances with instruments didn’t end with the finish of school, and certainly not with the passage of time.

A year ago I took up yet another one, the mandolin, spurned by an urge to have something small enough to take anywhere. Twenty years after my first music lesson I am still starting again, over and over, one instrument after another, year after year.

But then, I am really not starting over again. Music is a language that I learned long ago under the strict instruction of my piano teacher Ms Kitty, who piled stacks of theory books on a TV tray and made me complete each exercise perfectly before I could play. Even now, I already have the tools to play music, I just need an instrument to apply them to.

So it goes with music, and so it goes with life: a career change, a city-move, a relationship transformation, sometimes you think starting anew is starting from scratch, erasing hard years spent shaping your life to be what it is now. But is this so?

Transforming, say, from a corporate accountant to a graphic designer may seem like a near-impossible feat, like crossing the ocean on a straw raft, a voyage that would surely entail demise.

But the truth is the stretch is not that much of a stretch.

Don’t accountants look at graphs? Don’t you, with your passion for design, already have a knack for visual thinking? Your business acumen combined with design skills are a potent combination, one that many businesses need right now. All of a sudden the distance between where you are now and where you want to be starts contracting, and what was once a vast ocean roiling with danger is now a stepping stone across a bubbling brook, the natural hop to becoming happier. It wasn’t until I exhaled vehemently into the flute that I realized my lungs were better suited for the giant puff of the french horn.

A year ago, when I first took the mandolin in my hands I couldn’t fathom how someone could play such a tiny instrument. My fingers were accustomed to the wide planes of the piano and the graceful stretches of the harp, and they creaked stiffly as I tried to press chords into its neck. My mandolin teacher sat across from me patiently drinking tea, making me play chords over and over until my fingers began to curl just right.

And then one day at work, sitting in a meeting around a big conference room table, I began playing an invisible mandolin under the table. My fingers moved over translucent strings, silent chords echoed gloriously in the steely room, my hands snapped when I felt them play the wrong nonexistent note.

Slowly, the motions of the mandolin became second nature, like breathing.

Very rarely do you start over again.

Very rarely do you do something in which you are entirely unskilled, entirely without aptitude, entirely without context.

Even when starting an instrument at age fifty, you have a half century of melodies in your head, you already know, innately, the rhythms that you are about to play. Try it. It’s true.

You are building your life year after year, one elucidating experience at a time, one relationship at a time. You are becoming finer with age, a wine rich and complex with notes high and low so when held to the light you glow richly, a variegated hue.

You will reform and realign, pivot and adjust, shift and deepen just as the flavor of wine transforms with each passing year, but know this: you are not starting over again, ever, and so the number of times that you can change? Infinite.

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