‘You still can!’: Music teacher champions adult students learning violin

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  • Violin teacher Lynn Newdome, right, leads students, from left, Jin Sun Park of Enfield, Connecticut, Ben Levy of Gill and Mandy Cohen of Hadley in a 17th century baroque piece, “Fantasia: Three Parts Upon a Ground,” by Henry Purcell, during an evening lesson at her Florence studio. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ben Levy clarifies a point with violin teacher Lynn Newdome during a recent evening lesson at her Florence studio. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Newdome highlights a section of sheet music for student Jin Sun Park, in background, during a lesson. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Mandy Cohen of Hadley takes part in a violin lesson at the Florence studio of teacher Lynn Newdome. “Now it’s my favorite hobby,” Cohen says. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jin Sun Park of Enfield takes part in a violin lesson at the Florence studio of teacher Lynn Newdome. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lynn Newdome leads a trio of adult students in learning a 17th century baroque piece, “Fantasia: Three Parts Upon a Ground” by Henry Purcell during an evening lesson at her Florence studio. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Detail of a collection of materials Lynn Newdome uses with her violin students. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 1/29/2020 8:38:03 AM

It’s a common maxim that children gain considerable benefits from studying music. Studies have shown that it stimulates the brain in many areas, leading to greater reasoning power, as one example, and that kids can develop discipline and good learning habits useful in other walks of life. Consider as well the dexterity and strength children can develop in their fingers from playing a musical instrument — and, of course, a love of music itself.

But is there any reason you can’t do that as an adult as well? Not at all, says Lynn Newdome, who teaches violin to a number of adult students.

“Whenever I hear someone say, ‘Oh, I wish I’d studied violin or some other instrument when I was younger,’ I say ‘You still can! Learning doesn’t stop when you’re an adult,’ ” says Newdome, a veteran violin performer and instructor who lives in Florence. “It’s a complete fallacy that only children can learn music.”

Newdome was making just that point during a recent evening at her home studio, where three of her adult students — Mandy Cohen, Ben Levy and Jin Sun Park — joined her for a combined lesson and performance. Though all three have been taking lessons separately with her for various lengths of time, since November they’ve also been meeting together a few times a month to work on “Fantasia: Three Parts Upon a Ground,” a composition by Henry Purcell, an English composer of the middle Baroque period of the late 17th century.

“OK, ready?” said Newdome as the three violinists raised their instruments, looking at the score for Purcell’s piece, set up on music stands in front of them. “Three Parts” was scored for three violins and cello; Newdome had tuned down her own violin to play the cello part. Park, at Newdome’s request, took the lead as the three students played their lines. It was a tricky piece, in 6/4 time, with the violins seeming both to harmonize pretty closely at one point and then playing more distinct melody lines.

After several measures, Newdome called for a halt. “I think we went a little off track there,” she said. Park flashed a kind of half-smile, half-grimace. “Maybe I led a little too slowly?” she asked. But Levy said the piece was no cakewalk: “What’s challenging for me is the changes in time.”

They gave “Three Parts” a few more tries, with plenty of laughter in between the takes, especially when Newdome asked Park to take the lead on another try; that prompted Park to ask in mock-aggrievement, “Oh, why me again?”

As Newdome sees it, the laughter at the session seemed a perfect example of one of the many reasons adults make for good music students. Unlike some children who take lessons mostly because their parents want them to study an instrument, adult students, says Newdome, “are here because they want to be, because they’re taking a break from work or family responsibilities or whatever else they have going on in their lives.”

“This is their time,” Newdome adds.

Indeed, says Cohen, who played trumpet during high school and briefly in college, learning violin now that she’s older has been a very different, but welcome, musical experience. “Now it’s really my favorite hobby” she says of her weekly lessons, at which she’s been learning classical and folk music. “It’s just a great change of pace from my everyday life … I have a real incentive to practice.”

Levy, who played piano and sousaphone when he was younger, and then briefly tried his hand at a couple other instruments as a younger man, always found real life getting in the way of his musical aspirations; he was too busy at work, too busy raising a family. But since retiring from his job as a physician at age 65, he’s taken up violin and worked hard at it for over four years.

“I think as an adult student, you don’t give up so easily, and now I have the time to really commit to this,” Levy says. He jokes that for the first few years that he studied with Newdome, “Some people didn’t want to listen to me, and I couldn’t stand being in a room with myself sometimes. But now [my playing] is better … I’m OK hearing myself play now.”

Never too late

Newdome says the conventional wisdom is that children and teens make for better music students because, in a general sense, they’re more malleable: their brains are still developing and in theory can absorb more. Young students can also more easily be taught good habits, the thinking goes — proper posture and positioning of the hands and fingers for playing piano, for example — that become a critical foundation for progressing on an instrument.

But Newdome says adult students have other factors in their favor. For one, there’s an intellectual capacity for grasping abstract concepts that are beyond most children, such as applying music theory to their practicing rather that just doing repetitive exercises. Adults have also developed an appreciation and understanding for a range of music — knowing a lot “by ear” — that gives them a base for learning more, she says.

And, she notes, “Your brain doesn’t stop developing when you’re older.” You can still form new neural connections, including by learning an instrument, she says.

Newdome herself began studying violin with her mother, who was also a violin teacher, when she was just 4, and by the time she was 16 she was teaching students, too, with her mother’s guidance. She went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in music and had a long career as a performer, primarily though not entirely in the Boston area, with a number of orchestras, including the Boston Pops and the Harvard Chamber Orchestra.

After moving to the Valley in 1993, Newdome shifted her focus to teaching violin in regional schools, though she continued to perform with a variety of orchestral and chamber music groups. She also gave private lessons, and in the last few years she has concentrated solely on those private lessons, held in her Florence studio. In turn, a growing focus of that instruction is working with adult students.

“They have more conceptual tools that they can apply to violin,” she says. “I can explain things more easily to them, and they can understand them, whether it’s the difference between beat and rhythm or the importance of good positioning.” As well, adults are more willing to read music, she says.

And teaching adult students, Newdome adds, is frankly “just a lot of fun, because they have so many different life experiences and backgrounds that they bring to lessons.”

Levy, formerly from Granby and now living in Gill, wanted to keep playing sousaphone in college. But between his pre-med studies and running track and cross country, he says, “I just didn’t have the time for it. I was too tired from running, and I had to study.”

As a doctor, he tried guitar lessons — but with three kids and his job, that didn’t stick. He also briefly took some fiddle lessons, but again the time commitment proved too difficult. But since retiring, he’s been learning classical as well as klezmer and jazz pieces on violin, and he also plays with a couple casual groups of acoustic musicians.

“Playing with other musicians is just a lot of fun, and it’s a new skill to learn,” says Levy. “That’s why Lynn has us working together.”

Cohen actually studied violin briefly in elementary school but switched to trumpet, playing in her high school band and for one year as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. But she then got very involved with her studies, eventually earning a PhD in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Music fell by the wayside. Today Cohen is director of translation and collections initiatives at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst.

But about five years ago, an aunt gave her a family heirloom: a violin made in Germany in the 1700s and previously played by some of her ancestors. The violin has needed a good amount of repair work, Cohen says, but she found the instrument so beautiful that she was moved to learn to play it. She began taking lessons while still in graduate school, then linked up with Newdome after moving back to the Valley about a year and a half ago.

Jin Sun Park, meantime, first took up violin at age 10 in her native South Korea, mostly because her mother wanted her to learn the instrument. “I didn’t like it,” she says, and the lessons didn’t last long. However, after her family moved to the U.S. when she was 16, she picked up the violin again, and this time things went better. As an adult, she’s studied with Newdome for over six years; she’s interested primarily in classical and jazz violin.

And Park, who lives in Enfield, Connecticut (she previously lived in Holyoke), says her job as an accountant in Holyoke “is pretty stressful, so having music is a nice way to get away from that.”

Newdome says one of her inspirations for teaching older students is the 1979 book “Never Too Late,” a memoir by the late educator and writer John Holt about how he learned to play cello beginning at age 40. In the book, Holt describes the challenges he faced studying music as an adult but also the joy he had in the process, and he makes the argument that “It is never too late” to learn something new, including music — even if you’re never going to be some kind of standout.

“That’s true,” says Newdome. “Age is no barrier to learning music.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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