By David Templeton | From the September-October 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Never tell Emily Wright you are too old to learn to play an instrument, or that you started too late to ever be truly good, or that you’ve heard a child’s brain is superior to an adult’s at learning anything new. As a longtime musician and cellist, a working journalist (including writing for Strings magazine), and a dedicated teacher who specializes in working with adults, Wright knows exactly how harmful such assumptions can be in dissuading older learners from picking up a musical instrument. “For one, there’s really no such thing as starting too late,” Wright says. “The adult brain is different, yes, but it’s not like some junior senator to the marvel of the child’s brain. There are actually all kinds of great things about being an adult learner.”
Wright is the founder and director of Tamarack Arts, a relatively new, year-round, nonprofit music education program aimed at providing “conservatory-level” instruction and programming for adult musicians at all levels. In describing Tamarack Arts’ current curriculum of online classes, with a note that in-person instruction will begin sometime in 2023, an introductory splash page on the education program’s website states, “Our courses are meant for adult violinists, violists, cellists, and bass players at every stage of their development. Whether you’re an experienced player shaping up for an audition or a beginner looking for a technical foundation, Tamarack Arts has something for you.” Featuring classes with titles such as “Emoting 101: The Basics,” “Music History Crash Course,” and “Music Theory Retrofit,” the program’s staff of faculty and guest instructors includes Broadway musician Rachel Gawell, violin instructor Hyunji Lee, performing violist Kristin Gomez, violinist Stephanie Sims Flack, viola and violin instructor Jonathan Jones of the Levine School in Washington, D.C., and Benjamin Whitcomb, a cellist, professor of music, and author.
Wright knows well the stigma that can be placed on musicians who begin their musical journeys later than what some teachers suggest is optimal. Though she started playing piano at four, she did not take up the cello until she was about to turn nine. Technically, Wright picked up a violin first—“It’s the only instrument we had available for my first music class,” she says—but it was a combination of her being tall and her school running out of violins that soon steered her toward the cello. Wright still recalls walking home that first day, hefting a “monster cello” in what must have been a Herculean feat of determination. “For three months I played an instrument that was taller than I was,” she says. “It would be a heck of a tall eight-year-old that could play on a full-size cello.”
The seeds of what is now Tamarack Arts were initially planted way back then, as Wright found herself dealing with teachers who viewed her as a “late starter” with her chosen instrument, and therefore communicated, neither subtly nor gracefully, that she had little hope of excelling as a musician because she was simply “too old.”
“I was competing against people who’d started playing at age three,” she says, “so from the very beginning, there was always this little asterisk in the back of my head that said, ‘I’m behind everyone else; I can’t do as well as these others because I started learning five years later than all of them.’” As a college-age musician, she began branching out into teaching, and quickly began getting referrals of adult students, usually by teachers who only accepted students who’d started young, who carried the expectation that they were better suited to learn the cello because of their early start.
“So, I ended up teaching this huge group of adult students, and I really enjoyed it,” she says. Though she steers clear of discussing the “babysitting” aspect of teaching children that some teachers will acknowledge is less than pleasurable at times, Wright says that one of the things she loves about teaching adults is that, unlike some children who report for regular music lessons because their parents insist on it, adult students genuinely want to be there. They are almost always eager to learn and ready to do the hard work. “I soon realized that the methods I was taught by were not really effective for adults. A child is a fundamentally different person than an adult. The message is the same, but the delivery needs to be quite different, and I found that I enjoyed that so much more.”
Wright soon began specializing in adults, eventually taking on students who had severe memory problems or traumatic brain injuries, all kinds of issues that, when it came to teaching them how to play a cello, required a fusion of traditional music-teaching approaches and the latest in music-adjacent neuroscientific and neuroplasticity discoveries.
“I wanted to know a lot more about it, obviously,” she explains, “so I went to Johns Hopkins University, and they allowed me to do interdisciplinary studies, studying music and neuroscience, focusing on how those two things meet at adult education. I learned so much about the adult brain, and it retrofitted all the anecdotal evidence I’d been gathering for the previous ten years with the science behind it.” The experience also disabused Wright of many of the assumptions she’d been force-fed for years.
“It’s so funny,” she says. “There really is this hubris of youth that we just kind of accept as being right on, and I don’t know about you, but though I wish I still had the body I had when I was 22—because about that they’re not joking; after 30 the warranty breaks! I’m 44 and like, everything hurts now—the information you have from living a long, vibrant life informs you in a much more important way for a lot of things. There’s no shame in being 25 and trying to be an emerging something-or-other. You have to. But there’s nothing wrong with being an older adult learner.
“I’ve taken flight lessons,” she says. “I learned how to ice skate and then played rec hockey—which is totally humiliating in the very same way that playing music is humiliating for some people. In hockey, I’m wobbling and then falling down all the time, and in front of a huge group of people, so I’ve gotten in touch with the feeling that everything is high stakes. I had an instructor who, when teaching a lesson on how to fall down, began it by teaching me how to get up. And that actually changed my life.”
To demonstrate the art of failing gracefully and then getting up again, when teaching master classes, Wright will routinely sight-read a difficult piece of music in front of the class, which intentionally doesn’t always go smoothly. “Everybody sees professionals acting perfect all the time, which only contributes to that ivory tower idea, the separation between the learners and more experienced players,” Wright explains. “So, instead, I’m like, ‘No, no, no. Look at me. You can see I sound pretty good, but here’s what a confident mistake looks like.’ Adults really respond to that. Because making mistakes is how we learn. Just put your foot in it and get it wrong, because then you’ll know instead of trying to avoid failure and only getting it kind of right. ‘Kind of right’ is the worst possible place to be.”
Tamarack Arts, which was inspired by experiences Wright has had at a variety of music camps, including one high-level string retreat that took place in Tuscany—“The angle of the light in the place we performed every night is something that I still think about every single day,” she says—presented its first official summer program in 2021, with all virtual classes (for obvious, pandemic-related reasons). In recognition of how well adult music students tend to do when learning together in beautiful places, where the sensory-treating environment serves to enhance and deepen the experience of ingesting huge loads of musical information, Wright plans to hold future Tamarack Arts summer programs in some similarly jaw-dropping locale in the United States.
“A lot of this came out of my realizing that what is needed is an Aspen Music Festival for adult learners, for people who are very good, but who are not at that high professional level,” she says. Aspen Music Festival, of course, is a noted institution offering training for mostly young-adult level musicians and students. Once she hit upon the idea in 2019, she immediately began the work of building a website, locking down the name of the organization, developing a curriculum, and recruiting instructors. “As it so happens, I know a lot of great musicians who are focused on adult music education,” she says, describing the process of creating Tamarack Arts as “a very slow snowball.”
That snowball, Wright believes, is now on its way to growing into something much larger, and for many of the students she hopes to reach in the future, something truly life changing.
“I feel like my own life has been leading to this,” she says. “Things start small, of course, but it’s growing. There are so many adult musicians who are hungry for this kind of conservatory-style education, from advanced students who just want to add to what they already know to people who are in their first six months of this musical journey and are still just feeling around. I love those students, because they tend not to be taken seriously by the mainstream musical education establishment, which tends to pat them on the head and tell them how cute they are. ‘Look at the 70-year-old, doing something for themselves!’ That could not be further from our approach. We will take you seriously. You can get this done. You can get from A to B. Here is how you can do it. The only question is, are you ready?”