THE BLOG
06/24/2013 03:29 pm ET | Updated Aug 24, 2013

Never Too Old: The Subway Musician

Have you ever wondered about the backstory of musicians and artists who offer their talents freely on the streets of your city? Joshua Bell, the much-acclaimed violinist, once played incognito as an experiment at a Washington, D.C. train station. More than one thousand rush hour travelers quickly passed by, but only seven stopped to listen http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html.

Sitting on the New York subway yesterday, while taking a nostalgic ride down memory lane to my Brooklyn birthplace, I enjoyed the melodic playing of an older man totally engrossed in expressing a classical guitar piece, probably Spanish, but maybe Portuguese. The subway car was quiet -- people engrossed in their own inner world or enthralled by the playing, I couldn't tell which. New York subway riders are a stoic bunch for the most part. When his song was done I wanted to ask him when he started playing and why now on the subway, but normal subway decorum fortunately intervened and I joined the ranks of the inwardly-turned passengers.

I used to just enjoy the music, sometimes leave a tip for the entertainment and continue on my way, but now I have an insatiable appetite for the story behind the older street musician -- or street visual artist, for that matter.

It all started while I was researching the book that became The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty. In it, I reported in-depth about the life that came before the late-blooming men and women's discoveries of a particular musical instrument, visual art form or writing genre like short stories or haikus. =Now, I can't help myself from peering into the story behind the art.

If the person I encounter is young, I attribute their choice to a burning desire to express art that overrides the cautions about making a living and parents' admonitions about becoming a "starving artist." If they are middle-aged, I applaud them for not letting the busyness of life get in the way, making their art a high priority. But when I see an over-60 artist, writer or musician, I wonder if he or she started late because, "If not now, then when?" After 60, some things become possible that were never before imaginable -- when time becomes more available and questions about "what else is there" surface. This is the population with which I am totally enthralled. But I am also one of them.

When I took up the cello at 70, it seemed to be against all odds: My age, others' warnings about it's difficulty, learning to read the language of music as a novice and sticking with it through the disappointing realization that I would never sound like Yo-Yo Ma, or even a kid with a couple of years practice.

I did it though, and continue to do it, playing for 40 minutes a day divided into two sessions, because I remember from my psychology training that a couple of short practices beat one long one for the older learner. It's been three years now. I'm both determined and realistic about my goal -- simply to express myself through the music; to feel the intense vibrations in my chest when I hold the cello close and embrace it, a uniquely cello experience.

You can do it too! You can start at any age. Taking up any art form later in life is the perfect way to keep your brain fully charged for the long haul. What's more, midlife changes in the brain actually facilitate your writing, playing, or sculpting.