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Satisfied sounds

When I moved into my new apartment, one of my first discoveries was that downstairs, somewhere, someone was plundering a piano. Being a trained musician, I knew that the Bach Minuet had no F-naturals in it , and as a teacher I longed to shout down to him or her, ''F-sharp!'' Soon I was singing this new version of Bach even to myself. But after several practice sessions, the would-be pianist discovered F-sharp spontaneously, and the Bach began to sound good.

Curious to meet my fellow musician, I finally got up the courage one morning to find the apartment where the slow-motion music was coming from. I knocked on the door.

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A tiny lady well advanced in years opened the door as far as the chain would allow. Her blue eyes crackled with life. ''What is it you want?''

''Oh, I live upstairs - I was looking for the musician, wanted to cheer him on - ''

She smiled. ''There are no musicians here, but I do like to play - ''

''So it's you! Bravo!''

She looked embarrassed, as though I had caught her at something illegal. ''I hope it doesn't bother you.''

''Hardly! I'm a musician myself, and I thought it might be nice to chat. Would it be an interruption?''

''Oh, my dear,'' she said, releasing the door chain, ''not at all. Not at all.''

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That incident is only one of many, in the course of my career as a private music teacher, when somebody has decided, against all previous habit and experience, that it is not too late - indeed never too late in life - to start something new.

In a country like the United States, which thrives on diversity, a passionate amateurism is the growing phenomenon. In the private music school where I teach flute, half my students are adults. Most adult beginners come to their first lesson slightly embarrassed, ill at ease, at the prospect of competing with children.

''There is no necessity to compete with anyone here,'' I tell them. ''It doesn't really matter whether you are eight or eighty - you have to go through the same steps of learning the flute as everyone else. Chances are, you will make most of the same mistakes as everybody else, so no need to apologize for them. However humbling this may be, I hope it really puts you at ease. You can be yourself here.''

The knot of tension unfolds, the held breath is let go, and we are suddenly two people again, exploring an art together.

Adult music students are happy to find that whatever they may lack in finger dexterity, they make up for in conceptual ability and discipline. They know how to laugh at themselves. While speed is for youth, true passion is a gift at any age.

The testing ground is the school recital. An adult needs a special kind of courage to play for an audience full of children more advanced than himself. Many decline this humbling experience, but not all.

Given the demands on a professional musician for technical perfection, competitiveness, and a stomach for adversity, more than one gifted student has decided against a musical career because ''I would prefer to enjoy music.'' Even small towns have their amateur musical groups of every kind, comprising people who pursue other professions by day. This may be the ideal way for a versatile person to honor more than one love.

One need not be professional to be good. Moreover, the supreme artist in any medium is essentially noncompetitive: whatever his message to us all, his expression is a dialogue between his talent and the possibilities of his art.

If the study of good music is, as Plato said, for the education of the soul, then perhaps the storming of Carnegie Hall and playing for thousands may rightly be for the few, while the rest of us can have a great time playing for and with each other, making local musicales, or just playing for the family dog.

There is no crime in passionate amateurism. It's never too late to start something new. Bravo, encore!

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