In 1940, at age 12, Vera Jiji found her first passion: the cello. She learned to love playing the orchestra instrument at the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan. “I didn’t pick the cello. They assigned it to me because I had a good ear and long fingers,” said the Bronx native, now 93. “I loved it. It’s a beautiful instrument that can sound like a human voice. It looked like a female body, with hips, breasts and a waist. Holding it and playing it was a very intimate experience.” As an adult, though, she stopped playing the instrument. She became a professor and a fixture at Brooklyn College teaching English classes. She married twice and had four children. Her beloved cello, her mother’s high school graduation present, sat tucked away in the back of her clothing closet. It remained untouched, almost forgotten, for about 40 years. She picked up her cello again only after retiring at 62.
“I revived the passion I always felt when I started playing again,” she said. Since then, it has been like a second life. Today Dr. Jiji, who lives with her 93-year-old husband in an Upper East Side townhouse, can be found playing most Fridays with other amateurs and friends in two musical groups, a trio and a string quartet, at the 92nd Street Y. She’s also a part of the Y’s annual musical performance. In 2007 she self-published her first book, “Cello Playing for Music Lovers,” which is sold on Amazon in more than 20 countries. (The following interview has been edited and condensed.)
What made you return to music after all these years? Brooklyn College gave me companions and socialization with other teachers and students. I felt important socially. When I retired, I lost that. I felt empty and needed to replace that loss and community. I wanted to meet people in the neighborhood.
How did you feel about retiring? I thought my life was over; it wasn’t. I had to find a different road. I thought about the road I took when I was younger, and the one I didn’t take because I was a wife and a mother of four and had a career. I thought about the road I didn’t travel — one filled with music — and realized I should take that road now. I couldn’t take both at the same time. The one I took became my life. I went back to the fork and took the other road to see where it would take me.
How did you know where to start? I’m a half a block away from the 92nd Street Y. I walked in and asked about classes; they had a creative music class for people over 60 and told me to just show up. I thought I would have to take a test, but I didn’t. I was at the piano, seated next to an instructor who said, “Let’s see how you play,” when someone walked in carrying a cello. I couldn’t believe it. I asked if I could play it and I fell in love with the instrument instantly. Editors’ Picks
What did that feel like? Like coming home. It all came flooding back, and it was wonderful. I felt like I was reconnecting with a best friend. I needed the opportunity to play music and have these other musicians in my life. This was a return to a prized passion.
What have you gained by returning to this passion? Music is a perfect language; it’s like a conversation between people who never misunderstand each other and never get bored. When you play music with people, it’s a kind of friendship. Music is a world of pleasure. It has given me a way to communicate without using words. It gave me a next step in life.
What made you write your book, “Cello Playing for Music Lovers”? I looked for other books I could turn to, and didn’t find anything helpful. So I decided to write one. As an English professor, I knew how to do this. I’m good at articulating ideas, being able to put things down in a way people can follow, and I’m disciplined enough to sit down every day and write. I made it a practice to stop at a specific point where I knew what I wanted to say going forward. I never stopped when I was at a loss. That way I could continue the next day knowing I had direction and wouldn’t get overwhelmed. And I wanted to help others.
What did it feel like for Dr. Jiji to return to the cello? “Like coming home,” she said. “It all came flooding back, and it was wonderful.”Credit...Justin J Wee for The New York Times
How do you feel about this stage in your life? I’m 93. People view age incorrectly: Getting older doesn’t mean you can’t have something, you can. And getting older isn’t getting worse. I’m about enjoying the moment. You have to get up each morning and do something you love. That’s how you move forward.
What is your best advice for people looking to make a change? Do not be afraid to go back to something you loved. People say no to things too quickly. We aren’t always our best friends. Your passion or skills are still there. You will remember more than you think. All the information about music I thought I’d lost was in a part of my brain that wasn’t talking to me until I tapped back into it.
What have you learned during this new act in your life? Even though I was aging I learned I could still re-enter this wonderful world of creating music. And the community I lost I found again. Music gave me a new group of people. It gave me support. It gave me a new home.
In this second act, what are you most proud of accomplishing? Writing and publishing “Cello Playing for Music Lovers.” I lived, I died; what did I give the world? This book, which will outlast me. When I’m gone, this will still be here, helping people learn the cello.
What lesson can people learn from your experience? Don’t say no to yourself.