Musical Ability and the Perspective of Being a Late Bloomer

I am a late bloomer.

I never dazzled anyone with a virtuoso piano performance when I was five. Nor did I graduate early or win any “young performers/composers” competitions.

Looking back, I’m amazed I even got accepted into music school.

A photograph of Lori at a piano lesson, ca. 1983. She is sitting at the piano, with one hand on the keyboard, and turned to look at the camera.
Me at a young, impressionable age. I’d been taking piano for a year or two at that point.

I began piano lessons in kindergarten or so, taking lessons from Mrs. Geisler who lived nearby. I dabbled with trying my older sister’s flute and couldn’t wait to start band myself. I began clarinet in fifth grade, then moved from suburban Michigan to rural Virginia the summer before seventh grade. The schools in that part of the state didn’t start band until sixth grade. So I essentially repeated second-year band. I was so bored I switched to oboe for a short time for something different.

Despite the boredom, I loved music too much to quit band altogether. That was my only formal musical outlet at the time. (I don’t count seventh-grade choir. Sadly, that was a bit of a joke and I’m pretty sure most of the kids joined just to get out of another class every week. Few seemed truly interested in singing.)

My formative years in music weren’t very rigorous so it’s understandable that I didn’t develop much as a musician then. But honestly, I didn’t bloom in high school, either.

Lack of opportunity

Music was my passion. It stirred my soul– and has for as long as I can remember. I knew I wanted to major in music in college and have some sort of career in it. I was involved in ALL THE MUSIC in high school, and I practiced a decent amount at home. Heck, I even negotiated my way out of typing class in high school so I could take both band and choir. Not surprisingly, I was the weird teenager who actually loved classical music. 

I wanted to be a composer. But honestly, I’m not quite sure I know how I decided on that. I remember tinkering around with adding countermelodies and harmonies to existing music and trying my hand at writing a few (not-very-good) original tunes. Looking back, though, a defining moment for me occurred in my sophomore year. The guest conductor for district band that year was Warren Barker. Yes, that Warren Barker, of Hollywood music and concert band fame. While I admittedly did not know who he was going into that weekend, by the end I was awed by him. He was a fantastic director who I enjoyed working with. We even played a couple of his own compositions for our concert. It was cool.

A scan of the cover of the 1991 Virginia District V Band concert program
A memorable weekend of music-making!

(Another year we got to work with James Curnow. I gotta give props to whoever got those two to conduct little District V in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.)

Life in a small pond

Warren Barker aside, my pond was small enough that I didn’t have to do much to be relatively successful. I was first chair in my school band and got into the first row of clarinets in county and district bands. I always got a One (top rating) on my solo contest pieces. And I desperately scoured the school’s tiny music library for more interesting things to play. But I didn’t take private lessons like so many kids who want to major in music.

The thing about my small pond is that there wasn’t much opportunity to truly grow as a musician. At least, not that I knew of. Not like there would have been if my small school was near suburban Chicago instead of in rural Virginia. Our one band only had about 30 kids and we weren’t very good. No one was actively encouraging students to take private lessons outside of school. The school put on just one musical in my entire high school career. I wasn’t even aware that other schools offered AP Music Theory until I overheard someone mention it during college orientation.

Despite my non-prodigious abilities and small-pond life, I somehow got accepted into two music schools, with conditional acceptance into a third. Fortunately, my high school band director at the time was a clarinet player and coached me before my auditions. I’m positive that helped me to be better prepared than I would have been otherwise. (Remember, kids, this was before that thing called the internet where you can look up advice on music school auditions)

And while I absolutely developed a solid musical foundation at Ohio State and gained important skills, I’d be lying if I said I bloomed in college.

Lack of self-esteem

Persistent shyness, copious amounts of self-doubt, and a lack of self-esteem wove themselves throughout my entire college career (there’s a topic for a whole other blog post!). I enjoyed college overall and made some lifelong friends, but I ended up holding myself back. I practiced during times when the practice rooms weren’t crowded, using empty classrooms that didn’t have windows in the doors to delude myself into thinking no one could hear me. And I only played for clarinet studio class once each quarter– when I couldn’t avoid it any longer. The one and only time in four years I played in front of the woodwind studio was when I was in a clarinet trio; no way would I do a solo. 

I wasn’t any braver with the few compositions I wrote than I was with clarinet, though I successfully presented a half-recital of my own music as a requirement for graduation. I stayed on the sidelines during “Composer’s Workshop” class– kind of an odd little class I was required to take. Presumably, the idea was that composition majors would get together and discuss topics in composition and share their current projects. All I remember about it was feeling intimidated. 

Looking back, I really needed a mentor. I wasn’t close to any of my professors and I didn’t have a large circle of friends. I’m glad that colleges seem to be taking mentorship more seriously nowadays, and I’ll admit to feeling some envy that I didn’t get to experience that. There probably were some resources I could have tapped into while I was on campus. But two things got in my way: 1) “you don’t know what you don’t know” and 2) I’m really bad at asking for help (which could be the subject of yet another blog post…)

Little column A, little column B

It’s probably no surprise that I took the practical route after college and didn’t even try to find a music-related job. I did not have the courage to take a leap like that with a composition degree. I didn’t have any sort of vision of what a music career would look like, and I hadn’t developed a strong sense of what it meant to be a composer. Music school was great for teaching me as a musician, but it didn’t do so well in showing what was possible after graduation.

I took a run-of-the-mill office job to pay the bills, then pursued a Master of Library Science degree and got a job in a public library. I played in community bands and started teaching private clarinet lessons on the side. Even getting into teaching took some persuading from my wonderfully supportive husband. Because, impostor syndrome.

I never completely left music, but I let the dream of having music as my profession fade.

Wake-up call

I’m not sure exactly what caused me to wake up and decide that I wasn’t ready to let that dream die completely. I think it was a combination of things. Some opportunities arose over the years for me to write arrangements for groups. Self-publishing for music became accessible. I got more involved in local ensembles and consequently grew my network. Ultimately, I realized I didn’t want that music degree to be all for naught and I still wanted to be a composer.

A photograph of Lori conducting a musical piece
Lori, conducting a piece

One thing that has helped me so much is finding my champions. I truly appreciate the support they give me– they’re excited whenever I say I have a new piece for them to play, they refer new students to me, and they ask me to play in ensembles with them. Having people and ensembles to write for has definitely helped fuel my desire to write. I love the groups I play with and have a great group of students. 

And on the subject of champions, I have to give another shout-out to my husband. He has always been my #1 champion and supporter from day one. I’m lucky to have him.

The way forward

A photograph of an oil painting by Violet Reisig, Lori's maternal grandmother. The painting is of a mill near a body of water, with trees of orange and green.
An oil painting by my maternal grandmother, Violet Reisig, who didn’t start painting until her 50s. A fellow late bloomer.

I’m working on reconnecting to my dream and finding my way forward. I’m writing, I’m learning more about composing, I’m practicing my instruments and improving my musical skills. And I’m learning a lot about myself in the process. I’m going to persist, despite the fact that I’m 45 and a far cry from “prodigy” age.

In a society that idolizes youth, it’s easy to let the voice in the corner of your mind convince you that it’s too late. To my fellow late bloomers: don’t listen. I know it seems like every opportunity out there is for young adults, and that even the competitions who purport to be open to all ages still reward the under-30 crowd with the top prizes. It’s not easy to have that constant reminder that we’re not spring chickens. You can still learn and grow and create.

We still need to keep creating our art, as our age and (hopefully) wisdom give us a certain insight we didn’t have in our youth. We can’t let our dreams die.

I am a late bloomer.

And I am not finished.


For further reading:


The Art of Blooming Late

Lori Archer Sutherland

Lori Archer Sutherland earned a Bachelor of Music in Theory and Composition degree from the Ohio State University and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She composes, performs, and teaches clarinet. She plays bass clarinet with the Crystal Lake Community Band and the Woodstock City Band, clarinet with Winds Off the Lake Woodwind Quintet, and is the founder and organizer of the Knock on Wood Clarinet Choir, where she plays an even bigger clarinet. Check out her site and podcast at tonaldiversions.com