As a girl Jinny Geller yearned to play the piano and assigned numbers to the notes on the musical staff: C became 1, D became 2, et cetera.
Despite that effort to translate sheet music to the piano keyboard, Geller never received lessons.
"Everybody took elocution and tap dance," she said. "We were all supposed to be Shirley Temple."
A month ago the Beverly Hills mother of two grown daughters took her first lesson.
The widow of television producer Bruce Geller, who created "Mission: Impossible," she is one of perhaps thousands of Southern California adults studying music for the first time.
At schools or from private teachers, they study voice, piano, violin or trumpet at all ages. Geller's teacher, former concert pianist Shirley Effenbach Howard of Westwood, tutors a woman 80 years old and recently taught one who was 90.
Satisfying lifelong urges to study music or a need to relax at the end of a busy day, the late-bloomers practice singing or playing instruments as long as six hours daily.
Practice elates them and understanding music theory heightens their enjoyment of concerts, records or tapes, they say.
"I know that I'm improving," said Geller's friend, Peggy Parker, who added a grand piano to the console in her Century City apartment after she started lessons two years ago.
"Also, it increases my enjoyment at the concerts and recitals. I know far more what I'm hearing," Parker said.
"Whether I'm in the car and I hear something that even I can play or I hear a concert, it's of incredible importance," said Parker, whose repertoire includes works by Beethoven and Chopin. "I'm never alone. I'm never lonely."
Monique Hunter, 29, of Inglewood, a voice student at the Community School of Performing Arts in Los Angeles for more than a year, said she feels the same way.
Hunter, an engineer, said she often leaves long Monday afternoon meetings at TRW with a headache. By the time the soprano finishes her evening lesson, the pain is gone.
Marquita Rivera, a former teacher who lost her sight from glaucoma in 1974, said she feels "nothing but happiness" when she enters the Community School for lessons.
"I walk like I'm two feet above the floor," said the soprano, who has been taking lessons for three years, "and I stay that way four to five days."
"I'm going to be coming here forever," said Rivera, who takes a taxi from her Los Angeles apartment to the school and is led by the driver into her lesson with teacher Margaret Zeleny.
Courtney Chaplin, 41, a production control worker and sometime-forklift driver for an aerospace firm, started violin lessons in September "for me, for my own personal, private enjoyment. . . .
Cello on the Roof
"I had a friend when I was a teen-ager," Chaplin said. "An older woman. She was in her 30s. Every night during summer and spring after we got off work at 4 a.m. she used to go up on the roof of the building where we lived (in Greenwich Village) and play her cello.
"She used to tell me that when all her friends and lovers were gone, she would still have her cello. As an older person I have grown to know exactly what she meant."
Although many students decide there's no age limit on growth, some flame out when disappointment overcomes desire.
Xenia Chasman of Brentwood, who taught piano for 50 years before retiring, said her adult students held such great expectations that they lasted two years at best.
"They come to a beginning lesson expecting to be able to play some highly technical piece they've always loved within a year or so," she said.
"They don't realize a great deal of discipline and technical prowess have to be built up before they can even attempt it.
"They are all either working or doing other things and after a while they find they just can't keep it up."
Teachers say that whether adults succeed or fail, they differ from young students.
"With children the great difference is that they don't give a damn if they make errors," said Saralee Halprin of Santa Monica, who teaches piano. "But adults hate making errors, and you can only learn from mistakes.
"In that sense it's easier to teach children. But you have to stay with a child and guide him mercilessly at the beginning. Most adults I've taught are self-disciplined. . . . "
Priscilla Pawlicki, who teaches piano at UCLA Extension, says that adults need rewards a lot quicker than children.
"They also need a lot of support. Many are experts in their own field. It's a little difficult for them to start at this level in a new field."
Adults overcome these differences, Howard said. A dedicated, intelligent man or woman with flexible fingers and a piano at home could study pleasurably for years.
Pianos rent for $20 to $30 a month, and some students find easy rehearsal facilities. Soprano Hunter practices on the freeway or in the shower, hot water beating on her back.
"The acoustics are perfect," she said. "The tile walls refract the sound. You sing into the sound of your voice."
Others rehearse at home and benefit from an understanding partner. Leonard Chudacoff, a Marina del Rey attorney who plays Chopin on his answering machine message, said his wife reads while he plays on weekends.
Since Chudacoff often sits for three hours at the grand piano in their crowded condominium living room, that's a big asset.
"From what my teacher tells me, when some students come to her, their spouses object. They feel they're deprived of time that should be devoted to them," said Chudacoff, who has been playing for six years.
Despite such understanding Chudacoff, 59, sometimes gets angry "for not being able to do things I'd like to without a lot of work."
Frustration is common, but for students who enjoy themselves it ends quickly.
". . . We all relate to certain sounds. I love the sound of the piano," Geller said.
". . . It's pure enjoyment. There's no way I can do anything but entertain myself. . . . That, to me, is the goal."