A Conversation with Denise Burrell, Gifted with Grit

It could have been seen as a defiant statement against resolutions, the kind we rattle off at the stroke of Midnight on Dec. 31 of any year. Instead, Denise Burrell quietly set aside the need for lofty goal setting and decided to learn a new skill instead. She thinks it was cross-stitching. She was in her 20s, a newlywed. Some 40 years later, Denise performed for the first time last August with the Missouri Philharmonic Orchestra as a cellist. A feat for anyone. Yet, part of what made the evening remarkable is Denise only learned to play at age 50. The cello, see, was one of her bold, new skills of a new year. In our conversation with Denise, she talks about grit and how the gift helped her be a more empathetic special education teacher and a grateful, lifelong learner.
At some point in your life, you decided learning was worth all the obstacles, emotions, outcomes. What have you learned about how you were created during this time?

My journey as a lifelong learner began as a newlywed and novice elementary teacher in my 20s. I was not one to make New Year’s resolutions, so one year I decided to find something new to learn instead. I think it was cross-stitching. It was gratifying developing a new skill, and thus began my yearly tradition. I quickly realized I would never be an expert at any of them but in the process discovered something about myself: God had given me the gift of grit, a tenacity — actually, stubbornness — to stick with a task despite obstacles.

I was a special education teacher early in my career, and this grit actually made me a more empathetic teacher. I was able to relate to struggling students, to see through their eyes seemingly insurmountable obstacles. With God’s help, I was able to show them how to breakdown challenging tasks into manageable chunks. It was exciting to see God’s gift of grit blessing my students, as well.

Family and friends at Denise’s first Missouri Philharmonic concert on August 20, 2022.
Denise hopes to be part of the orchestra again in February 2023. Learn more here.

In August, you played cello with the Missouri Philharmonic Orchestra. You learned the instrument in your 50s. Was it a lifelong dream? A challenge that came about one day as you fixed supper? What is fantastic about the cello and the music you make with it?  How did the Lord meet you in any hesitations you had?

If anyone had told me 30 years ago I would be a cellist in an orchestra, I would have laughed. I grew up in a small town with few musical opportunities, certainly none pertaining to classical music. Our family did not have the extra finances for music lessons anyway. However, God blessed me with a good ear for music, and with His help, I became a decent pianist despite the lack of training. My husband, Don, is a vocalist and guitarist, and we have played with worship teams together for almost our entire marriage. Our son, Brooks, and daughter, Claire, are also musicians. Brooks is a drummer and plays stand-up bass and guitar; Claire is a professional violinist and classically trained soprano. Together, we all have played all kinds of music in our band Eclectica since 2015. 

The unexpected desire to learn cello came about while escorting Claire every week to violin lessons, recitals, strings camp, competitions, and orchestra rehearsals. I went from admiration as an audience member to an epiphany, a what-if moment.   

In January 2011, I began my most difficult new skill: to attempt the cello. Starting lessons at age 50? What was I thinking? I talked myself out of it several times, but then I realized: I could be 50 and wishing I could play the cello or be 50 and actually learn how to play the cello. Initially, the cello appealed to me because I thought it would be fun to play in a string quartet with Claire, but the more I listened intently to cello repertoire, the more I recognized how worshipful and soulful an instrument it is. My former cello teacher, Dr. Michael Murray, used to accurately describe the sound of a cello as “chocolate.”

People are often intrigued that I am learning cello so late in life, and they usually want to hear my story. My heart is truly touched when they say they used to play an instrument long ago and maybe they should dust it off and try again.

Cello is a very difficult instrument for an adult to learn, so comments like that keep me going when I am about to give up. This past year, I was really beginning to doubt my ability to keep going. I was actually seeking God about whether it was time to let it go. For some crazy reason in the midst of all that doubt, I reached out to Amy Andreassen, the conductor of the Missouri Philharmonic Orchestra, to see if I could try playing in the cello section. The orchestra was founded on the principle of combining professional musicians with amateurs of all ages. Amy was so encouraging and warmly welcomed me to join. So in August of 2022, at the age of 62, I played in my first symphony concert. God used that incredible opportunity to confirm I am indeed meant to continue on. 

Denise with her daughter, Claire, overseeing the Clairebrooks Cabin booth at C-Street City Market.

You are a creator, and you sell homemade soaps and such at your farmers’ market booth, Clairebrooks Cabin. How does your life of something new contribute to your thankfulness? What brings you joy bringing joy to others?

Soapmaking was one of my New Year’s “new things” from 2001. I am not a business-minded person; I just liked homemade soap and wanted to learn how to make my own. My friends and family were my guinea pigs. They seemed to like it, and soon people wanted to buy from me. I never had intentions of anything bigger. I began selling my homemade incense, another new thing, at Chabom Tea and Spices in Springfield during, of all times, the 2020 pandemic. It was there I met Amy Truitt, the former manager of the C-Street City Market. She needed a soap maker for the market. I was not interested. But I guess God decided that was my something new for that year. In July 2020, I became a weekly vendor at the market. I try to see God at work in everything that happens, and I know He has me at the market for a much broader reason than just selling soap. As I head to market each Saturday, I pray for divine encounters, and that I may rightly reflect His love to each person.   

As long as God allows, I will continue the journey of lifelong learning. I have no idea what the next new thing to learn will be, but I know God will give me the grit I need to give it a try and the awareness to see Him at work in everything.

Denise Burrell is wife to Judge Don Burrell, grateful mom to Brooks and Claire, a retired teacher and administrator, community volunteer, entrepreneur, musician, and Christ follower. She and her husband live in rural Strafford with their two spoiled rotten rescue dogs.

COVER: The family band, Eclectica, playing for a garden party.


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