Earlier this year, I began taking acoustic guitar lessons. Even though I played a little bit when I was fourteen years old, I now had to start from the beginning. I had to build up callouses, learn to tune the guitar, repeat the same exercises over and over and over. And then over some more. I had to learn to read guitar tabs, which I hadn’t even known existed when I was fourteen. I had to develop a daily habit of sitting down to play.
Why take up the guitar in my fifties? Because I wanted something that was unplugged, that I could challenge myself with, that would allow me to both relax and learn. Because I had never really learned much about music, not having been in band or orchestra when I was in school. Because my partner Mick has way too much fun on his saxophone these days and I love hearing him practice. There is something about music wafting through the house, especially music that someone in that house is making. Mick encouraged me to get a guitar again, try it out. He nudged me right into the store that sold me my lovely Alvarez with a bevel-edged armrest.
I told my guitar teacher, Chris, that learning to play an instrument would hold off dementia. I was joking, but only a little. Chris is a patient guy who keeps saying, that’s all right, when I screw up, miss notes, buzz the strings. He’ll say, that sounds good when I make it all the way through a piece, even though I know damn well it sounds awful. You’ve got all the chords, he’ll tell me. We talk a lot about politics when I first get there for a lesson, while I remove my guitar from its case and dig out sheet music, capo, tuner. All during the weeks running up the the midterm elections, we swapped the latest news for the first five minutes or so, then got down to work.
I don’t know if I could learn to play guitar at this age, he said once (I think we are probably about the same age). That would be really hard. I wasn’t quite sure what to think about that, but decided he meant no harm. It is hard to learn at this point in my life. He knows what he’s talking about. I feel humbled every single time I have a lesson, every time I go home and try to repeat whatever Chris just showed me. I feel humbled when I practice the same song over several dozen times in one week and barely improve. I don’t play in front of anyone but Mick and the dog and my teacher at this point because I really can’t.
There’s so much to learn.
But that’s the best thing: there’s so much to learn. Given that so much of my life is devoted to creative work, learning to play an instrument is an activity that shakes up my thinking. It forces me to adapt, adjust, commit new things to memory. No matter how talented or smart I imagine I am, this is a physical activity that uses completely different skills than those I have honed. It is an ongoing practice and I am a beginner.
Sometimes I worry that working with me on the same song for six weekly lessons in a row will bore Chris to tears. Sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed with terminology – sharps and flats and minors and majors and dropped notes and pull-offs and hammer-ons and arpeggios (oh my god I love the sound of the word arpeggio) and tempo and on and on. I’ve learned that George Harrison wrote what I think are really complicated pieces that don’t follow the rules. I’ve learned that I can slow down songs on YouTube to really hear what is happening with the guitar parts. I’ve learned that my digital tuner is awesome. I’ve learned that even though I don’t like Fleetwood Mac very much, the song Landslide has a gorgeous guitar part that I can actually play – really slowly. I’ve learned that recently developed arthritis in my left thumb makes some chord positions awfully tough.
I’ve learned something that didn’t occur to me sooner: that people don’t usually learn a new instrument this late in life.
Maybe that’s my favorite thing about all this. Every Monday afternoon, while I wait for my lesson to start, I sit outside the music studio where my teacher gives lessons and find myself in the company of lots of kids. There are other adult students, but we are in the minority. The guy who has the lesson slot ahead of mine is older, too. He gives me a nod as he comes out with his electric guitar and I think about the riffs I heard him working on: AC/DC and a little Mellencamp. Then I head in, mess around with measures from Mason Williams’ Classical Gas, ask about notations I don’t understand. When I come out, the next student is a kid named Oliver who looks to be about eight or nine. I suspect he is far more accomplished than I am. And that’s okay.
I don’t have to be an expert. I am just happy to be here, to practice, to find people who want to teach me, to start to understand how music gets made.
I am happy to be humbled.