Philosophies for Learning the Guitar at 60: Begin

Begin. This first step may seem too obvious. It’s not. We Baby Boomers have known about guitars most of our lives. We were playing air guitars by the time we were eight. Maybe like me, you’ve owned a guitar in the past and even taken a couple of lessons. And then quit. For some reason you’ve put off getting serious about learning to play a guitar for 50 years or more. Part of your journey might be understanding what has blocked you in the past – what was in the way.

It wasn’t lack of time. I think it’s important to accept this. Yes, throughout our adult life most of us must make a living. But no one’s work is all-consuming unless one chooses it to be so. And that’s the operative word here: choice. For whatever reasons, learning the guitar wasn’t made a priority. And so instead of becoming guitar players, we devoted our free time to reading novels and newspapers, clubs and memberships, and on and off commitments (or perhaps sustained commitments) to fitness and sundry other hobbies. There have been social events and Sunday drives, certain time-consuming rituals that probably deserve more reflection than we’ve given them (maintaining a lawn, for example), and TV. Hours and hours of TV.

So what was my story? Well, this is a piece of it.

There was a piano in our home. My mother played. A little. I don’t know what prompted her to enroll us in lessons when I was eight and my younger sister was seven. Something like vaguely defined social expectations, I would imagine.

At the conclusion of our first lesson with Ms. Zilhaver, an older woman who periodically stepped away with coughing fits for a few puffs on a cigarette, we were instructed to practice for half-an-hour each day. I did so with alacrity. The following week I reported back to Ms. Zilhaver, prepared for my second lesson. She seemed impressed. I was given additional pieces of music to work on. And so it went for the next few weeks. Making good progress, there were times when I found myself still at the piano well after the prescribed 30-minute period was up.

My sister came to it more slowly. She put in her time, but not without a fair amount of her usual fidgeting and not a minute more than was necessary. After a few weeks, she was still working on music I’d finished.

That’s when my mother intervened.

I can’t tell you her motivations. I can only guess. She was a feminist with a Gibraltar-sized chip on her shoulder and a mission to prove the superiority of women. And girls. Maybe the answers lie in there somewhere. Maybe they lie elsewhere. I don’t know.

In any event, one Saturday afternoon when she thought I was outside playing, I happened to overhear her end of a phone conversation with Ms. Zilhaver. In the future, Ms. Zilhaver was not to advance me further than my sister. If I got ahead, I was to be held back till my sister caught up. It sounded like there was some push-back from the piano teacher, but as many others have discovered, there was no arguing with my mother.

When she got off the phone, I asked her – with some desperation – why she was giving these orders. The only response I got was a scolding for “eavesdropping.” (I wasn’t. I just happened to be in the house). When I pressed, I was answered with the familiar Nadine Donachy “We’re not going to have this conversation.”

Nonetheless, for the next few days I continued practicing as before. At the following lesson, I performed a piece well. In the past, it would have been starred and I would have been assigned a new piece. Not this time. “Let’s just keep working on these same pieces for awhile,” Ms. Zilhaver said.

At that point, I was done with it.

I spent the next eight years in piano limbo. I did not practice. I did not advance. But I was forbidden from quitting. Thus, I suppose, my mother had her evidence of the inferiority of boys, and I had developed a perfectly rotten relationship with learning music.

Fifty-three years of water under the bridge later, it feels freeing to have thought this through. And now, to paraphrase Jimmy Buffet, I’m not going to think about it too long. I’ve got a guitar that wants to be played.

15 thoughts on “Philosophies for Learning the Guitar at 60: Begin

  1. 12 years of piano lessons, 7 years of playing a clarinet, contra bass clarinet, and self taught flute…are you saying “there’s a chance”? I have wanted to learn how to play strings (specifically guitar) for a number of years. A guitar is much easier to transport, and easy to own north of the Arctic Circle. Any tips you care to share, or programs you are using to learn? Thank you!

    • With a background playing other instruments, you’ll have a nice head start going into the guitar. The ability to read music by itself opens doors and shortens the learning curve. I’ll be publishing a series of philosophies (tips, rules, ideas) for learning to play the guitar later in life – some posts short, some long. I’m using three main sources: 1. Collin McCallister’s Learning to Play Guitar: Chords, Scales and Solos which is a 24 lesson video series available through The Great Courses. 2. Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method Grade 1 and 3. Uncle Tim’s First Year: A Beginner’s Guide to the Guitar. I’ll be saying more about these resources on this blog. Best of luck to you! I’d love to hear more about your music and the progress you make with the guitar. JD

  2. I played guitar from 1964 (soon after the Beatles came to the U.S.) for about 25 years. After that, life intervened. Your post inspires me to take it up again. Thanks for writing it.

  3. Your story is moving. And yes no point delving too deep on though. And you have reminded me of my piano days as well. I took piano classes when I was 13. And I could read and write music and play well. After a year the music teacher said that she would not teach from tomorrow and that was the end of my music journey. I d hear coldplay perform and imagine myself playing those beautiful piano notes myself. Finally saved up and purchased a decent Casio. And decided to revive my love for music. That was five years ago. There was a hasty attempt at learning it last year (it did not work because I was so impatient with the step by step approach and just wanted to remember what I had learnt in my childhood but I dint ) . Finally gave up after a few weeks. Now I have a beautiful five month old baby but after reading your post I only wonder will my Casio also see the light of the day one day like your guitar did ?

    • Here’s to hoping that your Casio gets pressed back into service! You touch on a valuable point though: On the one hand, acquiring complex skills – such as learning piano or guitar – a person is generally best taking a step-by-step approach. But that requires a kind of patience that isn’t often tested in most of the rest of our life… So developing this patience is almost like a skill in and of itself. Congratulations on your baby. What a wonderful time in life.

  4. Thank you for your wishes 😊 yes everyday brings new joys, to see her grow and watch her amazement at simple things in life. And yes, I ll try to incorporate a schedule for my piano as well someday ! Life you mentioned in your post, Definitely it’s not that we don’t have time , but our priorities shift. Also As kids it’s easier for us to pick new talents / skills , as there is a thirst to prove to ourselves, of being capable of many new things. To maintain this thirst takes conscious cognizance and effort, especially when you feel you are “settled” . That feeling is always a warning, to get up and get out of the comfort zone !

  5. Sounds familiar. I played guitar from grade school through late teens. Then I had to get ‘serious’ at University and did not touch it again for 25 years. I picked it up again in my forty somethings and it is now part of my daily routine for 20+ years!

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