Video: The 500 Hour Experiment – Learning to Play the Guitar at 60

At the outset of this experiment, I had said that once I got 500 hours of practice under my belt, I’d post a brief video performance to document whatever progress I had made – good, bad or indifferent. Here’s the video.

To recap if you’re a regular reader and to explain what this video is about if you’re not…

I turned 60 this year. On December 31st of 2019, New Year’s Eve, I decided to finally attempt to learn to play the guitar I’d been toting around for most of my adult life. I had very little formal background in music in general, and essentially no experience playing the guitar beyond three badly played chords and a mistake-filled one-note-at-a-time version of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star laboriously picked. The whole thing seemed to be beyond me, so in homes from Arctic Alaska to Mongolia and points in between, my guitar sat cradled in its stand, faithfully dusted, usually kept in tune, and otherwise untouched.

But I love music, I especially love steel string acoustic music and I realized that if I didn’t learn the guitar now, I may as well take Barbra’s advice and sell the instrument.

On January first, I began the experiment – to determine whether or not a person my age could learn to play or whether age had closed doors. I scoured the Internet looking for answers to questions I had about older people learning to play the guitar from scratch and could find nothing useful. Nothing at all – just patronizing advice about setting your sights low and maybe learning to play Happy Birthday, getting your cats to finally stop yowling when you play, or being content with “the benefits seniors can get from taking up a musical instrument.”

In other words, the advice seemed to be a patronizing pat on the head and the implied message, “Go back to your rocking chair. Learning to play a musical instrument is for younger people.”

But it was also clear from my Internet research that others had questions similar to the ones I was asking. I want to underscore that these questions are not about whether someone who used to play when they were young can continue playing into their 60’s and beyond. There are many, many examples of people who have done so, as well as of people who set aside their guitar for awhile and then came back to it later in life. Acquiring a complex skill for the first time, from scratch, is a very different matter than continuing with a skill already acquired.

With no answers to be found, I decided to do my best to find answers myself. Five hundred hours of practice seemed about right – enough time to give myself a chance. To learn to read music, to understand scales, to learn the Circle of Fifths, to understand the principles of improvising, to practice some flat-picking and finger-style techniques, to memorize a few dozen songs. In other words, to achieve a status somewhere around “Advanced Beginner.”

A move from Chignik Lake to Newhalen as well as the need to take time out to stock our freezer with salmon fillets, blueberries and mushrooms took a bite out of my playing time, but in early November I hit my goal. Five hundred hours. Had it not been for the move, I would probably have hit 500 sometime in late August.

I can’t say whether or not my experiment was “successful.” I believe that is for each individual listener-viewer to evaluate. What I can tell you is that I’ve already begun my next 500 hours.

Please look past the low production values. I videoed myself with the equipment I have on hand, which is not the right equipment for this sort of thing. Thanks for watching. And let me know what you think.

Jack Donachy
Newhalen, Alaska

You can read more about The 500 Hour Experiment by clicking these links:

Why 500 hours?

Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: La Grande Expérience (or is it even possible?)

Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Begin

Changes and Milestones, a Question and an Answer

Full Moon at Sunrise, October 15, Newhalen Alaska
I had been looking at this particular landscape about five miles from our house ever since June when we moved to Newhalen. The scene had elements of a good photo, but I just couldn’t see a picture. Then, one morning a few weeks ago as a full moon was hanging low on the horizon, the rising sun put some nice color in the sky. Sensing that their might be a moment, I drove out and there it was.

I began 2019 with four major goals. I wanted to:

– send out a few articles to magazines for publication

– write a book

– run a half-marathon after my 60th birthday, and

– starting from scratch with very little meaningful background in music, I wanted to put in 500 hours on the guitar and see where that got me

After putting together a couple of articles I quickly abandoned the first goal as both too time-consuming and not reflective of the kind of writing I want to do, and therefore not where I want to put my energy at this point in my life and career.

From Gavia pacifica (Pacific Loon) to Pinicola enucleator (Pine Grosbeak), I documented some 80 species of birds at Chignik Lake, including species that had never before been recorded in the region. Redpolls (above) were among our favorites.

Nonetheless, writing remains a central part of my life, and while I didn’t finish a book, I’ve begun. Over the coming weeks (and months), look for Birds of Chignik Lake to be published in installments on Cutterlight. It is my hope that I’ll be able to make a meaningful contribution to the work of others. Perhaps I’ll even be able to interest a publisher in producing a printed edition of this book when it’s finished. Either way, I’m excited to have begun the book and I’m eager to begin sharing my findings on Cutterlight.

Commitment to a fitness regimen paid off, and on October 23, running side by side, Barbra and I completed our first half-marathon in over 10 years. We did this as a “virtual run,” signing up for the Long Beach Half-Marathon (a race we did in person 12 or 13 years ago), and having documented our successful completion of the run up here in Newhalen, we’re now awaiting our finisher medals and T-shirts which should be arriving in the mail soon. Time was never part of the objective; my racing days are behind me. But I am happy to report that we remained injury free and were able to complete the full 13.1 miles running the entire distance. This bodes well for another season of hiking up and down salmon and trout rivers.

The nearby Tazimina River flows through a spectacularly wild  landscape. Cold and pristine enough to drink from, it’s loaded with large grayling, trout, and in fall, salmon.

All of this was terrific – including the manner in which not achieving the first goal led to the positive outcome of more clearly defining what it is I want to do with my writing and my time. I’m in the process of putting together templates for each of the 80-some species I recorded at Chignik Lake, and with other foundational work already done – and with permission from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to use their range maps secured – I hope to begin publishing installments later this month. And finally, fresh off the success of our October half, we’ve already signed up for another event, the February 2 Huntington Beach Surf City Half-Marathon. This is another race we did on site some years ago (coinciding with the Pittsburgh Steelers scoring their sixth Super Bowl victory), and that we’ll participate in virtually up here in Newhalen.

That leaves just the final and most important of the four 2019 goals to account for – the goal that I believed would help me answer a question that has been on my mind since December 31 of 2018.

Can a 60-year-old person learn to play the guitar to any meaningful skill level starting essentially from scratch?

As I mentioned in a previous article, the Internet seems to offer no answer to this question, though it’s clear others have posed it.

Again, this is not about having learned at a younger age and continuing to play into one’s seventh decade. Nor is it about picking up an instrument again after a hiatus of a few years. My question had nothing to do with learning to pick the notes to Happy Birthday or similar songs, as one site suggests. And it’s certainly not about “deriving benefits,” or finally playing well enough that the “cat stops yowling,” as per a particularly insulting Washington Post article.

We age. Our memories grow less sharp, our hearing less keen. Fingers slow. Nails grow brittle. New skills are acquired less easily. Even sitting for a long period of time in a given position can present challenges that our younger selves didn’t imagine. Over the years, injuries accumulate – a broken finger here, a finger sliced to the bone there – injuries long forgotten… till you sit down with a guitar in your hands.

It’s a simple question, and the manner in which expert upon expert appears to avoid directly answering it left me fearing that… Well, time marches on. At some point windows close. Patronizing assurances that begin with “Anyone can…” are invariably fibs.

At the beginning of the year, I made a commitment to stick with it, put in 500 hours with no expectations, and discover what I might discover. Good, bad or indifferent, I promised to report what I learned.

Yesterday morning, I completed my 500th hour of practice. I will report soon.

To read more about my journey with the guitar, type Learning to Play the Guitar in the “Search Cutterlight Articles” bar near the top of the page.

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Exercise

Ray Troll designed T-shirt from the annual Salmon Festival and running events in Cordova, Alaska

Philosophy #20

Exercise. Playing the guitar for an hour or more a day is physically demanding. For one thing, it requires a certain amount of hand and finger strength and stamina. You’ve probably thought of that. But it’s demanding in other ways, too. You might not have given much thought to the way repeated finger and hand motions can lead to overuse injuries such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. Meanwhile, sitting for a prolonged period of time with a guitar in your lap, perhaps craning your neck to see your hands on the strings, one leg elevated, your shoulders maintaining a certain position can lead to another set of problems which you might end up feeling in your back, hips, neck or shoulders. As a writer who has spent many, many hours at desks and keyboards over the years, I have experiences with some of these issues.

And according to what I’ve been reading, so do a lot of guitarists. As older learners, we’re probably especially susceptible to these overuse injuries. We want to avoid visits to our doctors and we really want to avoid being forced to take time off from the guitar, so let’s take a look at what can be done to stay healthy and keep playing.

1. Always warm up. Bring your hands and fingers into practice sessions gently. This is a good time to run through scales, checking each string and each note for tone. Move your hand up and down the fretboard with a shifting exercise. Make a finger stretching activity part of your warm-up routine for your left hand and throw in a finger-picking exercise for your right hand. Focus on technique, keep the pace slow, listen for tone and in a few minutes you should be ready to dive into your practice session.

2. At a minimum of every 30 minutes, get up and move around. I use these breaks to get in fairly decent micro-workouts. Here’s my routine:

  • Five pushups, taking care to go all the way up and all the way down with good form. Pushups might be the single best exercise ever invented anyway, but they provide special benefits to guitarists. First, they do a good job stretching and strengthening forearm tendons and muscles. Second, they help maintain a strong core which by itself helps prevent posture-related neck, shoulder and back pain.
  • I then go up and down a flight of stairs a couple of times. I take the steps two or three at a time. This flexes and strengthens my hips which become tight after sitting for long periods of time. It also strengthens my core. (In fact, throughout my life, I’ve always avoided elevators and escalators, instead taking stairs whenever I can. And I always take ’em two at a time.)
  • Maintaining good posture (head up, shoulders back) and striving for nice, easy, long strides, I take a short brisk walk. Short? As little as a minute is enough to get blood circulating and restore skeletal alignment.
  • Lastly, I stretch a little. I stretch my forearm tendons, I stretch my hamstrings, glutes and IT band, I raise my arms to shoulder height and pull back to offset the tendency to roll my shoulders forward when I play the guitar, and I’m ready to go for another half-hour.
  • I rarely play for more than 30 minutes without taking one of these mini-workout breaks.
  • Every hour, I take a longer break of at least 15 minutes. Often much longer.

3. Beyond those mini-workouts, I’m committed to an overall fitness regime. I usually work out five days a week. My routines include resistance training, aerobics and stretching. I pay particular attention to keeping my forearm muscles and tendons stretched and strong – because typing and fishing have taken a toll on those extensors. I also do most of my writing and photo editing at a stand-up work station; I spend enough time sitting with my guitar, and my back and hips appreciate the break.

In the world of running, trainers have a term for athletes over the age of 40 who don’t regularly cross-train (with resistance training and other non-running exercises) and who don’t stretch. That word is “injured.” I can’t speak about younger guitarists, but I strongly suspect that the same word, “Injured,” will apply to older people coming to the guitar for the first time, especially those of us who practice every day for an hour or more if we don’t take care of the new demands we are placing on our bodies.

So think of yourself as an athlete-musician. Cross train, stay healthy and play on!

By the way, if you have experience with avoiding or overcoming guitar-related injuries, I’d love to hear about them!

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: History

Photo: William Edward Hook, 1910: https://collections.lib.utah.edu/details?id=482030

Philosophy #20

Study history. When Lonnie Donegan released his recording of Rock Island Line in the UK in 1955, the song ushered in the birth of skiffle which in turn sent young British guitarists scrambling to learn more about American roots guitar music – much of which had been all but forgotten in the US. Over the next few years, UK rockers transformed this music until bands like The Beatles, The Animals, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones and The Who exported it back to American shores in the British Invasion. The The Yardbirds, where guitarists Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page got their start, joined the ranks of British groups heavily influenced by American roots guitar music

Meanwhile, back at The Lake…

For a village of only 50 to 70 people, there are a lot of guitar players out here. The other day one stopped by to talk.

“How’s the guitar coming along, Jack?” he asked.
“Good. I just started practicing the Travis finger picking style,” I replied not knowing whether or not that would mean anything to him.
“Oh! Chet Atkins!” he exclaimed with a knowing smile.

Yeah, Chet Atkins. We went on to talk about the connection between Merle Travis and Chet Atkins and about the different directions their careers took. I wouldn’t have known any of this just a few days ago.

The history of guitar music in all its forms, classical, jazz, rock, folk and more, is fascinating. Let this history become part of your history. As you do, you’ll find yourself exploring paths you may not have even known existed prior to your studies. Additionally, as your guitar playing brings you into new social circles, you’ll find yourself engaged in conversations with people who are interested in these subjects. Strive to contribute to those conversations and additional doors will open in an ever expanding, newly discovered world.

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Reading Fluency

Philosophy #19

Learn to read fluently. Music, that is. With the guitar, this means acquiring the skill to effortless sight read every note starting three spaces below the treble clef with the low E all the way up to the highest C on your fretboard. It also means fluency with tablature and the ability to instantly recognize chords. It is true that there are many examples of guitarists who never learned to read music. It can definitely be done. But my guess is that having come to the goal of learning to play later in life, you’re looking for the fastest, surest, most efficient way to learn. That path lies through reading fluency. 

Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method Grade 1 is an excellent resource in this regard. The book is driven in part by a string by string, note by note acquisition of reading literacy. In the long run, if you follow this approach and learn to sight read, you’ll be further ahead than had you played by ear or learned only tablature notation. There’s also a dark side, so to speak, to skipping the literacy process. It is almost certain that if you stay with the guitar that at some point you will wish you had learned to read. This often happens to younger musicians who were trained to play by ear. The process of going back and learning to read after you can already play can be laborious and even downright painful. Another way to look at it is like this: I doubt anyone has ever said, “I’m sure glad I never learned to read music.”

And who knows? You may eventually want to write down songs of your own creation.

Good luck and keep practicing!

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Embrace Difficulty

Philosophy #18

Embrace Difficulty: At the outset, any complex task might appear daunting. Overwhelming even. Keep in mind the proverb that a mountain is climbed one step (or handhold) at a time. Chord changes are initially difficult for everyone. No one begins with a beautifully cascading fingerpicking style or a rapid tremolo. These things take practice. With practice, things that once seemed unattainable will become achievements.

Keep a journal. Record dates and make brief notes about improvement and achievements. Use a metronome to measure gains in speed. Occasionally make video recordings of yourself for comparison to past and future performances. Keep track of how many scales you’ve learned, how many songs you’ve memorized, how many chords you know and so forth.

The goal of reaching your first 500 hours of practice is, by itself, a fairly daunting objective. In the room where I do most of my practice, I’ve hung a calendar on the wall where each day write down how much I’ve practiced. I’ve also put a goal thermometer on the wall – a more visual means by which to show the same thing. Measuring in increments of 10 hours, it starts at 0 and goes to 500. Every 10 hours, I color in the space and write a date. Three-hundred 340 hours to go.

 

 

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Form

Philosophy #17: Be Mindful of Form.

I hesitate to use the word “proper,” but there it is. To maximize your comfort, stamina and capacity to grow as a musician, study and emulate proper posture, proper guitar positioning, proper hand positioning, and standard fingering for notes and chords. This comes under the broad heading of following the lead of those who have been there and achieved success. The time to develop your own style is after you’ve mastered the basics.

(Photograph: Snow Dancers)