Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Open Door

Philosophy #11

Keep the Door Open. At least some of the time. This is about nipping stage fright in the bud. Go ahead and let people hear you play. So you make mistakes? It’s fine. You’re making music and music is to be shared. Also, when people find out you’re learning to play, they’re going to want to hear you play something. Go ahead! The more often you take advantage of these opportunities, the more at ease with an audience you’ll become. That’s the idea, right? You want to avoid becoming a person who has “been practicing” but who is still reluctant to play in front of others.

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: The 90% Rule

Philosophy #10

Call 90% “Good Enough for Now.”

Perfection is an elusive target.  Strive instead for 90% – or even 85% (a sold ‘B’), knowing that you will circle back again and again to every key concept and skill. This understanding will help prevent you from becoming bogged down, frustrated or bored.


Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Memorize

Philosophy #9: 

Memorize. Not only does memorization help create synapses in your brain, as you memorize melodies and scales you will begin to develop a better ear for individual notes and solos.

Yes, memorization is going to be more difficult at the age of 60 than it was at 16, 26 or even 36.

Stay with it. It’ll come.

Think of other things people come to later in life and, over time, master. RVing, fly-fishing, birding, baking and cooking can seem overwhelming at first. Yet, with repeated practice knowledge that once had to be constantly reviewed gradually becomes ingrained until various water and electrical hook-ups are done without hesitation, knots are tied easily by rote, a glance reveals the difference between a crossbill and a grosbeak, and a properly seasoned dish becomes almost instinctive.

Even if you don’t get everything you play memorized perfectly, you’re still building music connections in your brain. And you’ll probably surprise yourself. The more music you memorize, the easier additional memorization becomes.


Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Metronome

Philosophy #8

Use a metronome. Both to keep steady time and to challenge yourself to play with increased speed.

As a high school student, I ran middle distances for my track team and was introduced to a world carefully measured in minutes and fractions of seconds. Our coach, Bob Bowersox, kept meticulous records. He recorded our race times, of course, but he also kept records of our workout times as we ran repeated intervals of 440 and 880 yards and he encouraged us to do the same. Thus, over the course of a season, we had proof of our individual progress as race times and practice times got faster and faster.

It’s a strategy that applies to guitar work as well – one my daughter, Maia, used as she became an accomplished violinist and later a pianist and guitar player. I occasionally give myself “time trials” and record the results in metronome-measured beats per minute in my music book. It’s a confidence boost to document that songs and scale exercises I initially struggled with are becoming faster and smoother. At the same time, using a metronome helps me push myself toward these kinds of improvements.

The main reason to use a metronome, though, is to help develop a sense of steady rhythm. Set the metronome for a beat you can handle and play along with it. The metronome will remind you not to rush easy passages, and it will also help you identify places where you stumble and need more work.

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Scales

Image courtesy Wiki Commons

Philosophy #7

7. Practice and memorize scales. Scales are the key to chords and melodies.
In his book about the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, The Boys of Summer, author Roger Kahn provides insight into George “Shotgun” Shuba’s bat swing which was famous for producing hard line drives and was said to be “…as natural as a smile.” The backstory on that “natural” swing, according to Shuba, was that for a time in his life, each night before he went to bed he performed hundreds of swings with a 44 ounce bat. Many thousands of swings later he had developed that “natural” swing.

Think of scales like that as you work on them to develop your ear, your finger and hand speed and your knowledge of the fretboard.

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Warm Up

Philosophy #6

Warm up. Ever walk the halls of a college campus or music conservatory where students are in individual rooms singing or playing instruments? What strikes many experiencing this for the first time is that rather than songs, a lot of what is heard are scales and other musical drills.

Just as a chef prepares with mise en place (everything in place), and just as an athlete limbers up, begin every exercise session with warm-ups such as scales, moving up, down and across the fretboard, repeating chord changes and so forth. It’s tempting to skip this. Don’t. Warm-ups gently bring your mind and hands back into the world of the guitar, and they provide a good time to check mechanics such as good posture, proper hand positioning, and striving to hit notes so that each one rings true. Mindful warm-ups are vital to making playing the guitar second nature. It’s helpful to write down routines.

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Study Systematically

Philosophy #5

Study systematically. Virtually everyone who loves rock, blues, jazz or other music featuring guitars has formed in their minds an image of a teenager cloistered in a bedroom or garage working tirelessly with a cheap guitar to pick out riffs and chords by ear from a favorite song and then going on to guitar hero status. Although the great majority of people who embark on this route probably end up quitting before they get very far, it works for some…

Who begin as teenagers…

…with all the time in the world before them.

But if the peak of your capacity to acquire new skills lies some decades in your rearview mirror…

You’ll make better progress with a more systematic approach.

Work with a good teacher and a proven text of spiraled skill acquisition. Spiraled… as in beginning with an introduction regarding nomenclature, proper posture, correct hand positioning, and the names of the strings. Page by page and lesson by lesson you’ll add to your knowledge until you’ve formed a solid base that includes the ability to read music, proficiency with scales and chords, and foundational skills that include efficient shifting, flat picking and finger-style playing. Along the way, you’ll probably learn some guitar music history, too, and that can be very enjoyable – especially as your circle of friends begins to include others who are interested in such things.

For what it might be worth, I’m very happy with the sources I’ve chosen for learning the guitar. Here they are, in order of importance to my learning thus far.

The Great Courses
Learning to Play Guitar: Chords, Scales and Solos
Instructor: Collin McCallister
Don’t be put off by the somewhat low 4 out of 5 stars rating this course is receiving on The Great Courses site. Most of the complaints are over the fact that McCallister spends time discussing the historical roots of guitar music and examples of learning. Personally, I wanted to learn more about guitar history, and I find his insights into learning to play the guitar to be quite valuable. As to the guitar lessons: McCallister is a masterful musician and an energetic, engaging, sometimes humorous university professor who has taken the time to put together a carefully spiraled approach to gradual skill acquisition. He’s also more candid than over 90% of instructors out there who will happily accept your money on the subject of “how long” it takes to achieve something like Advanced Beginner status: “Hundreds of hours of practice.” I couldn’t be happier with this course.

Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method Grade 1
First published in 1948, this slim, 48-page book has outlived the man who wrote it. (Bay died in 1997). The longevity this book has enjoyed – along with its outright popularity (millions of copies have been sold and it’s still widely regarded as the best beginner text) – are a testimony to the intelligence and accessibility of its carefully spiraled approach to learning chords, scales and familiar songs.

Uncle Tim’s First Year: A Beginner’s Guide to the Guitar
Tim Gillespie takes a unique approach in laying out the foundation for learning the guitar. His 82-page book is filled with text rather than with songs. Interspersed are illustrations of chords, scales, flat-picking and finger-style patterns, and… hmm. That’s pretty much it. If you want to understand guitar music theory (and as an older learner, you should – this knowledge will boost your learning curve), this is a terrific resource. Do you understand The Circle of Fifths? How scales work (and therefore how lead solos are put together?) Neither did I. This book goes nicely with Collin McCallister’s class, above.

Youtube Videos and other Internet Resources
I’ve been Googling videos to listen to how songs in Mel Bay’s book are supposed to sound, to see demonstrations of finger-style patterns, for general inspiration and to expand on subjects Collin McCallister introduces in his lessons. Check out this video of Mississippi John Hurt picking John Henry.

And if you’ve started playing, keep playing!

Got a tip from your own experience learning a skill late in life? I’d love to hear about it.

Philosophies for Learning the Guitar at 60: Don’t Set Expectations

Philosophy #4

Don’t set expectations. As a wise person once observed to me, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t have expectations.” Goals set too early in an endeavor can be worse than useless. They may lead to disappointment if timelines aren’t met, to imagined competition with others, and to frustration with progress perceived to be too slow. None of this is helpful. Even if you meet some arbitrary goal, so what? You would have gotten there just the same simply by putting in practice time.

As an older learner taking up the guitar, there’s simply no way to know what you’ll accomplish. So don’t worry about it. In fact, try not to even think about it. Enjoy the journey and what you discover about music, the guitar, and yourself.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: Book Review and a Proposal for Reparations

Tatanka Yotanka, Sitting Bull, Chief of the Hunkpapas of the Teton Sioux. (Photo:

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown*, 1970 

I first read Dee Brown’s somber account of America’s treatment of Native Americans upon finding it on my parents’ bookshelves when I was in high school. Of course, none of my friends were reading anything like this, and when I attempted to discuss the book with my high school history teacher, a staunch conservative, his attitude was dismissive. If my parents actually read the book, they had little to say on the subject. And so I internalized what I was reading.

The book has stayed with me for the past 40 years, through visits to Native American reservations in the lower 48 and visits to First Nations villages in Canada. It was a presence in the back of my mind when, as was a young man hitch-hiking across America, I found myself in a plush white Cadillac heading west across Wyoming. Behind the wheel was a man in his 30’s. Spread across the front seat between us were legal books and document folders. He told me about how he had left his reservation – how difficult that had been -, how he had become a successful lawyer and how satisfying it was that some of his work included advocacy for his people. It has been with me these years in Alaska, living in Inupiat and Aleut/Alutiiq villages, making friends with my neighbors and admiring much in these communities. It was with me when I saw in the news that Lower 48 extremists were attempting to take over Bureau of Land Management acreage as though it’s theirs to take over, willfully ignorant of history; willfully ignorant of who was on these lands first, should they ever be ceded back to private ownership. The book again made its presence known in a restaurant in Anchorage where, on a restroom wall, someone who knows little about any of all this felt compelled to apprise other patrons of his bigotry toward Native Americans.

Forty years after that first read, I just finished rereading Bury My Heart. I read it aloud as Barbra listened, chapter by painful chapter. Throughout the read, I found myself rediscovering passages that have stayed with me these past 40 years – a song about ponies, stirring quotes from Chiefs, treaty violations by the American government that, even now thinking about their callous enormity, leave me without words.

A brutal history

It is a hard read. The facts, about which many Americans remain in denial, are brutal. Don’t be misled by reviews that insist Brown’s treatise isn’t meticulously researched. It is, with 23 pages of sources cited. As for bias, if anything Brown has left little unturned in a nearly fruitless effort to identify white Americans who took a courageous – or even principled – stand on behalf of the tribes that were being systematically wiped out. The best one reviewer claiming bias could come up with is that an army officer guilty of a massacre was cashiered. Independent sources state that in fact, the only “punishment” that officer received for overseeing the slaughter of women and children was that he was permitted to resign. For similar behavior, plenty of other army officers received promotions. In fact, it was General Sheridan who is credited for first proclaiming that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” a sentiment backed by war policy that shored up rather than hindered his career.

There are light spots among the 449 pages. The ancient songs stand by themselves as beautiful poetry; the many photographic portraits of Native American leaders, similarly, often capture grace and beauty. When Tatanka Yotanka (Sitting Bull) goes off script at a public ceremony to tell a white audience exactly what he thinks of the way they have treated him and his Native American brothers and sisters, it’s easy to cheer. And very, very occasionally a judge, army officer, or other white with enough power to matter does find in himself sufficient courage, empathy and sense of justice to come to the aid of a people being systematically extirpated. These respites notwithstanding, the reader knows from the beginning that the story is going to come to a bad end for the protagonists, and it does.

In these somewhat more enlightened times, people of good intent periodically speak of reparations for America’s past wrong deeds. The unfortunate reality is there isn’t much good land available to cede back and it is land that underpins many of the grievances. As to the loss of culture, language, family lines and entire tribes and nations… 

Practicable, meaningful reparations

But there are two things that could be done and that would have meaning:

  1. The manner in which many public schools serving Native Americans are run reflects a level of corruption reminiscent of the bad old “Indian Ring” that conspired to cheat Native Americans out of virtually every treaty provision they were granted. One by one, these schools need to be reformed; their administrators  removed and the corrupt review processes by which these schools remain accredited – facilitated by auditors who are either dishonest or inept – need to be completely overhauled. “Completely” means completely. Remove everyone who has overseen the mess, throw out all the old forms and guidelines, put in place people who care about these communities and who have the expertise to get it right, and start again from scratch.
  2. Add Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee to the canon of required reading in high schools and colleges across America. No adult literate American should go through life ignorant of this history, regardless of how uncomfortable it might make them.

*Doris Alexander Brown, 1908 – 2002. While many assume that Dee Brown must be Native American, in fact he was white, born in Louisiana and raised in Arkansas. Boyhood experiences with a kind acquaintance named Chief Yellow Horse and a friendship with a Creek boy prompted him to reject the stereotypes of his day. (Wikipedia.)

When You Cross a Monster Cookie with a Fudgy Brownie…

Monster Brownie n

A decadent, sweet confection stuffed with peanut butter and chocolate and decorated with the fun colors of M&Ms. This Monster Brownie is a rich, colorful dessert delicious for any age.

Once a month or so, I bake for my students. They earn tickets in the classroom and can spend the tickets on “bake sale” day. It’s a tasty incentive that allows me to bake, which I enjoy, and allows them to have a tasty reward for their hard work and good behavior. My bake sales have created monsters… cookie monsters! After the first couple of baking events, my students started to come up with ideas and challenges for me to bake. One of the first rewards was a fudgy brownie with a chocolate ganache frosting. Of course, this went over quite well. Several bake sales later, I brought in mini monster cookies… which were an instant hit. One day, my cookie monsters were arguing over the best baked treat I had brought them. It was fudgy brownies versus monster cookies. There was only one way to settle this argument… a confection made up of all the flavors of both of these confections. So, monster brownies were born.

As you might guess, the monster brownies came out fantastically. The fudginess of the original brownie recipe was retained. Swirling in a peanut butter mixture, instead of mixing in peanut butter, kept the peanut butter flavor as an upfront flavor. After mixing in the M&Ms, I reserved a few extra M&Ms to speckle the top to make sure there was no mistake that this was a monster brownie! My bake sale “customers” were extremely happy.

Monster Brownies


Brownie Batter

  • 10 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • pinch salt
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2/3 cup M&Ms

Peanut butter filling

  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted (Use a quality brand made only of roasted peanuts or roasted peanuts and a dash of salt, such as Laura Scudder’s or Adams.)
  • 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 3/4 cup natural peanut butter
  • pinch salt
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract


  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F (160 degrees C).
  2. Line an 8 x 8 inch glass baking dish with foil. Grease foil. Set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, mix together melted butter and sugar.
  4. Sift in cocoa powder and flour to eliminate lumps.
  5. Mix well.
  6. Mix in vanilla and eggs.
  7. Fold in M&M pieces.
  8. Set aside and make peanut butter filling.
  9. In another medium bowl, mix filling ingredients together until mixture is smooth.
  10. Pour about 1/2 of the brownie batter evenly into prepared baking dish.
  11. Scoop tablespoons of peanut butter filling and drop onto brownie batter.
  12. Pour remaining batter on top of peanut butter filling.
  13. Gently drag a butter knife through all layers going from left to right and from top to bottom in order to slightly mix batter.
  14. Bake for about 50 minutes. A wooden stick inserted into brownies will have a few crumbs and not be wet. Check the brownies away from the edge and away for the middle for best results.
  15. Let cool slightly in pan. Finish cooling on wire rack.
  16. Cut when completely cooled.