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.

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

It has been said that a guitar sounds good even when it is dropped. I suppose that depends on whether or not the guitar is in tune – and perhaps who is doing the dropping. It is also said that one is never to old to learn to play the guitar, a statement that seems to hinge to some extent on what is meant by the word “play.”

For much of my adult life, I have owned a guitar. My Poco, my grandmother, gifted me the money for my first one when I was 18. I took a couple of lessons, didn’t get far and allowed it to collect dust over the next couple of years until I enlisted in the U. S. Navy whereupon I sold it. My father opined that I should “accept the fact” that I was bereft of “any musical talent.” He’d made similar pronouncements at the outset of other ventures. To this day he cannot believe – will not accept – that I got into the college I got into, let alone that I graduated from it. His assessments always stung, but they generally proved to be nothing to go by. The fact is, I had never practiced much on any sort of musical instrument. So a hypothesis as to whether or not I had – or have – aptitude for such a thing has remained untested.

After leaving the navy I purchased a new guitar, another inexpensive but serviceable steel string acoustic. Like its predecessor, it remained tuned and otherwise barely touched until some years later when it was stolen from my vehicle during a cross country move.

A third guitar, a Fender DG 8S replaced that one. Like the two previous guitars it has a solid spruce wood top, retails for a modest price and gets decent reviews as a “beginner” guitar. It has come with me on successive moves from Astoria, Oregon to Sacramento, California, to two Eskimo villages in the Alaskan Arctic, to Mongolia and back to Alaska where it has resided on a stand in the corner of our living room. All the while it has been regularly dusted, generally kept in tune, and otherwise neglected. Thus, over the course of 32 years of on and off guitar ownership, I learned to play the C Major scale, the chords C, D, G and F (OK, I couldn’t really play the F chord), and, imperfectly, the first four very simple songs in Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method Grade 1, peaking with Sparkling Stella, aka Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star on page 11. Page 12 remained beyond me. I could barely read music and I never spent enough time with even the simple songs I “knew” to master them in any meaningful way. Evolving from a halting rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle to the blues-folk music I dreamed of playing seemed an impossible journey.

I suppose some of these old tapes and a few more were in my head this past New Year’s Eve when, with a beer in my belly and another in my fist, I found myself admiring the glow of decorative holiday lights reflecting on the polished spruce of my guitar. I had been putting together a compilation of goals for the coming year: run a half-marathon, send out at least five articles for publication, improve my fly-casting, etc. when a new thought suddenly presented itself.

Wouldn’t it be a neat trick to finally learn to play the guitar at the age of 60?

On January 1, I picked up the Fender and began practicing. It made my fingertips hurt – a stage I’d experienced in the past and had never gotten through. This time I stayed with it. Sixty-two days later, on March 3, I reached a small milestone: my first 100 hours of meaningful, purpose-driven practice – more practice… far more… than in the previous 59 years of my life combined on any musical instrument. The fingertips of my left hand now bear thickly calloused pads which are impervious to the steel strings’ bite. Both hands have developed newfound strength and dexterity and I’m gradually getting the hang of the patting-your-head-while-rubbing-your-stomach gymnastics necessary in guitar playing.

Meanwhile I’ve scoured the Internet searching for examples of people who picked up a guitar for (essentially) the first time in their 7th decade and went on to acquire any sort of meaningful mastery of it. The search results have not been encouraging.

I was unable to find even one such instance. Yes, there were examples of people who had played well in their younger days, set the instrument aside, and then returned to it later in life. But that’s an entirely different matter than starting virtually from scratch.

What I did find were repetitions of advice and “encouragement” which I found to be quite patronizing. One trope begins “Many of my older students…” Really? Well then pray, share with us an example in this day and age of Youtube videos.

Even more condescending is the repeated assurance that “Older students can derive great benefits from learning to play the guitar.” Articles written under this thesis generally go on to reveal that by “benefits” the author is referring to the kinds of advantages one might as readily derive from a walk in fresh air followed by a rousing game of Scrabble. In this vein, a 2016 Washington Post Article concludes with one such older student declaring, “My cats have stopped yowling, which I take as a good sign.” Really? That’s where the bar is set?

I like walking and I like Scrabble, but I’m not looking for “benefits;” I want to learn to play the guitar, and I want to know if, as I close in on 60, I may have waited too long.

I have read again and again that one is “never too old to learn to play the guitar.” Yet, there comes a point when one is too old to achieve meaningful mastery of new, complex skills. Memory, finger dexterity, hand speed and the ability to create new connections in one’s brain all deteriorate. I expected there to be research-based guidance and exemplars regarding this matter. The only worthwhile bit of information I’ve turned up is that others are asking this same question to little avail.

And so, what began on the evening of December 31, 2018 as a somewhat whimsical challenge to myself has morphed into La Grande Expérience – The Great Experiment. Starting with little or no previous experience:

Can a sexagenarian reasonably expect to achieve any sort of meaningful mastery of the guitar? Or must one concede that by that age, windows have closed and the best to be hoped for are vaguely defined “benefits?”

I will conclude for now with that question. I have left open what I mean by “meaningful mastery.” Nor have I said anything about my own progress over these past 62 days. I leave those subjects to future installments under this heading.

For now, I offer a thought and a question. Perhaps two questions. First, the thought.

If you are an older person – approaching or past 60 – and you have taken up or are considering taking up a new endeavor, I say whole heartedly, Go for it! I will cross the threshold of 60 in less than four months. In recent years I’ve added a number of new skills to my life: sailing, bike trekking, photography and birding to name a few. I’ve greatly expanded my skills as a home chef, brought to hand my first salmon caught on a fly (and many more thereafter), engaged in my first ever cross country skiing, made more progress with a foreign language in a few months than I had in all the years of high school and college classes combined and am presently in training to complete my first half-marathon in 10 years. All of these disciplines have added depth and joy to my life. It hardly matters that there are no prospective Olympic medals, National Geographic assignments or recognition as the next Lee Wulff in the offing. It feels good to be strong, to be opening new doors and to have the capacity to immerse myself in new worlds.

That being said…

Have you… or do you know of someone who has… achieved a reasonable degree of proficiency on the guitar (or other instrument) having picked it up as a beginner in their 60th year or later?

And this: drawing perhaps from your own experience, what advice do you feel might be offered to others who wish to acquire a new skill?