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

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: The Final Philosophy

Sunrise April 6, 2019. A golden new day in Chignik Lake.

Philosophy #21

Express Gratitude. Growing up, I had a difficult time imagining what 60 would be like for me. The people in my life who were around that age seemed old. I think, looking back on it, that in truth most of them were old. I wasn’t exposed to many (any?) models of older people who were physically fit, active, still exploring new ideas, and welcoming into their lives new music, new passions or fresh perspectives. A few of the older people I knew sometimes got into a car or boarded a plane and went somewhere – to go see, more than to go do.

Sitting. What I remember most about the older people I knew back then was the sitting. Lots and lots of sitting.

In 1974 my family took a spring vacation trip from our home in Clarion, Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. I was 14. The ostensible reason for the trip was my father’s interest in an international wrestling tournament in which one of Clarion State’s wrestlers, Wade Shallas, was participating. But to my young mind, the wrestling tournament was almost irrelevant. In the spring of 1974, Washington was electrified. 

Further south than Clarion, everything was already bright spring green. Magnolia trees covered with big, showy blooms seemed to be everywhere. Attired in the kind of post-Haight Ashbury garb I’d only seen on TV and in magazines, people were busking, selling art and hand-made pot holders, giving soap box speeches or loosely milling around signs, tight in their own earnest discussions. The Watergate Scandal was exploding. Then President Richard Nixon had fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox the previous November, senior Whitehouse aides J. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman had just resigned and Whitehouse Counsel John Dean’s head was about to roll. Impeach the Cox-sucker! one of those signs shouted. Coming from the tiny mountain town of Clarion it was like leaving a world of somnambulance for one wide awake.

But amidst the flowers and buskers, the street hawkers and protestors, the wrestling and the (in my then very limited experience) fancy hotel where we were staying, over the years my mind has continually returned to one image.

Tennis was hugely popular in the ’70’s, and as we strolled the streets we came upon a park of lovely, tree-shaded courts. With heads of impeccably coiffed white hair and crisp, white tennis attire, the couple volleying a ball back and forth must’ve been in their sixties. Yet both the man and the woman hit with real power, and the way they dashed around the court gave them the impression of being half their chronological ages.

In that moment, watching them play, I formulated what was to become a salient life goal. I could be like those two.

The image that couple modeled, and the goal I set for myself back then have stayed with me for 46 years.

And so, in my 50’s, I learned to sail, guided myself to fishing firsts including fly-caught salmon, backpacked remote country in Denali National Park, found my own dinosaur fossil on a trip to the Gobi Desert while living in Mongolia, helped a group of Eskimo friends haul a whale up onto the ice, took up photography, got into birding, kept my cool when charged by a thousand pound bear and at 59 went off on my first-ever bike trek, a self-guided 1,300 miles through Hokkaido, Japan.

I wake up every day grateful for every day. I go to bed every night thankful for the day that transpired and looking forward to the next. And between those two times, I strive to keep myself fit, active and growing. I don’t do this merely for myself. If my own interests were the only motivation, I’m sure I’d have lost momentum and replaced it with the TV remote control years ago. My hope, every day, is that in some way I might help or even inspire someone else. I’m lucky, and I know I’m lucky. Maybe a young person who saw us on our bike trek will one day herself embark on a similar adventure. Maybe a fisherman who has always dreamed of catching a salmon will make this the year they go out and give it a try. Maybe someone who had given up the idea that they could learn to play the guitar will revisit that dream.

None of us knows what tomorrow or even the next moment will bring. It’s good to be alive.

 

 

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: 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.