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

River Heart

What a wonderful name – Chocolate Lily. They’re blooming everywhere, including right outside our door.

As a soft drizzle fell in the small hours this morning, I could hear bears on the beach outside our bedroom window, thick pads pressing into wet sand with subtle, sandy crunches. Salmon have begun showing up. Not in the numbers the river is accustomed to receiving – by now a couple of hundred thousand Sockeyes should have passed through the weir downriver -, but some. Tens of thousands. It won’t be enough to allow the local commercial fishermen to set their gear, but enough for friends and neighbors to set nets for subsistence fishing. Each day now when the tide is right they launch and then later return to the beach in their skiffs, 18-foot Lunds sporting faded maroon stripes around the hull. These days they bring back salmon and since a lot of those fish end up being cleaned right there at the lakeshore, eagles and a few gulls hang around during the day. The bears come at night, looking for heads, spawn sacs and other scraps. A mother and two cubs have been showing up almost every night. It’s not worth trying to make a picture in the dim light, but we get up to look anyway. “Petting the whale,” Joel Sartore calls it – setting cameras aside to simply watch and enjoy.

This mature bald eagle has been coming around to fill up on salmon scraps left on the beach. One of the things we’ve most enjoyed about our life at The Lake has been the live and let live attitude toward wildlife that generally prevails. A few moose and an occasional caribou are taken, but no one begrudges our eagles, bears and foxes what’s leftover after the salmon have been split for smoking and canning.

Our plane, the bush plane that will fly us away from this village we have called home to our new village in Newhalen, will arrive sometime this afternoon. At this point the cupboards and shelves in our house are empty and our voices echo – a hollow sound that reflects the hollowness in our chests. Twenty-six places. I listed them up the other day as I was writing to a friend. During my adult life, I’ve lived in 26 different communities for at least a month. I’ve rarely stayed anywhere longer than a couple of years. I like to see new places. I like change.

Cinquefoil, I think. More specifically, Norwegian Cinquefoil. Maybe. Most people around here don’t really have lawns. A palette of salmonberry brakes, lush wild grasses and wildflowers line the dirt and gravel thoroughfares and continue without interruption right up to porches and doorsteps. Our own house is surrounded by a thick growth of Horsetail Fern, Fireweed, Chocolate Lilies, Dandelions, grasses, Cinquefoil, Nootka Lupine and Wild Geranium.

This time is different. We wanted to stay. The simple story is that Chignik Lake School, where Barbra teaches, didn’t make the minimum enrollment of 10 students necessary to stay open. The school board voted to close the school and to transfer Barbra to another, larger school up the peninsula. It has been difficult to reconcile leaving this community, these mountains and this river.

Redpolls (above), Pine Siskins and Pine Grosbeaks have been visiting daily to feast on Dandelion seeds around the playground outside our door. We watch them out the window as we cook and wash dishes and have been heartened by their cheerful songs and chatter  throughout the day as we come and go. I cautiously eased open our front door and took this photograph from our kellydoor, the local nomenclature for mudroom. If you haven’t checked out our video of these Dandelion seed eating finches, you can find it here: Finches of the Dandelion Jungle

I grew up near the Clarion River, had favorite trout streams and lakes in Pennsylvania and went out into the world to find myself living within easy distance of other waters – close enough to certain rivers, streams, bays and beaches that I could duck out at halftime from watching a March Madness basketball game and be back before the game’s end with a couple of Sea Trout for dinner, hop on a bicycle and be on one of Japan’s top Sea Bass venues, walk up a small river to cast flies for Rainbow Trout after college classes, or watch Largemouth Bass chase smelt from the balcony of my apartment. There were other waters, too.

We love our big, orange and yellow Bumble Bees. And our Lupine.

But I’ve never had what I would call a home water. I don’t know how others might define such a thing, but Roderick Haig-Brown’s accounts of his life along Vancouver Island’s Campbell River used to tug at me with an emotion that lies somewhere between awe and envy, an I’d like to have that one day feeling.

A pair of Golden-crowned Sparrows nested beneath a willow thicket right next to our home, and although we’ve heard the young ones chirping for food, we’ve never bothered to look too closely for the nest for fear of leading Magpies to the location. Keeping the little ones fed appears to be a full-time job. I got this photo yesterday morning.

The Chignik did not immediately fill the longing for a home water. We fished. We caught fish – a few char but mostly salmon, mostly Silvers – and it was very satisfying. That we could actually see fish coming up the lake from our dining room windows, lift our fly rods from their pegs on the wall and walk down to the water exceeded anything I’d ever expected to have. But this abundance and proximity by themselves did not make the water feel like home.

One of the first flowers to appear in spring, only Yarrow will still be blooming in autumn when the last pale purple Wild Geranium petals fall to the ground.

There were the otters we came to recognize, mink prints in wet sand, the bears we encountered and got to know, the eagles that watched us. There was the way that, over time, we came to know the river’s music – the flow of the river itself and the lapping of waves on the lake shore – but also the kingfisher’s rattle, ducks quacking, Tundra Swans bugling, the raucous music of Sandhill Cranes, the fierce Chignik winds that filled the valley and whistled and howled and sometimes shook the house, snipe winnowing softly in evenings, the startling sound of a salmon leaping and falling, unseen, back into a downstream pool. There were nights when we would like awake in our bed, listening quietly as Harbor Seals chased down freshly arrived Coho in the dark, catching them and hurling them into the air to chase down and catch again… evenings and dawns when the eerie, supremely wild howl of wolves echoed across the lake and up and down the river valley… bears grunting and splashing on the beach below our window… winter days when heavy, wet snow put a hush on the world. We came to know where the Great Horned Owls roosted in a grove of spruce trees at a bend on the river where we caught our first salmon, a place where Barbra found a perfectly knapped stone knife Native fisherman long before us had undoubtedly used to split salmon and where we picked berries by the gallon.

Young Eagles waiting for someone to come in with fish.

Through all of this and more, The Chignik came to feel like home, and while I could list many more of the river’s attributes and our experiences along its shores and on its waters, I suppose what it comes down to is love and I don’t have the words to explain that.

Just a few more seeds… Look at that swollen crop! This Pine Grosbeak seems determined to cram himself as full as he possibly can. One of the first things that struck us about our home on The Chignik was the shear abundance around us. Vegetation grows as thick and lush as in a jungle, local Brown Bears are some of the world’s largest and a season’s tally of salmon isn’t measured in thousands or even tens of thousands but in hundreds of thousands and millions. 

I suppose it is natural, upon leaving a place, to consider the things that were left unexplored, stones unturned, projects unfinished. I topped off at 75 the number of bird species I was able to identify in and near the village, but just two days ago I got a glimpse of something that may have been new – an Arctic Warbler? It would have been one of several “first documentations” for this area. I can’t say for certain, and so the matter must be left at that. It’s time to go. We were still learning about the fishing, still getting to know our friends and neighbors, still savoring every day here.

We thought we would have to leave before my favorite flower, wild Irises, came into bloom. But in these past few days, they’ve begun bursting open. We’re glad we got to see them. 

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: 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)

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Play for Yourself

Philosophy #16

Play for yourself and trust yourself. Acquiring the skills of basic proficiency with a guitar is not a competition. Avoid comparing yourself with the progress peers are making. And don’t  worry about what others might think about your musicianship, your guitar, your song choices and the rest of it. You’re on your own journey. 

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: Don’t Quit

Philosophy #15

Don’t quit. All else being equal, the most important factor in any type of skill acquisition is simply showing up ready to work hard and learn. Michael Jordon was cut from his high school basketball team. And was spurred to develop a work ethic that had him first to arrive and last to leave practice. Jack London vowed to write at least 1,000 words a day. Legend has it that his early work was rejected hundreds of times. He kept writing. By all accounts, Roberto Clemente always excelled at baseball. And by all accounts, he was among the hardest-working players in the game. We wouldn’t know his name if he had quit – at least not as a ball player.

It’s almost impossible to look at where someone is in terms of developing a skill and to then predict how far they’ll go, yet the world has no shortage of put-down artists who act like they have a crystal ball in terms of what other people “can’t do.” Don’t listen to them. And never bet against someone who is in possession of a solid work ethic and optimism.

Longitudinal studies have revealed that there is virtually no correlation between where one begins their musical journey and where one ends up. Young learners who begin with great promise often quit, leaving the field wide open for those who initially showed less promise but who are willing to stick with it. In the end, the path to accomplishment lies not with initial talent, but with a commitment to practice. Along the way you’ll have days when everything falls into place and you play beautifully. Keep practicing. You’ll also hit plateaus and slumps. Keep practicing.